by Tim Wickes
It’s been a double fortnight (I always talk like this for a while after Wimbledon) since the trial and guilty/not guilty verdicts of Murray Rojas and I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating on the vagaries of how we are represented by our legal system, our horsemen, and our industry leaders. Sad to say, after a week of testimony and a mixed return from the jury, we seem to be left with more questions than answers.
First, some back story. About five years ago near as I can tell, FBI Special Agent Bruce Doupe, acting on a tip, started down an investigatory road on the backside at Penn National in the bucolic Blue Mountains of central PA. Starting in 2012, the first round of sleuthery resulted in the indictments of David Wells and two other trainers as well as clocker Danny Robertson. A year later, Wells and Robertson pled to lesser charges because they “cooperated” with the ongoing investigation. Wells and Robertson led the way to Stephanie Beattie partly because Wells and Beattie were no longer playing house–and nothing like a trainer scorned. David sang like a canary. And then Beattie leads the well named G-man Doupe and his prosecutor in crime William Behe to Murray Rojas and–eureka! The Feds had their Whale, their Dapper Don, and their Voldemort all rolled into one. Murray Rojas. And hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to trial we go. The FBI, a federal prosecutor, five years of time, investigations, taxpayer money, you name it for… Murray Rojas.
They had Stephanie Beattie dead to rights. She, by her own later testimony, broke just about every rule in the book and more than a few than the rule book writers haven’t thought up yet. They had their big fish, but Doupe and Behe decided to let Beattie roll over so they could get Rojas and the vets. Oh wait, they didn’t really get the vets either. Kevin Brophy, Fernando Motta, and two other miscreants were allowed to roll over to get to… Rojas.
These vets were the guys that taught the trainers how to cheat. They had a form to fill out for race-day meds in a state that only allows Lasix on race day. These were the guys that back dated the billing and paperwork that they turned into the state. These were the guys who knew the ins and outs of the stale lab and, in some cases, what drugs were being tested and for when. These were the guys who figured out that if they cut the Robinul dose and gave it i/v instead of i/m it wouldn’t test and they’d beat the lab. But not worth throwing them in the hoosgow? Nope, let’s not get the vets when we can get… Rojas. Let’s let the dealer roll over so that we can get the addict.
So far, there are a lot of guys and dolls in this tale, but not much that would be Runyonesque unless ol’ Damon hooked up with Elmore Leonard and wrote the pilot for Real Housewives of Grantville. It’s a sad, sad story, but Rojas? Curly and Larry, I mean Doupe and Behe, had David Wells for 10 years’ worth of criminality; but he got three months because he gave them Beattie. And they had Beattie like they had gray suits and gruff demeanors. They had her all fitted up for a corner cell at Allenwood, but they let her roll over like Beethoven so they could get the dealers/vets, and I’m ok with that. Get the vets. Get them for bribing the guys in the lab. Get them for their mountain of fraudulent paperwork. Get them for creating a system whose primary goal was to beat the system. Just get them. But for the love of Steve Carlton, don’t let the big fish roll over so you can catch a minnow. As my kids would say, “Grow a pair.” You had some out and out criminals on the hook and you let them walk like Egyptians so you could convict Murray Rojas of misbranding, I.e. using medications for purposes or in a fashion other than said medication’s prescribed use. After five years, no wire fraud, no race fixing, just misbranding. What a waste of our money.
The flip side of all this is we do have a problem here. Being a racehorse trainer is a tough gig these days. Most of your employees are undocumented, you barely break even on the day money–that’s if you get paid on time–and the pressure to win is overwhelming. Trainers take an edge, often too much of one. In the Paulick Report Friday Show, Editor-in-Chief Scott Jagow glibly referred to “the cesspool of PA racing.” If Jagow or anyone else thinks this is just a PA problem, then I’ve got some nifty dockage in the Mojave to sell them. The trouble with the view from the eighth pole is the angle stinks. The Rojas trial testimony was just a window in to a national issue because in every track in the land the motto exists: “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.”
So let’s point some fingers. First there was an underfunded and seemingly clueless state racing commission that, despite boots on the ground on the backside, was played like Perlman’s fiddle by the vets and the horsemen. Second, there’s a racetrack that, in spite of being granted a casino monopoly by the state, cares tons more about its slots than its ponies and therefore throws boatloads of money at policing the casino while looking away from the racing. Third, there’s the TRPB. They exist, right? According to the TRPB mission statement, it is supposed to “concentrate its attention on those areas which most significantly affect the integrity of racing.” Sounds like they need to concentrate a little harder. Fourth, there’s the vets, and I know I’m gonna hear about this one. There’s a dozen or so vets at Penn National who it seems couldn’t find integrity if you slapped them in the vet box with it. For the most part, these men and women are in control of the medications on the backside and it may be a good time for them to use that power for good instead of for evil. They can choose the high ground or the swamp of their own making. Finally, the horsemen. It’s time for all of us to stop giving lip service to cleaner sport and level playing fields and actually do something about it. We don’t need some pious billionaire preaching at us; we just need to finally do the right thing before it’s too late. PETA rummaged around in our dirty closet once already, and they will again. If they’re willing to attack a guy for saving his dog from a canicidal kangaroo, they sure as hell will roll up their sleeves against some racehorse trainers. And, when they do, the New York Times and others will be right there with them.
I hate the job the Feds did with this case at Penn Nat. They went after the wrong people, letting the crooks walk whilst going after someone who was doing little more than trying to keep up with the Joneses. It was a waste of time, money, and judgement, and the ultimate failure of the case sends out all the wrong messages going forward. Separate from that, the system of checks and balances that we currently lean on has neither. The National HPBA claims that the Feds had no business sticking their noses in racing’s business, but that’s just crap. The Feds got involved because the inmates were running the asylum. The fact that they proved to be so completely incompetent should in no way lead us to believe they won’t try again with a better result. Let’s stop patting ourselves on the backs for running off a Rick Dutrow here and stringing up a Murray Rojas there and get to some greater truths. We are the problem, all of us. We don’t need to fix “them,” we need to fix us. And we need to do it soon. Tic-toc. Tic-toc.