As a racing fan, I am filled anticipation as we approach the Kentucky Derby, this country’s most anticipated horse race. As a racing fan, I am dismayed that so much Derby attention is being focused on trainers with, shall we say, less than savory reputations.
Richard Dutrow, trainer of the acclaimed Big Brown, has racked up no fewer than four suspensions since 2005 (I didn’t research any further back than that, though I believe it would have been a fruitful search). In 2005, following a dropped appeal, Dutrow served sixty days (reduced from 120 in the hope of good behavior) for three separate violations: two for medications and one for entering a horse in a name other than the owner’s. In 2007, Dutrow served fourteen days for violating the terms of 2005 suspension; he served another seven days for overuse of an inflammatory; and he served an additional fourteen days for making “false and misleading” statements into the investigation of Wild Desert’s workouts. Stabled at Dutrow’s Aqueduct barn, the horse posted an official workout at Monmouth.
Steve Asmussen, trainer of the acclaimed Pyro, served essentially concurrent six month suspensions in Louisiana and New Mexico for separate medication violations–that would be twelve months of total suspensions. He has been cited twenty-two times for violations in his career (Washington Post).
As an educator, I believe that in most cases, students’ mistakes shouldn’t follow them around; kids should have the opportunity to make mistakes, and learn from them, and go forward without the burden of additional scrutiny. I guess in general I believe that most people when given the chance to learn from a mistake will do so.
I know that it’s a shaky parallel; students are not grown-ups, nor are they professionals, but they do inhabit a community in which integrity is a fundamental value, and upon which the successful functioning of the institution rests. The same is true of racing. So, I wonder, should we apply a similar standard to trainers? After all, one can make a case that some medication violations are honest mistakes; a medication positive doesn’t always indicate an intention to cheat. Perhaps accomplished, successful trainers should have the opportunity to move on without their former transgressions constantly being put in the foreground (which this post admittedly does).
The problem is that those of us not in the shedrow don’t know whether it’s in fact easy for these mistakes to be made. Can there be a reasonable, credible explanation for twenty-two medication violations? What’s the average number of violations a top-tier trainer accrues in a year? A history of repeated violations would seem to indicate that a trainer is not, in fact, learning from mistakes, and even I would have to be skeptical about a kid who makes the same mistake twenty-two times, or who violates disciplinary sanctions placed upon him or her.
The betting public, upon whose support racing depends for its financial success, needs to believe in the integrity of the game, and our sport, which is in many cases dying from a lack of fans, needs to avoid the common perception that the participants aren’t playing fair. Bettors need to be confident that one horse doesn’t have an unfair, undisclosed advantage over another. Race fans need to feel confident that the horses they love aren’t being put in jeopardy so that their trainers can win more races. Trainer suspensions make big headlines (a quick Internet search yields multiple detailed recounts of what I listed above) and contribute in large part to the sense that ours is a degenerate, untrustworthy pursuit.
So as much as I admire the accomplishments of Big Brown (whose maiden win at Saratoga I witnessed and which blew me away) and Pyro, I can’t help feeling uneasy as I read the intense coverage of these horses and their trainers, full of expectation and promise and praise. How can we love the horse, exult in his victory, while disapproving of his trainer? How can we celebrate equine accomplishment, when we can’t help but wonder what might have helped him get there?