Public confidence not being high in either Louisiana politics or horse racing, their convergence is bound to raise the gravest suspicions.
So it is now Gov. Bobby Jindal has announced his appointments to the Racing Commission, which is charged with keeping the game straight.
In truth the game in Louisiana, at least by comparison with its politics, has been pretty straight in recent years, thanks in large part to the efforts of the commission’s director Charlie Gardiner, whose peers voted him the best turf regulator in the country.
These are delicate times for the industry nationwide. Following the deaths of Barbaro and Eight Belles, Congress is on a tear, and the possibility looms of federal jurisdiction and a war on equine drugs, which are used much more liberally here than in any other country. Louisiana lags even by American standards, and a proposed reform of our drug rules will be high on the new commission’s agenda.
If ever there was a time when the horse business needed Gardiner, this is it.
But, with politics in the mix, not everyone wants what is best for Louisiana. There are scores to settle, regardless of the impact on an industry that is said to be worth $2 billion a year to Louisiana.
Gardiner, if his enemies get their way, will soon be fired. Those enemies are a small minority, but a powerful one. The most vociferous of them is state Sen. Nick Gautreaux, D-Abbeville, who numbers incoming Racing Commission Chairman Jerry Meaux among his constituents. Not only was Gautreaux’s approval required for Meaux’s appointment, but it is not final until confirmed by the Senate in its next session.
Meaux said Gautreaux had not conditioned his appointment on Gardiner’s dismissal, but a nod can be as good as a wink, and Gautreaux’s animosity is hardly a secret. He made no bones about it in a conversation with me a few months ago and likened the Racing Commission to the Gestapo. Gautreaux did not return a phone call for this column.
The commission cannot have endeared itself to Gautreaux in 2004 when he was ordered to forfeit a purse after his horse won a race at Louisiana Downs but was found to have illegal levels of anti-inflammatory drugs in its system. If he has any objections to the commission, save for its irritating enforcement of the rules of racing, he has yet to expound on them.
Gautreaux’s remarks came after a Senate committee, of which he is a member, had overturned a Racing Commission decision to adopt rules restricting drug use that already apply in every other major racing state. The commission had, in fact, endorsed those rules as an emergency measure, without meeting the statutory requirement to explain what the emergency was, so the committee had a handy pretext to throw them out.
Gautreaux and his colleagues thus handed a victory to Sean Alfortish, president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, who, while not making any mention of Nazis, had argued the Racing Commission was being high-handed and over hasty.
Some of Alfortish’s members in Louisiana complained the enhanced testing and security required in the rules would make life inconvenient. The national HBPA, however, is a member of the national consortium that drew them up.
Alfortish said after the hearing he hoped Jindal, whose election campaign he had supported, would remove some of the peskier members of the commission. Alfortish had often crossed swords with lawyer Russ Herman, a Gardiner ally, and was delighted when he was among the commissioners Jindal declined to reappoint.
Jindal’s Racing Commission will now consider whether to adopt the drug rules, although not, presumably, as an emergency measure, so it will probably be next year before the requisite public hearings can be completed.
Louisiana can hardly afford to be out of step with the rest of the country and risk appearing a haven for doped-up horses. A cloud already hangs over the racing game here, with the feds investigating allegations that money has been misappropriated from the HBPA under Alfortish’s stewardship and that its board elections earlier this year were rigged.
Alfortish insists he will be exonerated. Still, Louisiana racing needs all the integrity it can get right now, which means the drug rules must be beefed up and Gardiner left where he is.
To declare a personal interest, I own a share in a thoroughbred that is expected to run at the Fair Grounds.
(James Gill is a staff writer with the Times Picayune. He can be reached at (504) 826-3318 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)