The federal investigation into horse doping and illegal betting that hit the racing industry hard last week shows no sign of spreading to Maryland, said Mike Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission.
"Maryland has an excellent program," Hopkins said yesterday, referring to strict testing for illegal drugs in racehorses. "I'm very comfortable with how races are conducted here, that they're conducted on a level playing field."
Dale Capuano, a leading trainer, concurred. Capuano serves on the commission's drug advisory committee with veterinarians, the state chemist, racing commissioners and other trainers.
"It's simple," Capuano said of Maryland racing's attitude toward horse doping. "If you do something wrong, you'll get caught."
The investigation that erupted Thursday with 17 indictments centered on an alleged horse-drugging incident in 2003 at Aqueduct in New York and a Mafia-linked betting ring that generated more than $200 million in wagers over four years to off-track outlets.
Among those indicted were Greg Martin, a New York thoroughbred trainer and son of Hall of Fame trainer Frank "Pancho" Martin, and alleged associates of the Gambino crime family.
According to the indictment, members of the betting ring wagered on the Martin-trained A One Rocket on Dec. 18, 2003, at Aqueduct, with the knowledge that Martin had illegally "milkshaked" the horse to enhance his performance. A One Rocket won by 10 lengths, vastly improving his performance from his previous race.
A milkshake is a concoction of sodium bicarbonate, sugar and electrolytes that is most often administered through a tube directly into a horse's stomach before a race. Some horsemen believe the substance reduces the buildup of lactic acid in horses' muscles, thereby staving off fatigue.
Many bettors and racing insiders believe that certain trainers win with unusual frequency by milkshaking horses.
Although racing leaders and regulators across the country have begun addressing the issue in recent years, the scandal in New York elevated it to priority status.
Hopkins, head of the Maryland Racing Commission, said that incidents of milkshaking occurred several years ago at Rosecroft Raceway, the harness track in Prince George's County.
They stopped about four years ago, he said, when racing commissioners increased penalties and assigned a veterinarian to test winning and runner-up horses after every race at Rosecroft for evidence of milkshakes.
Commission investigators test horses at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park for milkshakes "occasionally," Hopkins said. The result? "We have not seen any evidence that it's happening with the thoroughbred horse," he said.
James Stewart, a veterinarian at Maryland tracks since 1970, said Maryland's testing procedure for detecting illegal drugs in horses is "extremely good."
He said Thomas F. Lomangino, head of the state lab, is a "fantastic commission chemist" whose reputation and testing procedures deter local and visiting trainers from trying to cheat.
"I don't think there's a lot out there," Stewart said of illegal drugs at the tracks. "And I don't think what is out is real significant."
As for milkshaking, Stewart said: "I know that it has been done, but I don't think it's being done any longer." And when it was being done several years ago, he said, "I don't think it was very common."
Alan Foreman, attorney for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said Maryland racing has a "very strong reputation for integrity." Foreman is active in various regional and national groups, including a national commission trying to formulate a uniform drug policy for all states.