Taking a tough stand on drug offenders

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
12:16
PM ET
Even the most passionate of racing fans might need the help of a Google search to find out the name of the town where Sunland Park is located.

Yet in recent years a once obscure southwestern track has created its fair share of headlines.

We're looking to improve the integrity and the safety of racing in New Mexico for all participants, both equine and human.

-- Dustin Dix, Sunland Park's director of racing
The biggest came in 2009 when Mine That Bird used a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby as a springboard to victory in no less of an American Classic than the Kentucky Derby at 50-1 odds.

Due to its inflated $800,000 purse, in subsequent years the Sunland Derby has basically served as an automatic qualifier for the Roses for the Roses because of the graded stakes earnings it offered. Since the race was elevated to Grade 3 status in 2010, it has produced a Kentucky Derby starter each year, though none came remotely close to mirroring Mine That Bird's heroics.

That situation might change a little bit this year because of the new point system that will mold the Kentucky Derby field. Yet aside from the implications its races might have on the Kentucky Derby or the Kentucky Oaks, Sunland Park figures to garner national attention during a 76-day meet that starts Dec. 7 for a new initiatives aimed at drug cheats.

How effective they prove to be could serve as a lesson to an industry fighting to save its reputation amidst ever-growing national scrutiny of its medication policies.

A zero tolerance policy against drug offenders was enacted by tracks in New Mexico this summer and was in effect at the Zia Park meet that ended Dec. 4. Now with the scene shifting to Sunland Park, with its more celebrated stakes schedule, a brighter spotlight is being focused on measures that are certain to get the attention of horsemen who do not abide by the rules.

Any trainer currently serving or appealing a Class 1 or Class 2 drug violation (for using banned stimulant, depressant or therapeutic drugs/painkillers such as dermorphin) will not be allowed to enter horses or stable them at Sunland Park. According to Dustin Dix, Sunland Park's director of racing, 11 trainers from Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico have already been denied stall space at Sunland. He added that any trainer charged with a Class 1 or 2 violation during the meet will also be barred from the track.

"We're looking to improve the integrity and the safety of racing in New Mexico for all participants, both equine and human," Dix said. "We're trying to be more pro-active."

The new policy comes at the end of a difficult year for racing in New Mexico. The state's tracks were assailed earlier in the year in a New York Times report on medications and equine fatalities. Then reports surfaced that members of the Mexican drug cartels laundered money at the state's racetracks.

At least now there's something positive to report.

"New Mexico tracks have disproven the notion that any publicity is good publicity. It's been a rough year and this is a way of trying to change that and show that we want to do the right things," Dix said.

New Mexico tracks have disproven the notion that any publicity is good publicity. It's been a rough year and this is a way of trying to change that and show that we want to do the right things.

-- Dustin Dix, Sunland Park's director of racing
While the new rules are intended to serve notice that drug violations will not be tolerated, they also take a more aggressive stance against offenders than most tracks adopt. Some horsemen have skirted penalties by moving to different states or filing a seemingly endless array of appeals, none more infamously than Rick Dutrow. The New York-based trainer was hit with a 10-year ban in October 2011 for nearly 70 violations of racing rules. But thanks to the appeal process, Dutrow continued to race this year. As of Dec. 5, even with the specter of a decade-long ban hanging over him, Dutrow had enough support from owners willing to overlook his transgressions that he has more starts (475 to 395), wins (120 to 109) and earnings ($6,753,599 to $4,074,189) so far in 2012 than he had in all of 2011.

"Our hope is to eliminate some of the loopholes that keep repeat offenders in the game," Dix said. "We are trying to stop people from getting around the rules. Considering the black eye we've received recently we have to nip things in the bud."

If they do, Sunland Park might very well become famous for something other than Mine That Bird.

Oh, and if the question ever pops up on "Jeopardy," Sunland Park is located in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Some things are indeed rather obvious -- like having no tolerance for cheaters.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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