Commentary

Cheaters: Lock them up

Updated: September 25, 2012, 12:06 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

John Bassett, a top Quarter Horse trainer, has been suspended 10 years and fined $10,000, by New Mexico stewards after two horses in his care tested positive for the drug dermorphin, or "frog juice." The drug is said to be 40 times more potent than morphine and a powerful performance-enhancer.

This is just the latest chapter in racing's on-going nightmare with illegal drugs, something plaguing not just Quarter Horse racing but all breeds of racing.

After they ran the trial races for the Ruidoso Futurity at Ruidoso Downs May 25, eight of the 25 trial race winners tested positive for frog juice, along with one third-place finisher. Basset trained two of the horses who came up with bad tests. No doubt numerous also-rans who were not tested were also running on something more powerful than their natural abilities.

This is just the latest chapter in racing's on-going nightmare with illegal drugs, something plaguing not just Quarter Horse racing but all breeds of racing. But someone needs to make sure this particular story isn't over. Bassett should be prosecuted and if found guilty should be sent to prison.

If a Basset-trained horse was indeed racing with performance-enhancing drugs in its system then crimes were committed. Bassett won the eighth race that day with a horse named Don't Tell Lila, which tested positive for dermorphin. That means that anyone betting on anyone else in the race never had a fair chance. They were defrauded. That means that the owners of the other nine horses in the race (at least the ones whose horses ran clean) were defrauded, as well. He may not have pulled a gun on anyone, but his alleged actions robbed people of money.

Then there is the safety of the horses and jockeys. Drugs such as dermorphin increase the chances that a horse will break down, which increases the chances of serious injury to a jockey. Or maybe even death.

Ten years ago, not only would Bassett never have been sent to jail, but he probably would have gotten himself nothing more than a 90-day suspension. He could have turned his stable over to his assistant and run things himself from the sidelines while suspended. And no one would have cared.

The sport has advanced to the point where Bassett was at least given a meaty suspension (though he should have been banned for life), but it's still not good enough. Apparently, the threat of a lengthy suspension was not enough to discourage Bassett from cheating. The same can be said for trainers J. Heath Reed and Carlos Sedillo, trainers who also had horses test positive for frog juice. There have also been frog juice positives in Oklahoma, Louisiana and Nebraska.

That speaks of a broken system, where cheating is rampant, drug testing is inadequate and penalties are usually laughably inadequate.

That speaks of a broken system, where cheating is rampant, drug testing is inadequate and penalties are usually laughably inadequate. The industry has finally awaken to these sorry facts, but it needs to take the next logical step, which is to haul these bums away in handcuffs. That's not only what they deserve but a serious deterrent to anyone who thinks it's OK to make their horses run faster through chemical enhancement.

According to the Associated Press, the demorphin cases in New Mexico have been forwarded to the state's Attorney General's office for possible prosecution and the AG's office is reviewing them. That's a review that shouldn't take too long. It's obvious what happened here and obvious that this is criminal activity that merits prosecution.

This is not really about picking on Quarter Horse racing, sending a message or even making an example out of one trainer. It's about the racing industry and law enforcement finally coming to its senses when it comes to how egregious it is when people put potent and dangerous drugs in a horse's system in order to try to win a race. It's beyond egregious. It's criminal.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com