Just sample of cutbacks Fewer are inspected for drugs as tracks battle with trimmed budget

December 17, 1991|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

About 16 state employees have either lost or had their racing-related jobs eliminated in the last six months at Maryland's thoroughbred and harness tracks.

Hit hardest have been the satchel men, or urine collectors. About a dozen, who served principally as inspectors, were laid off, or not replaced, at both the flat and trotting tracks, starting in June.

The job cuts reflect efforts to either help reduce costs in the deficit-riddled state budget or control costs at the tracks where betting revenues are declining.

The state layoffs are in addition to about 40 positions, in management and the mutuels department, that Laurel cut about a month ago.

The satchel men do the actual physical collection of urine samples.

After each race, the stewards designate two horses, usually the winner and one other horse, that are tested for illegal drugs.

The satchel men follow the horses from the winner's circle or unsaddling area to a detention barn where it is their job to persuade the animals to urinate. A veterinarian is also there to draw a blood sample.

The satchel men are "experts in their field," said Thomas F. Lomangino, director of the state's testing laboratory. Once the horses have been cooled out and watered, they are put in stalls. "The men have to know how to stand, how to crouch, how not to make a noise or they don't get a sample," Lomangino said.

At other times the barn sounds like "a canary convention," he said since the men find whistling helps the horses urinate.

The men collect the sample in a pint-size cup attached to the end of a long stick. Some horses are so shy they must wear blinkers. Others, such as the multiple stakes-winning mare In The Curl, are so offended by the intrusion, that they charge the men.

"About 80 percent of the horses are all business," said George Leaf, who has been a satchel man for six years. "It's the other 20 percent you have to worry about."

The urine samples are sent from the barn to the lab in College Park where Lomangino and his staff test both urine and blood samples for illegal substances.

Fewer satchel men mean that fewer horses are being tested.

Previously, three horses were tested in triple races. Now it is just two. Four horses were once tested from stakes races. Now, the number is three. There also were a larger number of "specials," or random samples, taken and more sampling done from qualifying heats at the harness tracks. It amounts to about 16 fewer tests each day at both harness and thoroughbred racing facilities, Lomangino said.

But that doesn't mean the quality of the state's testing program is being affected, he added.

"I feel just as secure as I did before that we are doing a good job [of drug detection]," he said. In fact, the cutback came after an international association of racing commissioners recommended that individual jurisdictions take fewer tests, but do a more thorough job of testing the samples they already have.

Lomangino said his lab tested 16,000 blood and urine samples in He expects that number will be substantially reduced after the cutbacks in the last six months. But, he said, each sample is tested for between 700-750 prohibited drugs, "much more than most racing states," he said.

Kenneth Schertle, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, said that a study so far indicates that there are about the same number of positive test results this year as last year, even though the number of tests has been reduced.

Schertle said he "does not yet know" how much money the commission has saved by eliminating the dozen satchel men. "I'm in the process of compiling a report [for the commission]," he said.

In addition to the satchel men, the state laid off one steward, Jean Chalk, at Laurel; one judge, Red Walthen, at Rosecroft; and one position in the commission's licensing office has not been filled.

Schertle said that two secretarial positions in the commission's Baltimore headquarters have also been eliminated "since I've been here, but that's over a five-year span."

Chalk subsequently was re-hired as a contractual steward and works at both Laurel and Rosecroft on a part-time basis.

The stewards and personnel in the Baltimore commission office are paid by the state out of the General Fund. But the satchel men, veterinarians and other commission personnel are called Special Fund employees. They are paid by the state, but the state is reimbursed by the racetracks. However, the personnel are considered state employees.

The stewards and Schertle will be required to take five-day government-ordered furloughs like other state employees, if the governor finds it necessary. The Special Fund employees will not.

The urine collectors make a base salary of $60 per day.

Under the previous system, two collectors attended each horse: one to take the sample, another to serve as a witness. But now, after the cutbacks, each horse's groom serves as the witness instead of a paid employee.

"Actually, it's a better system," said John Pappas, who supervises Laurel's detention barn. "I hate to see people lose their jobs. But this way, each owner or trainer has his own representative there to witness the whole procedure."

Schertle said he doesn't anticipate any further cuts in the state's racing personnel. "The commission thought they had to make a conscientious effort to reduce costs," he said. "They were looking at the rising cost of regulation, and not necessarily at the state budget. Racing is not a bottomless pit, whoever pays the bills."

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