what is it going to take?

i had more hope on March 9, 2020 than i have any day since.

it was one of the last days before the pandemic went from feeling like a faraway threat to something serious enough to keep this away-from-homebody locked up for days, weeks, months on end. life felt normal still, in that sense. i got up, did a CANTER visit on the backside of Hawthorne, then met up with a friend for a few hours before he left town. and then i finally had a few minutes to find a table in a coffeeshop downtown, plug in my laptop, and sit with the news from that morning, the sheaf of indictments against Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro and 25 others connected to drugging racehorses.

as disgusted as i was, i was glad there was more out in the open to sort through. i was glad there was something right in front of our faces, in black and white, stained with the red of blood and anger. if anything was going to bring us to a point of cleaning up house, it had to be this.

of course, i didn’t expect anything to change overnight. i’ve been to law school, and i know how slowly judicial wheels turn. but there were improvements. horses were moved out of the Servis barn, out of the Navarro barn. they continued their careers elsewhere and found their levels. some, like Firenze Fire, remained stakes horses. others dropped down the class ladder. they were running where they were supposed to run, not where they had been concocted to run, and it was a relief.

next month will mark two years since those indictments have dropped. there have been guilty pleas from several of the people implicated in the March 2020 indictments, including Jorge Navarro, who admitted in a hearing last year that he had given PEDs to War Story, Shancelot, Sharp Azteca, Nanoosh. he admitted giving them to X Y Jet, who had dropped dead in his barn two months before the indictments came out. the indictments and his admission gave harrowing shape to the suspicions so many had, the suspicions that made Navarro’s statement after X Y Jet’s death so disquieting, a public lamentation of a death he so likely hastened.

and yet, not enough has happened. not all of those cases have been resolved, not everything yet brought to light. in the meantime we’ve had another moment that felt, just as the indictments did, that it would be a watershed moment: Medina Spirit’s positive test for betamethasone after the Kentucky Derby. over nine months after that Derby, it has yet to be resolved. Medina Spirit is still the winner*. Bob Baffert cannot earn Kentucky Derby points or run at Churchill Downs, after both Medina Spirit’s positive and Gamine’s disqualification from a third in the Kentucky Oaks in 2020. but, it’s an inconsistent reaction: some places welcome him, others do not.

it’s not just the Grade 1 fixtures, either. Just this week Juan Vazquez — who already lost stud book privileges in 2017 due to his history of violations — got another monthlong suspension from racing after a pair of levamisole positives from last last year. Just this week Marcus Vitali — who has had years of drug positives and suspensions — was suspended for a year after a meth positive in Pennsylvania. the Vitali situation is especially illustrative of my current frustration. He has had a disturbing history of violations in state after state after state, and even showed up in my backyard of Hawthorne in the fall of 2020 as part of his quest to find tracks who will let him run. some states and tracks say no. others still say yes, and he even has two horses entered at Turf Paradise next week.

how many weeks have we had like this between March 2020 and now?

i keep telling myself things take time, but how much time is it going to take?

horses are bred to run. but, they have no say about what goes into their bodies before the race. they can’t tell someone “no” if they’re being given something to mask pain for an upcoming race day, or something that theoretically supercharges their circulatory system, which who-knows-what side effects. they have no choice but to trust the people who are charged to care for them. by getting involved in horse racing we’re taking on a responsibility for these horses, and winning cannot come at the cost of their health. regulations and prohibitions around drugs in racing is a question of fairness, but it’s also a question of protecting the horses who are our sport.

about two years ago, i had so much hope that the New York indictments would galvanize horse racing around this idea. i hoped it would enhance scrutiny, strengthen the resolve of states and tracks alike to investigate and take action against people who are breaking the rules, and become the beginning of a unified front to tell repeat offenders that enough is enough.

now? i’m afraid that if what has happened in the last two years hasn’t been enough to tie the sport together in a concerted effort to do better, nothing will be. i’m grateful for the tracks and the states that are being more strict. but, it’s not everywhere. and as much as it hurts me to admit that this is affecting my love of the sport? it is. how much more has to happen? what else is it going to take?

i don’t know. but i do know that i have less hope now than i have since i became a horse racing fan.

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