Trainer feeling sting of being shut out

The name Lou Pena will ring few bells on the Thoroughbred side of aisle, but the harness crowd knows him well, particularly in the last two years. And the news involving him over the weekend carries significance for all of racing.

Both breeds have been plagued in recent years by suspicions without proof. The shadow world of chemistry has clouded the racing scene – runners, trotters, and pacers – with much rumor and innuendo but little proof. The chemists have outdistanced the regulators.

There have been wrist-slaps and minor suspensions coast to coast, and rumors involving top trainers in both Thoroughbred and harness racing.

Lou Pena was not one of those suspended. Until two years ago he was best known on the California harness circuit at the Cal-Expo meetings in Sacramento, where he enjoyed success as a veteran California trainer and journeyman driver. Until last year he never had a million-dollar season as either.

Then Pena exploded on the scene, moving east and training the winners of $7,263,295 in 2010, charging back with $5,892,163 in the first seven months of this year, and rocketing to the top of American race-winning harness trainers with 436 wins to date in 2011.

His spectacular season last year and his roaring success this year – his Universal Driver Rating, a long-standing measure of harness accomplishment involving in-the-money performances, a slugging average rather than batting average – soared to .428 last year and stands at .449 this year.

Tongues wagged, but Pena’s horses passed most tests for known illegal substances.

He was the leading trainer at the Meadowlands last year and a runaway leader at Yonkers this year, currently with 238 wins. His nearest rival at the major New York track has 79.

Last weekend the bubble burst.

Just as the World Driving Championship – a major harness racing attraction featuring drivers from Europe and Australia and New Zealand – got under way in this country, Yonkers Raceway notified Pena that he no longer was welcome at that track, known as The Giant of Trotting before the Meadowlands was built and now a huge money-making racino with some of the best harness horses and drivers in the world competing there.

Pena says he was “devastated” when the Yonkers racing secretary, Steve Starr, told him his entries no longer would be accepted. “I have been asked not to enter there anymore,” he said.

“I guess you could call it being kicked out. They gave me no reason. They just said that in the best interests of the sport we’re going to ask you not to enter for a while. They said I could reapply in October.”

Pena was quoted in Harnesslink, an Australian publication, as saying, “None of my horses have ever returned a positive.” That’s not quite accurate. He had two positives, one at Yonkers and one at the Meadows in Pennsylvania, last year, as part of 27 penalties – mostly minor infractions – last season and this, and 10 positives in earlier years in California, according to United States Trotting Association records.

Pena has been racing at both Yonkers and at Pennsylvania harness tracks. He blames his Yonkers problems on his fellow horsemen, saying, “They might have said, ‘Hey, we’re getting beat nine out of 10 times by this guy.’ ” He calls them “the Jealousy Police,” and claimed in Harnesslink that “Officials have called me and said, ‘If you just slow it down a little bit, you’ll be fine.’ ”

He says he would never even use the blood-enhancer EPO. “Those are things I would never even consider. I make my living off these animals and I respect them. I always have their best interests in mind.”

Pena says he has not decided whether he plans to fight his exclusion, but “once I go that step, I have to make sure I put my head down and march forward. That’s the way I race horses. I don’t just sit back and hope and cross my fingers. It’s not horseshoes . . . .

Hiring lawyers, you have to get the best of the best and have the best defense. If not, you’re in trouble.” But he told Harnesslink he couldn’t afford it, and acknowledged, “It’s a private racetrack, and I guess they have a right to say what horses race there and which ones don’t.”

If he does challenge the Yonkers decision, he could be in for a very tough fight.

With the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium now in possession of Dr. Lawrence Soma’s request for funding for finding the latest culprit, the French import drug ITPP, the balance of power could change, from the chemists to the racing scientists and regulators.

Over the years the Harness Tracks of America – the trade association of harness tracks analogous to the Thoroughbred Racing Associations in Thoroughbred racing – has spent much time and money in issuing three volumes on the right of exclusion by tracks.

New York’s Bennett Liebman – fan, racing attorney, former racing commissioner, university professor, and now a state adviser on horse racing in the Empire State – compiled and edited the last one, the definitive word on the subject. Yonkers also for years utilized the services of Fred Martin, one of the best exclusion lawyers in racing.

Yonkers is not the first track to refuse entries from a top trainer.

Thoroughbred tracks have done it as well. But this round, involving a trainer who zoomed from regional competence to national leadership in one remarkable leap and followed with another, will be interesting to watch.