Thoroughbred racing may finally have its Triple Crown winner, but it's not what anyone wanted.
The convicted drug offenders have now swept racing's Holy Grail. First, Steve Asmussen's Curlin captured the 2007 Preakness, followed three weeks later by Todd Pletcher's Rags to Riches in the Belmont Stakes. Had you ran those two races in January of 2007, the classic-winning trainers would have been Scott Blasi and Anthony Sciametta. Why? Asmussen and Pletcher opened the year banned from training as they sat out suspensions for medication violations. And now comes the poster child for questionable-character trainers, Rick Dutrow, with his Kentucky Derby 134-winning Big Brown. Dutrow spent a good chunk of 2006 banned from the racetrack and his own barn, leaving the "official" training duties to assistant Juan Rodriguez.
The inmates officially are running the asylum.
Insular and insecure racing officials, fans and pundits cringe at the first mention of negativity toward the game, fearing bad publicity could push the teeter-totter that is horse racing completely off the public charts. When outside media-types make their annual cup-of-coffee visits to the racetrack and come away with negative stories, it's dismissed as salacious media coverage and people who don't get the game.
As a person who has worked the bulk of my professional life in and around the racing industry, and could read the Daily Racing Form before my first schoolbook, I'm here to tell you that even I am sick of it.
I pride myself on being very objective in terms of historical hysteria. Often, you'll find my writing and personal comments cautionary toward others to not jump to conclusions; that the grass was not necessarily greener in the old days, or on the other side; and that today's 24-7 media coverage can grossly overstate something that was once a local story into a national epidemic. And, believe me; I recognize that underhanded tactics have been a part of horse racing since the first gallopers.
But racing's biggest current paydays continue to go to the same crowd: those who share time on the "rulings" list almost as much as the national leaderboard.
In the past year alone, the roll call of A-list race victories from recent, convicted medication violators include the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes and Dubai World Cup, as well as the Breeders' Cup Classic, Turf, Mile, Filly & Mare Turf, Filly & Mare Sprint and Juvenile Turf (a race Nownownow won for an assistant trainer while skipper Patrick Biancone was suspended for possession of cobra venom in his barn).
The last three Horse of the Year winners, Saint Liam (Dutrow), Invasor (Kiaran McLauglin) and Curlin (Asmussen), all saw their trainers serve medication-based suspensions within a year of winning their industry-leading hardware.
Big Brown's part-owner IEAH Stable is a syndicate (group partnership) headed by Michael Iavarone. They have had a meteoric run in the past few years in the racing game behind, no doubt, hard work and intelligent decisions. But they also carry a cloud of question since it was their horse, A One Rocket, who was the focus of a federal indictment that included racehorse doping (via "milkshake") and organized crime. Their former trainer, Greg Martin, pled guilty and IEAH moved their horses elsewhere following his racetrack ban. Let me be clear that IEAH was not implicated in the fiasco, but we're often judged in life's court of public opinion by the company and friends we keep.
This is not to be the squeaky wheel or a Monday-Morning Quarterback and complain. Nor is it any sort of angst from a gambler who lost money and is looking for a sounding board. It's about an industry looking itself in the mirror and owning up to itself before it's too late.
The downward spiral only figures to worsen before it gets better. Imagine being a rival trainer, watching those you know who have cut corners garner all the money and limelight, without being caught. What tremendous temptation and incentive it must be to keep up with the Joneses. Let's not be too altruistic and pure here. Few, if any, horsemen these days are running on hay, oats and water. But there's a big difference between feed supplements and legal race-day meds versus painkillers and nerve agents.
For whom the Belle tolls
Meanwhile, racing cannot continue to cling to its "unfortunate part of the game" answer when it comes to catastrophic breakdowns in nationally televised races. The Eight Belles tragedy follows well-known horses like Barbaro, George Washington and Pine Island in recent years, all who met their maker following sickening national TV sagas.
Initially, trainer Larry Jones said he was not inclined to run fillies against the boys. As time progressed, owner Rick Porter and Jones caught Derby fever. I do not claim that Eight Belles was lame before the Derby; I have no earthly capability of doing so. But I did find several red flags as a handicapper that made me think this trip could be her undoing. What a fantastic filly she was to have run second in the Kentucky Derby. Simply saying "it's an unfortunate part of the game" is a short-shrift approach that does not do this hard-trying horse justice.
The truth of the matter is, and I wrote about it on multiple occasions in terms of handicapping the Derby, Eight Belles had a history of bad acting in her past races, gallops and workouts, tossing her head around and ducking in and out. While I am by no means a horseman, nor do I claim to be, it's almost universally spoken by horsemen that horses will tell you when something may be wrong. This kind of erratic motion often is due to physical inadequacies on one side of the horse's frame or the other.
Complete autopsy reports should be public knowledge as to any clues to the reasons why this might have happened. Maybe there's nothing to it; let's hope. But if there is anything questionable, everyone involved from the horsemen to the fans would be better off knowing. I wholeheartedly want to find out that everything was on the up and up. But I also don't want to go through life irresponsibly assuming so.
Standing along the rail wondering why the cheaters can't be beat and why so many of the game's most-talented stars are dying on the racetrack can't go on much longer. At least not for me; and I hardly rate as an activist or a tree-hugger, but rather as a racing die-hard. Unfortunately, that ship already has sailed for most of the game's would-be fringe fans.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributing columnist since 2000.
You can E-mail him about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@horseplayerpro.com.