Under ordinary circumstances, Ill Have Another is a horse that would be riding a wave of support as the Kentucky Derby winner approaches Saturday’s Preakness. He was convincing in Louisville, but the wait is beyond too long and the school of thought that expects to never see another Triple Crown winner gains believers with every failure.
This is, however, a game for optimists.
The Derby winner has generated little buzz, however. He is essentially the Big Brown of 2012, an obviously talented colt connected to people for whom it is difficult to root. While the horse is not responsible for its connections, they become inseparable in terms of perception on a stage this brightly lit. Complicating I’ll Have Another’s potential ascent to fame is a racing landscape cluttered with lingering issues, alleged crimes and eroding prospects that of late have conspired to dominate the conversation.
Trainer Doug O’Neill, it has been noted, is the West Coast equivalent to Rick Dutrow: a good horsemen, inarguably successful, but known to be at odds with authorities; colorful while operating on the fringes and owner of a record of transgression. Owner J. Paul Reddam, whose CashCall is a mortgage lender that has seen its share of negative headlines, is not exactly a warm and fuzzy figure whose horse is attempting to clear the second hurdle of the Triple Crown. Dutrow is now mired in court battles, fighting assaults on his racing license in Kentucky and New York, and four years after Big Brown, the owner, IEAH Stable, is a faint shadow of its former self. If Ill Have Another wins the Preakness on Saturday and moves on to New York in position to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, the people to whom he is connected will come under the magnification of scrutiny to which the sport at large has been subjected in recent months. Dutrow was, not without some justification, drawn and quartered during the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes of 2008, as were the principals of IEAH.
You work with what you’ve got, but horse racing needs some good news — a Funny Cide or Smarty Jones type of story — now perhaps more than ever. What it has is controversy over chemicals; injuries; scandal centered upon institutional malfeasance in the nation’s most important market; an assault by a state government against an organization dedicated to the welfare of horses that would otherwise be abandoned or, worse, slaughtered; business setbacks on many fronts; and background noise provided by high-profile animal rights activists.
You know that sharks are thick in the water when the ultimately fatal breakdown of a steeplechase horse after winning a race in Tennessee makes nationwide news reports, as it did over the weekend. In another year, the incident would have not been mentioned beyond Nashville.
There is bad news on every front:
Racing’s principal stakeholders — owners, trainers and breeders — remain at loggerheads over medication, agreeing that reform is long overdue but disagreeing on its form. The New York Racing Association has fired two former key executives, and most observers await the descent of a second shoe in the form of indictments for what amounts, allegedly, to having subjected the customers to premeditated institutional larceny in the form of illegally elevated takeout rates. NYRA now faces what amounts to an ad hoc takeover by the state. Regulatory incompetence may have contributed mightily to this maelstrom. The attorney general of New York has filed suit against executives of the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund, the oldest of the nation’s many horse rescue organizations, based upon alleged transgressions cited by what the group contends are questionable reports that appeared originally in The New York Times. Churchill Downs Inc., of which the landmark racetrack in Louisville is now more namesake than bedrock income property, is threatening to scale down its racing schedule to the status of “boutique” meetings. The sport battles for survival in Maryland and New Jersey. Kentucky’s racetracks, denied casinos, are essentially sentenced to death. The lunatic fringe of animal rights advocates continues to nip at racing’s heels beneath darkening clouds of potential federal regulatory intervention.
Nothing rekindles debate quite like the spring season, which renews a narrowed mainstream media focus not only on the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown but in recent years more on racing’s long-festering issues, notably medication. The jaundiced public perception of the sport is only exacerbated by agenda-driven, seasonally convenient news reports designed to provoke reaction rather than offer an accurate, thoughtful depiction of the prevailing climate.
Particularly offensive: The repeated use of the term “doping” in the media is both common and grievously misleading. Medications currently in use and the subject of debate are intended not to produce enhanced performance but to sustain the ability to engage in training and racing. They are not all beneficial to the animal over the long term or always used wisely. But “doping” implies something altogether different, and performance-enhancing substances are already illegal.
Quite likely, the threat of federal regulatory intervention will abate in an election year as politicians concerned more with re-election than Lasix fry bigger fish and the media returns racing to the realm of subjects ignored, but the longstanding issues will not disappear in the face of inaction.
There is a modicum of ivory tower support for a complete ban of race-day medication that sounds well-meant but is in fact impractical, if not irresponsible. The only reasonable approach toward thoughtful reform seen to date is proposed by the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, the leadership of which proposes:
A threshold of two micrograms of phenylbutazone (Bute) in postrace testing for all runners, not just graded stakes horses. Currently, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board rule mandates a 48-hour withdrawal for Bute for all horses.
Elimination of “adjunct” race day medication used in some jurisdictions, notably Kentucky, to prevent exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage. These are not permitted in New York.
A 15-day withdrawal for Depo-Medrol (methylprednisolone acetate). A four-day withdrawal for other corticosteroids.
A seven-day withdrawal for clenbuterol. The current withdrawal period in New York is four days.
Third-party administration of Lasix on race day. Lasix will be administered by veterinarians hired by either the association or the state. This is the current NYRA policy, but would become a state regulation.
(Disclosure: The author is owner of a horse that races in New York and has signed a letter directed to the state racing board in support of these measures.)
Another school of thought contends that withdrawal dates for corticosteroids of any type as well as clenbuterol should be longer than those suggested by NYTHA, if not banned altogether, but every debate requires a starting point. This is not an all-or-nothing issue.
Crime-and-punishment stories will unfold over the course of time. States tend to find ways to sustain their racing industries, if at no more than a subsistence level. Kentucky, without casinos, will find that Churchill Downs is first responsible to shareholders and will watch horsemen and breeding stock move to New York. Rescue organizations, despite criticism, will continue to do good work. Animal rights activists will likely occupy the streets adjacent to the Pimlico backstretch on Saturday and find themselves widely ignored by racing fans. Inside, I’ll Have Another will attempt to move a race closer to the first Triple Crown in 34 years. But the medication issue will linger long after the season of 2012 moves into the summer, fall and toward the Breeders’ Cup.
After most of these plotlines arrive at their conclusions, the discussion of medication reform will remain on the table. Chances are, the debate may last as long as the Triple Crown draught. Unless, that is, I’ll Have Another rises to the occasion.