Banning Racing's 'Bad Boy' - by Evan Hammonds

 (Originally published in the October 22, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Evan Hammonds  

By Evan Hammonds

The decade-long ban and $50,000 fine handed down to trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board Oct. 12 was one of those stories that crossed over from the “racing” segment of the daily news churn to the mainstream. Headlines of a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer being ruled off racetracks in New York for 10 years conjure up dirty visions of scandal, cheating, and race-fixing in Thoroughbred racing. That’s not exactly the image the industry is trying to portray.

A few might argue that Dutrow is being made a scapegoat, that many of the 64 reported violations in nine states were for relatively minor violations such as not having the right paperwork for a horse, bringing a horse late to the paddock, and marijuana positives from the ’70s and early ’80s. However, the discoveries of the painkiller butorphanol in a urine sample of one of Dutrow’s runners in 2010 and hypodermic needles in a Dutrow barn were the tipping point, coming on the heels of Congressional threats of federal intervention if the sport didn’t clean its own house.

Those discoveries, plus the sheer number of violations and Dutrow’s seeming disregard for the rules have made the trainer a poster child for racing’s ills. Thus, the New York board’s action signals a major turning point from the industry’s history of slap-on-the-wrist penalties from regulators who have long handed out minimal fines and meaningless, short-term probations. The suspension was handed down to both punish Dutrow for his laundry list of violations and to send a message to the racing community that now is the time to draw a line in the sand. In order for the game to get cleaner, regulators need to get meaner.

Dutrow, far from an innocent bystander, was nevertheless in the wrong place with the wrong infraction at the wrong time.

Not in recent memory has a trainer been handed down so stiff a punishment.

One of the most prominent suspensions in recent years occurred in 2007 when the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority suspended trainer Patrick Biancone after the discovery of cobra venom in his Keeneland barn. The commission suspended Biancone for six months, and the trainer agreed not to seek a license for an additional six months. The suspension was extended to a year after the commission determined Biancone had violated the terms of the initial suspension.

Just three years ago Dutrow had scaled the pinnacle of the racing world, having saddled Big Brown to victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Preakness Stakes (both gr. I) while having a stable of graded stakes winners such as Benny the Bull, Kip Deville, and Frost Giant. In the wake of runner-up Eight Belles breaking down just past the finish line in the Derby, Dutrow unabashedly told national media that his classic winner—as well as all of his other horses—was routinely treated with the steroid Winstrol (stanozolol) even though he admitted he wasn’t sure of its benefits. While the drug was not illegal in most racing jurisdictions at the time, administration of anabolic steroids was seen in the public’s eye as a case of a trainer going to the edge—and perhaps beyond—to gain an advantage.

For now, racing’s bad boy has been granted a 30-day stay by a New York state judge, and an appeal will move the judgment from the NYSRWB to the state’s courts. We assume he’ll get a fair shake in the process. However, Dutrow has pushed the envelope with his training methods, and he’s pushed the buttons of state regulators from coast to coast.

The pendulum is swiftly swinging in favor of a cleaner game with the abolishment of steroids and more stringent guidelines for race-day medications, including Salix. However, racing’s regulators must be careful and can ill afford to pick and choose whom to penalize. Many in the industry view Dutrow’s 10-year ban as a positive step, but racing will only move forward if medication positives and rule violations are sanctioned with a level of consistency.

The ruling against Dutrow may have one sticking point. Trainer responsibility rules for drug positives were imposed at a time when most trainers had their horses under one shedrow. Testing has become very sophisticated, and the sport’s largest trainers today have multiple stables at multiple locations with multiple jurisdictions. However, regardless of the size of a trainer’s barn, a positive is a positive. There’s a level of fairness we all must adhere to, and the same rules need to apply to everybody.

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