When one thinks of the Kentucky Derby, the imagery is of a rite of spring associated with a gala or bash under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.  Women and men dressed in fancy attire are sipping mint juleps and betting their money.

The Derby has an elegant character to it but there are other perspectives as well.  Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson in June 1970 penned “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” for Scanlan’s magazine, perhaps aptly describing the doings in the infield at Churchill Downs more so than the clubhouse or grandstand.

But the Kentucky Derby has an entirely different side that is mostly overlooked, having to do with charity and philanthropy.  Kentucky Derby parties are popular across the United States, and many of them are given for the purpose of raising money for good causes.

Recently, I came across a news item in a magazine about how the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese had held a Derby party on May 6, 2017 that attracted 170 people and raised $32,000.  In 2016, the Cleveland Society served 39,000 meals to poor people.

After reading the item, I recalled how two years in a row I attended a Kentucky Derby party fundraiser at a private school with the proceeds earmarked for scholarships for worthy students whose parents could not afford tuition.

An Internet search readily turned up plenty of items about Kentucky Derby party fundraisers, such as:

  • “Best 25 Kentucky Derby Fundraiser Ideas” on Pinterest
  • “Boys & Girls Club Fundraiser—Kentucky Derby Theme Party”
  • “Hats and Horses at United Way’s Kentucky Derby Fundraiser”

An article titled “Charity Fundraising Ideas that Rock,” said “…’Kentucky Derby Days’ is a fantastic way to put people in a light-hearted and giving mood.”

Another article pertaining to a 2015 Kentucky Derby-themed fundraiser in Frederick County, Maryland quoted the president of the Frederick County Commission for Women:

“It’s nice…to bring the Kentucky Derby to Frederick.  So what a great way to raise money for a good organization and have a wonderful time, get dressed up, and learn a little bit about the Kentucky Derby and take part in it.”

The Kentucky Derby yields lots of cash to Churchill Downs, Inc., but it also is a potent fundraiser for initiatives that benefit the less fortunate among us year around.  That is largely an untold story.

When the snowflakes fly and Churchill Downs is dormant, money raised from Kentucky Derby charitable events will still be helping needy folks.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business


A trainer at Penn National Race Course testified under oath that 95 to 98 percent of the trainers at the racetrack used illegal drugs on their horses within 24 hours of races in which the animals ran.  The trainer said it was well known that laboratory testing was not done for the drugs.

Assume that the trainer was testifying truthfully.  That means that virtually every trainer at Penn National Race Course was flagrantly violating rules and regulations.

Suppose, for purpose of analysis, that you were a Penn National trainer looking for an edge and had no ethical concerns about cheating.  You knew that two drugs were performance-enhancing and that the lab used by the racetrack did not test for them.

A puzzled and inquisitive outsider looking in would ask questions.

First, how did you know that the drugs were performance-enhancing and, second, how did you know that the lab did not test for them?  Who told you these essential pieces of information?

Third, if you knew that administering the drugs would give your horses an advantage, why would you tell other trainers or anyone else?  Since revealing this inside information would compromise your advantage and get you sanctioned and embarrassed if caught, you likely did not divulge your secret.  But then who did?  Was it a representative of the maker of the drugs, or one or more veterinarians, or someone else with a motive to dope horses and collect on bets?

Fourth, if 95 to 98 percent of the trainers knew about and used the illicit drugs, why did the stewards not know?  Would they not hear through the grapevine?

Fifth, is Penn National Race Course an isolated case?  Why did the doping at Penn National not spread to other Pennsylvania racetracks–Parx, Presque Isle Downs, and possibly even harness tracks?  Some of the Penn National trainers even ran horses at the other Thoroughbred racetracks in the Keystone state.

Information flow is highly contagious and thus what was taking place with impunity at Penn National was certainly common knowledge among trainers and vets at Parx and Presque Isle Downs.  Are Parx and Presque Isle Downs models of medication compliance, whereas Penn National is a renegade and an outlier?

Is it believable that Penn National Race Course alone attracted an overwhelming majority of cheating trainers and oblivious stewards?  Was the trainer lying who testified under oath that 95 to 98 percent of the Penn National trainers used illegal drugs on their entries?

Many questions are left unanswered by the Penn National misconduct.

If ever there were a hands-down argument for a federal-sanctioned organization to investigate and prosecute drug violations at American racetracks, it is Penn National Race Course.

The denouement of the Penn National episode is that since almost all the trainers were allegedly using illegal performance-enhancing drugs, little or no competitive advantage was gained by anyone.  Yet the offending trainers and their allies scandalized themselves, the racetrack, and to some extent horse racing.

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business 


Start with the working premise that most people are honest, depending, of course, on the rigidity of one’s concept of honesty.  Implicit in the premise is that if most people are honest some are not.

Proof is readily available on a weekly and daily basis.  One hears and reads of insider-trading convictions, wealth managers defrauding their clients, lawyers making off with escrow money, doctors overbilling Medicare, school teachers cheating to elevate their students’ scores on standardized tests, world-class athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, accusations of footballs being deflated in the NFL, possible fixed matches at Wimbledon, pump-and-dump stock schemes, and so on ad infinitum.

There is nothing new about this…human nature has not changed for the worst.  The difference today is that we hear about incidents of actual and alleged wrongdoing quicker owing to 24-hour news and social media.

Irrespective of the competitive human endeavor–in which participants are evaluated and often compensated on outcomes–some people will not resist temptation and will cross the line into unethical or illegal behavior.  No amount of moralizing will deter such actions, rather the only solution is to set rules and enforce them with strict oversight and meaningful penalties for flouting the regulations.

Which brings us to the scandal at Penn National Race Course.  A newspaper headline cogently summarized the situation: “Trainer Testifies [in federal court] that She and Nearly All of Her Colleagues Drugged Horses at Penn National.”

The article explained why such a scheme could go undetected: [The trainer] “estimated that 95 to 98 percent of the trainers at the racetrack used illegal drugs on the horses within 24 hours of the races, testifying that it was a known practice and that testing wasn’t done for the drugs in question at that time.”

The public-relations fallout and economic damage to horse racing from deceit like occurred at Penn National is immeasurable.  The casual reader of headlines like “Nearly All of Her Colleagues Drugged Horses…” is likely to surmise that this shady practice is rampant at all racetracks. The horse-racing bettor is tempted to find a fairer game to wager on.

The various interest groups in American horse racing had better unite behind federal drug regulation and enforcement, or they will sooner or later dispatch their own sport.  The words George Orwell wrote in Keep the Aspidistra Flying ring true:

“The mistake you make, don’t you see, is in thinking one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself.”

Copyright © 2017 Horse Racing Business

See Part 2 of “Corruption at Penn National Race Course” on Thursday, August 3, 2017 for unanswered questions about the scandal.