"Ricky is my brother and I don't want to get him thrown off the racetrack. But Ricky's not innocent. Ricky has had numerous violations and penalties. He has been counseled by many people. I've come down on him; so have a lot of others. He's had counseling. It's not the industry's fault. It's Ricky's fault. He's my brother. I love him and I respect him. But this is a nightmare, and it saddens me." -- Tony Dutrow, trainer.
Perhaps the 10 years imposed by New York authorities is a longer suspension than Rick Dutrow deserves. Perhaps not. Justice is often a subjective thing.
The record of transgression is clearly impressive, or shameful. Almost everything at the racetrack is subjective and Dutrow is not the sport's first wildly successful bad guy.
Almost everything at the racetrack is subjective and Dutrow is not the sport's first wildly successful bad guy.
He has been cited for 85 violations at 15 tracks in nine states through Dec. 9, 2011, according to data on file with the Association of Racing Commissioners International. The violations are for a variety of offenses, some trifling others serious -- from hiding workouts to bringing horses late to the paddock to repeated drug issues. In the 1990s, he served a five-year suspension in New York because of his own issues with substance abuse, but is not the drugs he ingests that is the current issue but the substances found in his horses.
There is, however, no arguing with success and Dutrow has enjoyed great success as a trainer, developing a Horse of the Year in Saint Liam, a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Big Brown, maintaining admirable win and in-the-money percentages. In a matter of three days at the recently concluded summer stand at Saratoga, he won a restricted stakes and the Grade 1 King's Bishop with New York-bred Willy Beamin. He is perennially among the nation's leading trainers in terms of earnings and he is at the moment enjoying a banner year while his attorney fights a 10-year suspension and $50,000 fine imposed almost a year ago by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, which cited several infractions including syringes containing a painkiller and sedative found in Dutrow's desk and the painkiller Butorphanol, an opium-based analgesic, found in the urine of a horse he trained, Fastus Cactus, in November 2010, after a win at Aqueduct.
Dutrow, never hesitant to insult the intelligence of others, told a hearing officer that he had no idea how the syringes got into his desk. A blood test of Fastus Cactus did not show any Butorphanol and Dutrow's expert witness offered the theory that the urine test might have been contaminated.
Dutrow served suspensions for drug violations in New York in 2003, 2004 and 2008 and based upon his record and the weight of fresh charges, state regulators handed down a 10-year-ban even as the Association of State Racing Commissioners International urged that he be banished for life, a suggestion well received in some segments of the racing community.
An initial appeal of the suspension found no sympathy in court, but, this week, Dutrow's attorney asked New York's highest court to overturn the suspension, claiming that it raises civil rights issues.
In requesting that the Court of Appeals hear Dutrow's case, attorney Michael Koenig said it should decide whether the appearance of bias by racing board Chairman John Sabini cost the trainer his right to a fair proceeding on drug violations. He claims that Sabini had a conflicting role as an officer of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which advocated, not without support, revoking Dutrow's license. All members of the organization are state regulators -- hence the name -- and the claim of conflict of interests may be a legal Hail Mary, particularly in the context of the charges having already been considered by a midlevel court, which upheld the ban and found no evidence of bias,
Dutrow, a paragon of arrogance, can afford the legal expenses involved in delaying the inevitable.
"In the absence of any proof that the chairman was biased and that the determination flowed from that bias, petitioner did not establish that he was deprived of a fair hearing," Assistant Solicitor General Kathleen Arnold wrote. She also said allegations Dutrow's punishment was "based on vindictiveness," and that the midlevel Appellate Division failed to substantially address that, is not a constitutional question.
Sabini's tenure at the racing board has not been without controversy and he is at every opportunity prone to grandstanding. The quarantine barn imposed upon Belmont Stakes horses and excessive testing of those in the Travers Stakes are indefensible examples of a politician wanting for a grasp of the sport's realities run amuck. And the 10-year suspension of Dutrow, no doubt influenced by peer pressure and public relations considerations, may be beyond reasonable. But Sabini is an issue for another time. Dutrow's future is the question at hand and there is little doubt that he has too long been spared penalty for his habitual transgressions.
Since he has made a great deal of money during the last decade and continues to do so as owners provide him an ample supply of horses, Dutrow, a paragon of arrogance, can afford the legal expenses involved in delaying the inevitable. Claiming a violation of civil rights may be a clear signal of waning ammunition, however. Still, this is a nation in which there is no time limit on due process, making it possible for Dutrow to reach retirement age before exhausting the supply of courts to petition.
Loaded syringes in a trainer's desk drawer should be worth a few years. A positive post-race test for an opium-based drug, in the eyes of proponents of one-strike and you're out, is worth a lifetime ban.
Ten years may be too long -- or, a reasonable compromise.
One thing is all too clear. Another slap on an obviously durable wrist will serve no purpose.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.