In light of serious federal doping indictments announced this week by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, three of Woodbine Racetrack’s leading veteran trainers want people to know the vast majority of trainers are honest, hard-working people that would never intentionally harm horses and don’t use performance-enhancing drugs.
Catherine Day Phillips, Kevin Attard and Bob Tiller were in agreement that the charges are unconscionable, particularly when it comes to harming horses and cheating fellow participants and bettors.
“First and foremost you’re thinking about the welfare of the animal,” Attard said. “We read about horses dying… We don’t need that as an industry. The game is already going through a challenging time right now with breakdowns… For the most part, these animals are so well looked after. I think if people realized how well they’re treated and how well they’re looked after, they would be pleasantly surprised.
“My priority is always the health and welfare of the horse, first and foremost. I like to pride myself on keeping these horses around a long time and being able to compete at the highest level possible. Reading what I read, my heart goes out to the horses. You hope not many of them suffer the same fate as we read. Hopefully, from this point forward, things change.”
To that end, Day Phillips said the day the indictments were announced was a dark moment for horse racing in North America, but one that likely was both inevitable and necessary for the game to build a sustainable future.
“In many ways it was a sad day, but also, I look at it as a good day for racing because some of the people who have been cheating or have been suspected of cheating based on the numbers they are producing winners, have been called out, so to speak,” Day Phillips said. “We need to tidy up our industry. Our industry needs huge help… There’s a lot of people that work hard and don’t deserve to have (this bad reputation) hung around their necks, too, but I think it’s important for the guys that are ‘cheating’ to be rooted out.”
Tiller, 70, has trained horses for 48 years and said he has spent his “whole life on the racetrack.” He said he’s frustrated a minority of cheaters have created an image problem for the sport.
“I think it’s been a frustrating thing for a lot of honest horsemen,” Tiller said. “I’m going to say 90 per cent of the horsemen here work hard, they put up their own money and, you know what, if they don’t win enough races, they might go broke. There are people leaving this game every day because of that, because the expenses have gone so high, but everybody needs to be on the same playing field and I think it’s very sad what’s happened out there.
“We’re dealing with big money and, sadly, I think the money creates greed.”
Day Phillips said she is trying to view the indictments “with a positive spin, as opposed to, ‘Oh my gosh, the sky is falling.’ It’s not that, but it is a sad day when good, reputable trainers like Kiaran McLaughlin retire from training; we had Gary Contessa retire from training. Until [the indictments], we had some of these trainers with crazy high stats moving along quite well. I think [the indictments are] a good thing for the good, honest horsemen and the good, hard-working horsemen. I think they need to be able to make a living.
“It takes a lot to get up at three in the morning, seven days a week, and work hard and try to make a living. It’s a tough game, but it’s tougher when you’re on a bicycle and somebody passes you on a moped.”
Tiller said trainers with outlandish stats should be a red flag.
“I know one thing, when you’ve got trainers winning 38 per cent of the time on a constant basis that used to be eight per cent or four per cent or 10 per cent, I don’t think you need to be rocket scientist to figure out something is wrong,” Tiller said, adding the game isn’t as much fun as it used to be, but he’s proud of his longevity.
“This is a very difficult business. You’re working seven days a week. I’ve been lucky enough to stick here [at Woodbine] until my retirement, which isn’t far away because the game is getting tougher and tougher and these are just the sort of things that did you don’t want to hear about, but yet, you are up against. I’ve got 35-year employees, which is unheard at the racetrack. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go and a lot of changes.”
Attard said he hopes the accused, if convicted, “get punished to the max” if for no other reason than to show others tempted to cheat, “that if you’re not going to play fair and you’re not going to play by the rules, you’re not going to be involved in horse racing or work with any animal from that point forward. I think it’s a big deterrent for these guys and they’re going to have to lift up their pants and roll up their sleeves and work a little harder and play fair.”
Day Phillips said increased integrity is the only acceptable path forward.
“I love our industry. I have two teenage boys and I want them to understand that this is a good industry, there are good people here… That’s more of the norm as opposed to these people we’re reading about, the Navarros and the Servises and the other quite-high percentage trainers that have sprung up recently.”
In the short term, Attard said the industry needs to accept the “black eye” it received from the indictments as, “something that needed to happen. The cheaters are only a small portion of the people that work in the industry. There are more good people that care for the welfare of the horse, first and foremost. Unfortunately, the good stuff is never really in the public eye and never gets the press, but this exposes the cheaters. At the end of the day, when the water settles, I think it’s a good day for horse racing. Now it’s up to the racetracks and the commissions to make an example out of these people and make sure that the punishment fits the crime.”