Horse racing is as much mystique as it is luck. For centuries the sight of these breathtaking athletes racing across fields or around tracks has struck primal, respondent chords in the hearts and imaginations of humans. The speed and grace, coupled with the innocent power of horses are at the heart of the mystique.
But once the concept of racing became an industry, something in the equation changed. Horses are still brilliant, spectacular athletes. But the people who train them to race, or who own them or who believe that there actually could be a “sure thing” are frequently not motivated by the sheer joy of watching horses run. They want nothing less than winning performances. Every single time. And that requires, some think, something more than a horse and a rider.
Thus opens another chapter in the sad story of Penn National Race Course in Grantville. For several years, this facility has been at the center of one scandal after another. In 2010 jockeys at Penn National staged a “strike” in which they refused to ride any horses fielded by Michael Gill, citing numerous breakdowns of Gill-owned horses. The jockeys feared for their safety and were horrified by the number of Gill’s horses that had suffered catastrophic injuries. Despite being an Eclipse Award winner, Gill was ultimately forced to leave Penn National Race Course.
In 2011 a Dauphin County Grand Jury reviewed evidence of trainers doping horses at Penn National. In the aftermath of that investigation, numerous reforms were recommended to reduce the potential for corruption of the sport. In 2013 three trainers at Penn National and one clocker were arrested for cheating. The trainers were charged with doping horses and the clocker was charged with submitting false workout times for horses at the track. Trainer David Wells was sentenced in February to three months in Dauphin County prison followed by a 3-month stay in the county work-release center and 4 1/2 years on probation. In November, a federal judge sentenced Danny L. Robertson of Hershey, a former Penn National clocker, to a year’s probation for posting false workout times after he pled guilty to a federal wire fraud charge. Trainer Patricia A. Rogers of Hummelstown, is awaiting trial in U.S. Middle District Court. Like Wells, trainer Samuel Webb of Jonestown had his case transferred from federal to county court, where he is awaiting trial.
Most recently, in March 2015 four veterinarians at Penn National Race Course were arrested after an undercover FBI investigation. Dr. Kevin Brophy of Florida, Dr. Fernando Motta of Lancaster, PA, Dr. Christopher Korte of Colorado and Dr. Renee Nodine of Annville were charged in separate complaints.
The veterinarians were each charged with “allegedly administering drugs to thoroughbred race horses within 24 hours of when the horse was entered to race,” according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Their actions directly conflict with the state’s criminal code that prohibits “rigging of publicly exhibited contests.”
The investigation concluded that the veterinarians’ actions were part of a longstanding effort to circumvent the state’s laws regarding pre-race protocols. The veterinarians allegedly back-dated prescriptions requested by trainers in order to evade detection. The trainers subsequently submitted false information to the Racing Commission about the dates when their horses received veterinary treatments. The Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations and the Pennsylvania State Police are also investigating the case.
Is this the Beginning or the End?
While Penn National seems to be the hot zone, there are indications that other racetracks in the area may be under investigation as well. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Harrisburg refused to comment on questions about whether investigations are ongoing at other race tracks, and whether the investigation at Penn National has concluded. They have also not released specific information about the types of drugs involved. Several calls seeking comment from Eric Johnston, Director of Racing Operations at Penn National were not returned.
The issue of drugs in horseracing has attracted the attention of several legislators in Washington. Representative Joe Pitts (R., PA) has co-sponsored the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act, aimed at attacking what Pitts believes to be “a pervasive drug culture” in the sport. He and others want to create a “sound, national framework that would protect the horses, the riders and the public.”
Industry leaders point to the erosion of confidence in the integrity of horse racing as the cause of declining revenue from betting. In a poll conducted by The Jockey Club, 80 percent of bettors claimed that the possibility of drugs influencing races factored into their bets at certain racetracks. According to The Blood Horse, pari-mutuel wagering at U.S. racetracks declined in 2014, continuing a nearly eight-year trend. The New York Times has reported that there are additional factors that are contributing to the decline in the public’s interest in horse racing. But clearly the “aroma” of corruption is one significant factor.
A Critical Juncture for PA’s Equine Industry
Horseracing is the most consistently visible aspect of Pennsylvania’s huge equine industry. And the racetracks at the state’s casinos have been fueling extensive growth of the industry. That in turn has protected more open space, brought more horse farms to the state, created revenue streams that support trainers, veterinarians, jockeys, feed dealers. Every horse owner in the state derives either direct or indirect benefits from the casino industry, which would not exist if there were no racetracks. And the casinos have helped fund numerous other projects that benefit Pennsylvanians. So what happens at the casinos doesn’t necessarily stay at the casinos.
The four veterinarians charged in this latest episode at Penn National were scheduled to appear in court in mid-April. In the meantime, each of their racing licenses has been revoked.