Cohen: Harness Racing Is Trying To Ignore Biggest Scandal (Yet) Of The Year - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report
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Cohen: Harness Racing Is Trying To Ignore Biggest Scandal (Yet) Of The Year

If you see something, say something,” unless it's embarrassing and maybe criminal. 

The biggest story in horse racing last week was the federal conviction of Dr. Seth Fishman after a horse-doping trial that ought to strike fear in the hearts of the racing communities across the world. Seemingly caught red-handed, with his lawyer lamely trying to portray him as a paragon of virtue, Fishman almost certainly is going to prison. It's even more certain that his customer database, in the hands of federal lawyers or investigators and now made public, threatens to turn a really bad scandal about the prevalence of doping into an existential crisis for both Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing.

The second biggest story of the week, at least as far as harness racing goes, was the industry's lack of alarm about Ross Cohen's testimony in Fishman's trial. Cohen was a harness trainer of little note until he pleaded guilty and then helped the feds incriminate Fishman. As part of his plea deal, Cohen told prosecutors and the jury that he fixed harness races at Yonkers Raceway, in New York, one of the most historic and important tracks in the country. Cohen made the allegations under oath and penalty of perjury and it's hard to imagine that federal prosecutors don't have a reasonable belief that he is telling the truth.

The third biggest story of the week, in harness racing, was the decision by Jeff Gural, owner and operator of the New Meadowlands Racetrack (and, full disclosure, a partner of mine in several horses) to allow trainer Adrienne Hall to race horses at the track despite her damning testimony against Fishman. Hall says she bought the illegal drugs Fishman was peddling and used them on a horse, who did so well doped up Hall felt compelled to thank Fishman for the juice. “He dominated. He was a completely different animal. I was so happy,” Hall reportedly told Fishman. Like Cohen, Hall copped a plea. Unlike Cohen, Hall is getting another chance.

And, finally, came publication of the Thoroughbred Daily News' interview with Scott Robinson, now serving time in a federal penitentiary in Florida for selling and distributing misbranded and adulterated drugs. “I sold to everybody,” Robinson now says. “More people should be indicted. Definitely.” But he adds that the feds (and presumably state racing commissions) have not pressed him to divulge the names on his customer list and he isn't inclined to do so. He told Bill Finley at TDN without an apparent shred of irony: “I know my career is over, but there are people out there who still work in racing and their livelihoods are at stake.”

These are stories about cheating and doping and bad medicine that are vitally important today and likely to be important for years to come. They raise questions and concerns of racing integrity at a time when the future of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act hangs in the balance. A federal judge is likely to rule soon on a request for an injunction against the federal legislation, a challenge brought by a few rogue horsemen's associations, including the United States Trotting Association, the increasingly-divisive trade group that wants to scuttle HISA even though harness racing is not covered by the limbo-ed new law.

There are, thankfully, still enough independent media voices within the world of Thoroughbred racing (including The Paulick Report, of course) to cover these stories and to shed light on the problems the industry faces. The same cannot be said of coverage of harness racing. There are only a few outlets that offer anything resembling independent news coverage and virtually none of that coverage is investigative. Some of this is a matter of practicality. There simply aren't enough legitimate journalists who are both interested in and capable of covering the sport. And some of it is a matter of policy. Few want to pay someone to ask tough questions.

So we get what we've gotten over the past few weeks. Belated pool coverage of Fishman's doping trial (coverage which, I should say, was good) and virtually no public mention of Ross Cohen's role in the case. “I paid drivers for somebody to hold their horses back in races,” Cohen reportedly testified. Which drivers? He was not asked and did not say. The New York track is owned by MGM Resorts and presided over, at least from the horseman's perspective, by Joe Faraldo, who is both the president of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York and chairman of the United States Trotting Association.

Faraldo, you might recall, was linked as an owner at some point with one of the trainers later indicted by the feds. Was Faraldo on a witness list for the Fishman trial? Is he on a witness list for related trials? Has he been approached by federal investigators or defense attorneys to share what he knows about the operation of Yonkers as it relates to the conduct of Fishman and Cohen? We don't know. Is Yonkers or the New York racing commission or Faraldo's horseman's organization investigating the recent allegations? We don't know. Has the USTA ever looked into whether Faraldo's dual roles create conflicts of interest? We don't know.

Brad Maione, a spokesman for the New York State Gaming Commission, was particularly unhelpful. He told me recently: “We cannot confirm or deny whether an investigation is being conducted.” When I asked whether any New York racing licenses had been suspended or revoked as a result of the federal case he responded: “We cannot confirm or deny whether an investigation is being conducted.” When I asked if state regulators were cooperating or had cooperated with the feds during the course of the investigation, he responded: “The commission regularly collaborates with state, federal and local enforcement.”

We certainly can't go to the USTA's website for answers. The USTA is quite capable of promoting stories it wants to share with its readership. Its propaganda campaign against the HISA shows there is plenty of room on that main page for stories about racing integrity. But the Fishman trial? The USTA put up the pool piece after Fishman was convicted. Cohen's allegations against Yonkers drivers? I still have not seen a word of it on the USTA's site. Maybe that's because Faraldo, speaking on behalf of the USTA, keeps embarrassing himself in national publications when given the opportunity to denounce the Fishmans of the world.

The USTA's laughable pro-integrity campaign is based around the bumper-sticker line: “If you see something, say something.” Well, Ross Cohen saw something. And Ross Cohen said something. He said he was part of something illegal at Yonkers. He said it under oath. What's the USTA going to do about that, apart from ignoring that news on its website? Who is going to call for an independent investigation into racing at Yonkers Raceway? The USTA and Hanover Shoe Farms, the sport's largest breeding operation, established a $250,000 matching fund grant in 2020 to “support the work of restoring full integrity of that sport.” Is some of that money going to go into investigating Cohen's allegations? If not, why not?

I asked a USTA director some of these questions last week and the responses I got help explain the ways in which the organization is much closer to being part of the problem than being part of the solution. “In general the USTA does not do investigations,” I was told when I asked about the Cohen case. “We are not a news reporting organization in this manner,” I was told when I asked about reporting Cohen's allegations. Conflicts of interest? “If an issue would become too close to a Director he/she would likely remove themselves from the issue in question,” I was told, a fiduciary standard that I suspect doesn't cut it on Wall Street.

If I were an honest driver at Yonkers I would want my name cleared from the allegations Cohen leveled at the trial. If I were an honest trainer at Yonkers I would want to know more about what Cohen says he did and how he says he did it. As an owner of horses who race at Yonkers I want to know more about the race-fixing schemes. If I were a bettor, I wouldn't bet a dollar more there until I know the scheme that Cohen described ended when he was caught. None of this should be controversial. Either the USTA, New York regulators, and the SBOANY are as dedicated to protecting honest horsemen and horsewomen as they say or they are not. We all are better off knowing the answer to that question sooner rather than later.

Andrew Cohen is a Standardbred owner and breeder and a two-time winner of both the John Hervey Award and the O'Brien Award for commentary on horse racing.

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