It may sometimes seem, with all the bad publicity, all the talk of drugs and cheating and investigations in horse racing, that there's nothing or nobody left out there that's untainted. That's not true. I have found an honest man with a horse who gets to the finish line on ability and determination alone. Now that man wants not only to win the Kentucky Derby but prove that you can win it the right way.
Dr. Russell Cohen is a practicing veterinarian at the NYRA tracks, a breeder and the racing manager for his mother's Tri-Bone Stables. On Sunday, Tri-Bone's Effinex won an allowance race at Aqueduct by 6¼ lengths. Cohen promptly wrote out a check for $6,000 to supplement the horse to the Triple Crown and began plotting a strategy to get his horse to the Derby. Cohen is considering a run in the April 5 Wood Memorial next.
I've been doing this for 30 years and will do what needs to be done with horses while, at the same time, staying on the right side of the law.
"-- Dr. Russell Cohen, Tri-Bone Stables manager
That makes Effinex one of 100 or so that remain in the Derby pipeline, but he is unique in that Cohen refuses to bring drugs into the equation. The horse does not run on Lasix or anything else and Cohen says that the horse has had one shot of medication in his entire life.
"Unfortunately, there are people in this business that have fallen off the rail and believe that they cannot succeed without medication," Cohen said.
Cohen said he believes you can go drug-free and win, yet he admits his theories might put him at a competitive disadvantage. Effinex (named for Cohen's feelings about his ex-wife) will likely be the only horse in the Wood Memorial to run without Lasix, a legal drug that many believe is a performance-enhancer.
"It's a real problem," he said. "That horse is probably 10 Beyer [speed figure] points below the top group of 3-year-olds and putting him on Lasix would probably get that horse a little closer to the competition. I'm just not going to do it."
Cohen has been a practicing vet for more than 25 years and came around when old school horsemen such as John Veitch and Leroy Jolley were among the leading trainers in America. He worked for both and admired their philosophies, that the horse came first and that nothing good could come from quick-fix solutions a needle might offer.
"When you start out to do a lot of veterinary intervention, there's a point where you have to say this is not going down the right road. We need to walk this horse for 30 days or send him to the farm for 90 days," he said. "When things start to get elevated and procedures need to be done, call a timeout. Just stop."
Cohen started to live by certain principals with his own horses and his client's horses. He said that not only will he do nothing illegal he won't even push the envelope. He believes his only job as a veterinarian is to cure horses when something is wrong with them. Many of his colleagues see things differently, believing their job is to give a horse a chemical boost to help them beat their competitors.
"I've been doing this for 30 years and will do what needs to be done with horses while, at the same time, staying on the right side of the law," Cohen said. "I am trying to do the best at all times by these horses and am trying to get them better so they can win races. I've totally drawn a line in the sand and did so a long, long time ago when it comes to what's right and wrong."
And just as his philosophy of hay, oats and water might have kept some of his horses from the winner's circle, it has hurt his veterinary business. Why employ Cohen when someone else will gladly do things he won't?
"It's cut down my business dramatically," he said. "I make a living. But do I do as well as some of the others? Absolutely not."
This game, in 99 percent of the cases, is about breeding and DNA. If you have the bloodstock ... you can get to the promised land.
"-- Dr. Russell Cohen, Tri-Bone Stables manager
Cohen has the upmost respect for trainers whom he believes still go about things the right way. When asked to name someone he would recommend who wins races and does so without the slightest hint of scandal, Cohen came up with Jimmy Jerkens.
"Jimmy is a consummate horseman and so is his assistant, Steve Moyer," he said. "This is someone I can vouch for and there are others. He is 100 percent on the level."
As far as other trainers go, without naming names, Cohen said he believes part of the problem may be that they don't have any confidence in their own abilities.
"In some of those cases, I believe these guys must have a lack of faith in their own ability," he said. "They don't need drugs. This game, in 99 percent of the cases, is about breeding and DNA. If you have the bloodstock, and the bloodstock costs money, you can get to the promised land."
With Effinex, Cohen believes he has a horse with the genetic makeup to be a top horse. He is by Mineshaft, the former horse of the year, and his dam, What a Pear, won a couple of wintertime stakes at Aqueduct. Cohen believes the pedigree points to the colt being a late-developer who might be able to rise to the top after the others have fizzled out.
"I don't know if he's going to turn into his father, but who knows," Cohen said. "He'll get every opportunity. Is the Derby something I'd like to be in? Without question. It's been a dream of mine for 30 years."
He wants to get there, whether that means competing in the Derby or winning a major stakes race somewhere down the line. But it doesn't mean compromising his beliefs.