Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dutrow suspension sends a bit of a message

Doubling the penalty recommended by Kentucky stewards and a hearing officer, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission on Tuesday slapped trainer Rick Dutrow with a 30-day ban for a Clenbuterol positive dating back more than a year ago at Churchill Downs.

Dutrow's horse Salute the Count had finished second in the $100,000 Aegon Turf Sprint-G3 at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2008, the day before his horse Big Brown romped home the easy winner of the Kentucky Derby. And the most maddening truth of the violation, the 30-day ban, and the 14 months in between is that Dutrow has admitted that the Clenbuterol positive was a fact.

Salute the Count tested positive for the bronchial dialator, which increases lung capacity and also has some "steroidal properties." Clenbuterol is an approved medication for racehorses, but its use is not permitted on race-day. Stewards hit Dutrow with a 15-day suspension, but in what has become a routine for any conditioner accused of a violation, Dutrow filed an appearl.

It was October 2008 before hearing officer James Robke recommended that the stewards' suspension not be upheld due to questions about procedures used during the testing. The KHRC postponed its action on the hearing officer's report and punted the case back to Robke. Then, on April 23 this year, Robke held a hearing in which Dutrow testified that the violation was true, saying he didn't realize an employee had administered the Clenbuterol too close to a race date, but admitting that the positive result was accurate and took responsibility for the actions of his barn.

This time, Robke recommended that the 15-day ban -- which Dutrow had stalled for nearly a year already -- be upheld.

It seems that stalling was what eventually got Dutrow slapped with an extra 15 days, and it's good to see a message finally being delivered by those who are charge of running a clean game. The KHRC emerged from what must've been a spirited closed-door meeting Tuesday -- more than 14 months after the violation -- with a 6-5 vote to suspend Dutrow for 30 days rather than the original 15.

"They considered that he had recognized that he had made a mistake but that he had delayed (the punishment)," said KHRC Executive Director Lisa Underwood. But, Underwood noted, the KHRC also took into account that Dutrow had "flagrantly worked the system."

Trainers have figured out that appealing a suspension will give them time not only to mount a challenge if they still believe in their innocence, but also to merely stave off the punishment until a time more convenient to them. Churchill's meet ended Sunday. Dutrow not only made it through the rest of the 2008 Churchill spring meet during which his barn's violation occurred, but he skated through the track's fall 2008 meet and the entire spring 2009 meeting before the KHRC finally caught up to him for an infraction that the trainer himself conceded was committed.

The 6-5 vote makes it apparent that not everyone was in agreement with the stiffer penalty, though Underwood said the maximum suspension for a Clenbuterol violation is twice that -- 60 days. It's worth a round of applause among racing fans and horseplayers that the hard-liners won out, albeit narrowly, sending a message to all trainers through the punishment of Dutrow that when you're guilty, it's better to serve the time than to play games with the regulators.

"They want to take their charge seriously," Underwood said of the KHRC. "I think a lot of what is going through the commissioner’s minds is to protect the integrity of racing. It’s offensive to the betting public to see trainers who have a violation and who have admitted to the violation, to still be out there.

"Steward" indeed is a powerful word. Whether it's the stewards at the track or the officials who serve on higher regulatory boards and state agencies, we as fans, breeders, owners, horsemen, horseplayers and anyone else associated with the industry entrust the very integrity of the game to their heads, hearts and hands. It's good to see the KHRC, even divided 6-5, step up and say to trainers that it's time to start following the both the letter and the spirit of the rules, and to stop gaming the system.

"We are stewards of the sport," Underwood said, "and we want to protect the integrity and perception and we want the betting public to have confidence in the sport."

Another step toward establishing that integrity nationwide would be a centralized clearinghouse for maintaining records of all violations and penalties. Anyone can visit the KHRC's Web site and read up on all the violations, and the sactions levied, in Kentucky during the past few years. For instance, Dutrow was fined $1,000 on April 11 for running a horse at Keenland on April 4 without holding a current training license. But this information is not as readily available from all states, and it certainly isn't accessible in a one-stop shop for all U.S. or North American violations.

I certainly don't see anyone volunteering for that job, but it would be quite a service to the racing community, most notably to its fans and horseplayers -- who deserve to see a clean race -- and to owners who wish to fully screen potential trainers, veterinarians, riders and other track employees before hiring them.


  1. While its nice to see that Dutrow will have to start his horses under an assistant trainers' name 30 rather than 15 days, it's alarming that he was just one swing voter short of not even getting that.

    Its better than nothing, better than usual even, but its still a fairly minor penalty, and Dutrow's horses will still be allowed to start.

    Still a long road ahead...

    On a sidenote: It wouldn't be the Prawdahor.., err Bloodhorse, if they hadn't added an overly enthusiastic second story to this article, culminating in the words "Finally everyone is starting to understand there are a certain number of management problems, but on the outside we are running a clean show."

    Sure, how could they not?

  2. Indeed it's hardly a harsh penalty. Thirty days and, as you note, assistants will saddle the horses and otherwise pretty much business as usual.

    Reform comes in baby steps, I guess. Baby steps.

  3. Seems a little ridiculous to punish Dutrow for "working the system" when the system permits him to do so--if it's the system that's the problem, then change it. How can you fault a person for taking advantage of the opportunities that the commission offers him?

    Dutrow is far too easy of a target here--I wonder how if they'd taken a similar action with a trainer who'd done what he did.

  4. Another interesting point.

    Certainly there needs to be an appeals process anytime someone stands the risk of being punished for his actions. But you're right that the system can only be "worked" if it allows itself to be "worked."

    By the same token, it's hard for Dutrow or his supporters to make much of a case that he's getting jobbed. If a guy's an "easy target" it's because he's made himself one; built a reputation over the years of doing just this sort of thing.

    It is not dissimilar from how the U.S. criminal justice system works. There are procedures and policies designed to serve the public interest while protecting the rights of all involved, from victim, to law enforcement, to the accused. But some defense attorneys are better than others at stringing the system along, until they run into the sort of judge who puts a stop to it, sometimes by giving a harsher sentence than the defendant might have gotten if he'd just accepted his punishment and not wasted the court's time.

  5. Good response, Glenn. I wanted to point out the same. In the justice system there are ramifications for this kind of behavior, too.

    I'm the last one to defend the KHRC's doping policy and the first one to call their amount of self-glorification ridiculous (given that they have come to a 6-5 decision to dole out a punishment that at the end of the day is still extremely soft by International and ethical standards).

    However, there is a difference between appealing a sentence because you disagree with it and doing so just to stall the process. I find it absolutely okay to add to the punishment in cases where "stalling" was obviously the only reason for an appeal.

    Plus, even if they are easy targets - the likes of Ziadie and Dutrow (to only name today's hot candidates) are more than deserving targets. They deserve to be booted out of this sport, and it doesn't have to be a soft kick.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.