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Picture: Investigators for the Racing Integrity Team assembled at Parx Racing on Pennsylvania Derby Day

Barry Irwin Writes For The Paulick Report

Last week as New York Yankee slugger Aaron Judge chased, tied, and eventually bettered Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs, much was written by Major League Baseball scribes and general sports writers about the troubled history America’s pastime experienced in its Performance Enhancing Drug era that began around 1986 and lasted for roughly 20 years.

In the years immediately after it became public knowledge that the flurry of record-breaking blasts generated by the likes of McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and Canseco had been fueled by PEDs, MLB popularity among its fans and the general populace suffered. Eventually, it surged once again and baseball has regained its position as a very popular form of entertainment.

Horse racing — be it Thoroughbred, Quarter Horse, or Standardbred — by all accounts based on visual, statistical, analytical, and chemical evidence, is very much still in the midst of its PEDs era.
This raises two important questions: can PEDs ever really be reined in and when the inevitable downturn in interest from horseplayers, fans, and the general public sets in, will those once interested in horse racing ever return in large numbers?
Thanks to many dedicated sportsmen and women — in the face of stiff and sometimes nasty opposition from those favoring the status quo — stakeholders were successful in gaining rare bipartisan support to pass federal legislation in both houses of Congress that holds the promise of cleaning up horse racing.
Even though the troops assembled to root out cheating with PEDs will not begin their duties officially until Jan.1, 2023, those bent on stopping them continue to fight against legislation that was duly signed into law by former President Donald Trump.
When the anti-doping professionals are ready to swing into action, there will be a very real fear that these men and women may not be successful in their appointed rounds, due to a smaller budget than they require, a focus on drug testing at the expense of investigative pursuits, and a holdover of employees from non-federal jurisdictions with a history of ignoring drug violations and violators.
On the recent weekend of Pennsylvania’s biggest annual day of Thoroughbred racing at Parx, when two Grade 1 races with million-dollar purses were carded, a heretofore little-known organization with the grandiose name of Organization of Racing Investigators was involved with racing officials at the Bensalem track in conducting searches that gained a decent amount of news coverage for finding syringes, a “buzzer,” and a gun illegally in the possession of licensed individuals on the backstretch.
Apparently this group has been in existence since 1991, which begs the obvious question, “Where have these backstretch cops been for the last 31 years?” While they may be well-intentioned, they have in the past at their annual meetings denied entrance of at least one Turf writer and only recently have hired a public relations employee to generate news releases like the one that detailed the findings on Sept. 27 at Parx.
My purpose in trotting out this group for inclusion in this Op/Ed is not to disparage them or their efforts in any way, but to highlight one of the issues that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority faces going forward in its efforts to identify drug cheats.
Let me explain.
Going forward, 5 Stones investigators will play an outsized role in setting up the systems that will be employed to catch cheaters. They are brilliant in their techniques and above reproach for their integrity. And their results in international sport have been astonishing at the highest level, including their part in the investigations that led to more than two dozen federal indictments in 2020. But they are a small group and they will have to rely on additions to their cadre of professional investigators.
The source of these new troops most likely will be investigators that have worked on the state or racetrack levels. They have worked for racing commissions and racing associations that have failed so miserably over the years to address concerns over rampant PED use that federal legislation had to be enacted to upgrade racing’s task in developing and maintaining a game that is conducted on a level playing field.
For years regulators have sat on their hands across the nation. And, as such, they either did not encourage their investigators to root out cheating or tamped down enthusiasm for following leads that might lead to the type of news headlines that they thought would put racing in a bad light.
And now the efforts of all the men and women that banded together to put partisan politics aside to pass legislation to save their beloved sport and their livelihoods could to a certain extent lie in the hands of so-called professionals that have let us all down year after year for decades.
I worked as a civil service employee for the better part of a decade in the 1960s, including in the Los Angeles County Probation Department, so I have seen first hand what the mentality is of those charged with upholding the law. The overriding thing I learned about these civil servants is, first and foremost, their focus is on not losing their jobs. Like politicians, they rarely choose standing up for what is right if it might jeopardize their employment status.
The rubber will meet the road sometime next year, after the anti-doping unit is up and running, when it will become known if these hitherto reluctant local investigators can be developed into a viable force for good, or if they will be as useless as they have been in the past.
Hopefully, freed of having to do the bidding of regulators with agendas not in line with the best interests of racing, these professionals will rise to the occasion and help to right the ship. There have to be plenty of local investigators that had to bite their tongues or quit their profession in the past that will welcome the chance to work for a new group that actually wants to seek out crime instead of sweeping it under the rug.
The other major hurdle for the new group charged with overseeing the sport is whether 5 Stones will receive enough funding to have a positive impact on the enterprise of catching crooks.
Setting up systems, hiring and teaching professional investigators, buying equipment, developing leads and moles is a very expensive undertaking. It is very costly and time-consuming work. If 5 Stones is inadequately funded they will have very little opportunity to succeed at a level that will be impactful.
A likely threat standing in the way of the boots-on-the-ground group’s funding is their “sister” in the exercise of catching bad guys, the science of testing for illegal substances.
Much was made of HISA not hiring the United States Anti-Doping Agency, which had an inside track for the job since inception of the idea of enacting federal legislation to stop illegal drug use in racing. I have no knowledge of exactly why USADA was bypassed for the job, but many rumors have been floated about the reason, including that it wanted to spend what was considered to be too much money on testing.
While I was a major supporter of USADA being named, I must confess that if the rumors about overspending on testing are true, that I consider this a positive sign going forward if it actually reflects the operating policy of HISA, as testing in and of itself can amount to an enormous waste of valuable and precious funding that could otherwise be used for investigative work.
It is well known in the cat-and-mouse game between cheaters and cops that tests only serve to confirm an illegal action. They rarely catch a cheater. No test works unless a test has been developed to detect an illegal substance. But testing for unknown substances is a fool’s errand. The best way to develop a test is for investigators to seize an illegal substance, develop a test and then use this info to find positives.
So grunt work by cops on the beat is the answer and requires the bulk of funding. Testing without knowledge of what one is testing for is a complete waste of time and money.
If the budget of the investigators is adequately funded and if the newly hired investigators turn out to be dedicated to their task, racing can get on the right track.
Those of us that have spent our lives in this game have enough faith in the sport and product to believe that racing can win back our lost fans and generate enough new ones to keep the enterprise from sinking into oblivion with the setting sun.

Barry Irwin is the founder of Team Valor International racing partnerships