Pimlico cracks whip on widespread drug use

30 of 74 stable workers test positive in sweep by racing inspectors, police

November 25, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Drug tests conducted on stable hands at Pimlico Race Course have revealed rampant use of illegal drugs by workers entrusted with the care of thoroughbreds at one of the nation's best-known racetracks.

Maryland Racing Commission inspectors, backed by Baltimore police officers, swept into Pimlico on Monday and tested 74 stable employees for illegal drug use. Thirty tested positive -- ranging from marijuana to cocaine -- and were immediately ordered off the grounds.

The large proportion of positive tests did not surprise John Franzone, racing commission chairman. He said the number of workers using drugs was probably higher.

Four employees disappeared before they could be tested, Franzone said. Assuming that they had used drugs, the total increases to 34 users out of 78 workers.

"We're probably really closer to the 50 percent mark," he said.

The sudden banishment of a large part of the work force left trainers short-handed. The employees targeted were hot walkers, who walk horses as they cool down after workouts, and grooms, who bathe and care for horses.

Nevertheless, several trainers said the crackdown was long overdue. Michael J. Rogers trains 15 horses at Pimlico. Two of his employees tested positive. He has replaced them, he said.

"This is something that should have been done long ago," Rogers said. "I think the backstretch here is the worst I have ever seen."

No arrests were made because no warrants were issued ordering track workers to provide racetrack officials with evidence of suspected drug use, said Sgt. William Sekinger, head of the Northeastern District's drug enforcement unit.

With racetrack officials not applying for search warrants through a circuit court judge, workers were not compelled to submit to urine tests that could have been used against them in a criminal court, Sekinger said.

Franzone said Monday's random testing grew out of complaints by trainers over the summer about a rash of backstretch break-ins. Thieves mainly took horse halters and shanks. The leather goods turned up on neighborhood pit bulls and Rottweilers. Either the stolen equipment was sold for drug dealers' guard dogs or to support a drug habit, based on the assumptions of racing commission officials, racetrack management and investigators.

Franzone said trainers also had reported drug deals in the barn area and received veiled threats from dealers.

"We're trying to come to grips with a problem everybody knew existed but didn't want to bring to the surface," Franzone said. "We've got to act. We can't delude ourselves anymore."

At 8: 30 a.m. Monday, during training, employees of the racing commission, Pimlico security and city police entered the gates of the stable area on the backstretch side -- not the grandstand side -- of the Baltimore racetrack.

Joseph M. Poag, the racing commission's chief investigator, said three teams of six people each -- three commission inspectors and three Pimlico security officers -- checked the state licenses of hot walkers and grooms. He said about five city police officers stood by as backup but weren't needed.

Those without valid licenses were kicked out. Those with licenses were told to report by noon for a drug test -- to produce a urine sample. The test can detect the presence of several drugs, including marijuana, cocaine and morphine, a derivative of heroin.

Franzone said state regulations stipulate that backstretch workers with hands-on duties with horses can be tested at random for illegal drugs. "Our intention isn't to put people out of work," Franzone said. "We just don't want people on crack around horses."

Those who tested positive were suspended from their jobs pending a hearing before the state stewards, a committee of three that enforces the rules of racing. Hearings were scheduled as early as yesterday. Upon evaluation by a drug counselor, Poag said, the employees may be permitted to return to work.

Franzone and Richard Hoffberger, president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said they hope the crackdown results in increased efforts by horsemen and racetrack management to improve conditions on the backstretch.

Hoffberger noted that part of the problem is Pimlico's location, which is adjacent to an urban neighborhood troubled by drug use. "All you've got to do is walk down the street and see it [used drug paraphernalia] in the gutters," he said.

Robert Di Pietro, executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, said the operators of Pimlico intend to make the stable area as safe and comfortable as possible. "That can only be viewed as healthy for the industry and healthy for business," he said.

Sun staff writer Richard Irwin contributed to this article.

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