Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Trainers

The Must-Reads, 2011

As each year comes to its end, I go through all the racing stories I’ve bookmarked or shared over the past 12 months and pluck together a short list of pieces that stand out, whether for great reporting or great storytelling. If you haven’t read the stories linked below yet, take a few minutes to enjoy some of the best turf journalism from 2011 before 2012 begins:

As 10-year ban hangs over Rick Dutrow, opinions vary about controversial horse trainer.” The definitive profile of the New York trainer, handed a record suspension this year, by Jerry Bossert for the New York Daily News.

For Pletcher, managing a training empire is all in a day’s work” Joe Drape on how he does it, for the New York Times.

Pletcher was an assistant to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, dubbed “The most interesting man in racing,” by Gary West this spring, in one of the last posts published on his Star-Telegram blog. That the formidable turf writer with the superb flapdoodle detector was let go by the newspaper was a loss for Texas racing. Fortunately for readers, West now appears on ESPN.

Claire Novak won her first Eclipse award this year with “Pressure off Durkin at Belmont,” about the announcer’s decision to step down from calling the Triple Crown races on NBC, but I’m biased toward her terrific Kentucky Derby week story, “The Inside Scoop: Why Calvin Borel owns the rail,” which appeared on Kentucky Confidential. For fun, and a touch of Gay Talese, Novak’s recounting of a New Orleans cabbie’s racetrack story can’t be beat.

At Suffolk Downs, a rider reached a significant milestone: “Piermarini gets win 2000 on Sugar Trade.” Susan Salk of Offtrack Thoroughbreds talked to Tammi Piermarini about becoming only the fifth female jockey in racing to crack 2K.

Ryan Goldberg added context and depth to this year’s intense (and ongoing) Lasix debate with his well-researched and matter-of-fact story for the Daily Racing Form, “Lasix: Demystifying the drug, methods of training without it.”

DRF photographer Barbara Livingston shared some marvelous historic racing photos from her private collection this year, as in this post: “Man o’ War’s funeral: Remarkable final tribute for majestic champion.” The great horse was laid out in a casket for viewing; thousands filed past to pay their respects.

In search of the Kelco.” Bill Christine, at HRI, on the handicapping gizmos of yesteryear (which gave me an excuse to post about the Race-o-meter).

Gray Thoroughbreds, a precious relic of the breed’s earliest days, became a rarity on the racecourse for a good part of the 19th century.” I had no idea. Kellie Reilly on the revival of grays in the 20th century, on BRISnet.

A Worthy Experiment

Select 2YOs from trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s barn are running Lasix-free:

“There’s so much talk of no Lasix, we decided not to run them on it until they need it,” McLaughlin said Monday at [Saratoga]. “No one told me I had to do this, I decided it.”

Good for him.

9/15/11 Addendum: Jeff Scott looks closer: “Lest anyone get the impression that McLaughlin’s four juveniles were the only 2-year-old starters not running on Lasix at the Spa, Equibase charts show there were 60 altogether, and they came from the barns of 25 different trainers.”

Tipping Point?


Dutrow in happier days.

“RICK DUTROW DONE,” was the search term that led someone to Railbird this morning, presumably seeking more on yesterday’s shocking news that the KHRC denied the trainer a Kentucky license because of his lengthy list of violations and license application inconsistencies. “I never thought I’d see the day when a big-name trainer was held to task for his misdeeds,” tweeted Ryan Goldberg. Regardless of what happens next, there’s no denying, as the Racing Post put it so well, that “controversial trainer Rick Dutrow hit a new career low” on Wednesday. He has a chance to hit another in May, when New York reviews his license, or possibly when his biggest client, IEAH, pulls its stock from his barn. “Obviously, we can’t be in a position where our horses can’t run in certain jurisdictions,” Michael Iavarone told DRF.

A restraining order will make it possible for Amen Hallelujah, entered by Dutrow before his hearing, to start in the Vinery Madison today*.

Brooklyn Backstretch has posted a timely interview with RCI president Ed Martin on Dutrow’s record and the letter Martin wrote to the NYSRWB in February calling for an examination of his license: “His record is his record.” That’s just it, and Dutrow doesn’t help himself when he makes excuses:

He also said any misinformation on his license applications were not intentional but were due to the fact others completed the paperwork for him, and he just signed it.

Or refuses to take responsibility:

Dutrow said that was because he could not remember whether the incident occurred within the time frame stipulated on the application, but the committee could get copies of his criminal record in order to get the specifics.

What made the KHRC decision all the more interesting was the context. It’s spring, and racing seems to be in the mood to clean house. The movement to ban raceday medications is suddenly gaining real momentum. The latest group to sign on is the Breeders’ Cup, which announced today that its board:

… also endorsed in principle the recently announced recommendation of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI) to eliminate the use of race-day medications in North American racing and decided to appoint a sub-committee with the objective of developing a plan and a timetable for the elimination of race-day medication in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

American racing is going drug-free! I don’t see what could stop … oh, right:

Saying they support efforts to limit race-day medications, two prominent Thoroughbred trainers said they hope the initiatives do not go so far as to ban use of the anti-bleeder drug known as Salix.

The horsemen are going to take to some work to win over:

The Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents all licensed owners and trainers, hasn’t discussed stricter medication rules, said president Rick Hiles, a trainer.

“We believe in therapeutic medications to help the animals,” he said, “so we’re probably not going to endorse it.”

But what about the celebrity owners, Mr. Hiles? Spare them a thought, as TDN publisher Barry Weisbord does in a column appearing yesterday:

When a prominent t.v. personality such as Bobby Flay or a successful young businessman like Mike Repole or Kevin Plank — any of whom could participate in any sport they’d like — decides to spend his free time participating in Thoroughbred racing, what do we do? We make it tougher on him by forcing him to continually answer this question: Why do you spend your time in an industry which drugs its athletes?

Asking them to answer that question, be it in the lead-up to a major race, or when they’re receiving some other recognition in their professional lives and the topic of racing comes up, is not only unfair, but has to diminish their enjoyment of their participation in racing.

Actually, I get this. When I talk to people who don’t know much about racing, the question of drugs often comes up, and I find myself choosing my words carefully and trying to tell the truth but not make it sound so, so bad. There’s a perception of shadiness attached to even the legal medications, regardless of their therapeutic qualities. Banning raceday drugs is about doing right by horses, and giving horseplayers and casual fans reason to trust in the integrity of the game — which is why all the meds, including Lasix, must go.

*Turns out, Amen’s start took a last-minute trainer change, an unusual move with implications for trainer responsibility (via @o_crunk).

4/15/11 Addendum: This is pretty funny:

Sallusto was not on the grounds for the [Vinery Madison], leaving jockey John Velazquez as the sole person to answer questions in the wake of the filly’s runner-up effort.

“No one,” was Velazquez’s response when asked who gave him pre-race instructions.

When asked whether he had talked with the trainer after the race, Velazquez replied, “Who is the trainer?”

Confusing Conditions

As racing secretaries scramble to fill cards, under pressure from year-round racing and declining horse populations, deciphering complex race conditions is becoming more difficult for handicappers, writes Bob Fortus:

Little by little, claiming races with restrictions started creeping into the programs. The ‘B’ races, which started on the East Coast several years ago, are the latest form of restricted claiming. In those races, it can be particularly difficult to single out horses as serious contenders.

Optional claiming/allowance races are common everywhere, too. Handicappers suddenly are confronted with questions they rarely would have encountered just a few years ago, such as, Can a sharp and capable 3-year-old with only two victories in his career beat a tough, old claiming horse with several career victories.

Steve Davidowitz wrote about how to spot live horses among “gobbledygook” conditions in a 2009 DRF+ column (via HRF). For more in-depth treatment, nothing beats James Quinn’s “The Handicapper’s Condition Book.”

Character Unbecoming

Roguish trainer Rick Dutrow is being called to account:

In a five-point “show cause” notice ordering Dutrow to appear before the board on March 30 and 31, the racing board states that the trainer is a “person whose conduct at racetracks in New York state and elsewhere has been improper, obnoxious, unbecoming and detrimental to the best interests of racing.”

I may have been wrong last month about the NYSRWB.

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