Tuesday, May 10, 2011
The fresh face of horse racing
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
OK, Barry Irwin is not the most diplomatic person, maybe he picked the wrong time and place to make his infamous "I got tired of trainers lying to me" comment, and if you called him arrogant or a pain in the butt you wouldn't be alone. And I wish this sport had about 1,000 more just like him.
Irwin, the president of Team Valor International, the syndicate that owns Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, is honest and he expects the same from the people he deals with and the sport he competes in. To him, anything less is totally unacceptable. Unfortunately, that makes him the square peg in this round hole of a sport where all manners of duplicity are commonplace. Whether it's drugging horses, duping gullible owners at the sales or trainers lying to owners, the sport as a whole has too long looked the other way, accepting the unacceptable. Irwin refused to do so. Good for him.
Long before Animal Kingdom came around, Irwin gave a bunch of horses to trainer Ralph Nicks. Nicks and veterinarian David Bryant were suspended 15 days and fined $500 after the vet was caught injecting a Team Valor horse before a 2004 race at Belmont. Immediately, Nicks was fired.
"Team Valor has a zero-tolerance policy with regards to drugs," Irwin said at the time. "We had no choice other than to do what we did. This was the most difficult business decision I've ever had to make, because we like Ralph and we think he is an outstanding horseman."
Nicks is hardly the sport's worst miscreant and has stayed out of trouble since. But he did something wrong, was caught and had to go.
Not many owners would have done that. Owners want trainers that win and there aren't that many who care how they do it. For a trainer to get a reputation as a cheat is sometimes the best thing that can happen to them as it means that there will be no shortage of owners beating down their door asking them to take their horses and work their "magic."
Irwin apparently wants trainers that not only don't cheat but don't play games with him. He shouldn't have painted all his past trainers with such a broad brush when he made his post-race Derby comments, and he has since clarified that he was not referring to Animal Kingdom's former trainer Wayne Catalano or Todd Pletcher, who has trained several Team Valor horses. But have trainers lied to Irwin over the years? Without a doubt. He decided he wasn't going to put up with it.
So Irwin went out and found someone he could trust and someone who has a reputation for always playing by the rules. Rather than deal with a bunch of different trainers he put Graham Motion is charge of all his horses. Motion has never had a medication violation in a career that has spanned 19 years and includes more than 7,900 starters.
Not only is Motion honest, he's good. He's won with 19 percent of his starters during his career and with Animal Kingdom he pulled off the difficult feat of taking a horse that had never run on dirt and winning the toughest dirt race in the world.
It's a shame that Motion and Irwin still saw fit to run Animal Kingdom, a perfectly healthy horse with no apparent history of bleeding, on a drug, Lasix. But as long as the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission allows the use of drugs in the Derby and all other races in the state, perhaps it's just too much to ask for anyone to run without the obvious advantages of legal drugs coursing through the horse's system. After all, everyone else does it.
At a time when the federal government is breathing down horse racing's neck and threatening to take drastic measures to clean up the game, the last thing the sport needed was for someone with a checkered past or tainted image to win the Kentucky Derby. What we got instead was an honest trainer, an outspoken, brash owner who believes in integrity and a horse that, except for Lasix, was no doubt running chemical free.
At least until the Preakness, they will be the face of racing. And that's a good thing.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Whether it's drugging horses, duping gullible owners at the sales or trainers lying to owners, the sport as a whole has too long looked the other way, accepting the unacceptable. Irwin refused to do so.