There haven't been too many Preakness favorites on the track quite like Big Brown. And there haven't been too many Preakness trainers around the barns quite like Rick Dutrow.
Dutrow is friendly. He's engaging. He's funny.
But he's also a busted cheater. Accused, fined and suspended for running horses with illegal amounts of drugs in their systems.
You're excused if you're a bit conflicted about whether to root for Dutrow in tomorrow's 133rd Preakness. The story should be about a local boy who has come home and finds himself within spitting distance of one of sports' biggest honors. As exciting as this Triple Crown chase is, though, Dutrow's pursuit feels an awful lot like Barry Bonds taking aim at Hank Aaron's record. If you listen closely, there's more whispering around Dutrow than in a crowded movie theater.
"I've had one drug-related suspension," Dutrow said yesterday, "which was total bull----."
He's referring to his 60-day suspension in 2005 when two of his horses tested positive for a local anesthetic called Mepivacaine.
"Total bull----," he said of the charge. "That's the only drug I've been in trouble with on the racetrack other than me. So I've only had one. Everybody keeps saying a lot of them. It's one that I know of. If you look it up, I'm sure you'd find that."
But it's not the only one. It's just the only one he acknowledges. His trainer report, maintained by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, reveals a rap sheet as long as Interstate 95 - with dozens of offenses that actually dot Interstate 95, from Florida to Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey and many in New York, where his operations are headquartered. (He has also found trouble in California, Minnesota and Ontario.)
Dutrow has been fined or suspended each of the past eight years for doping-related offenses, most recently a pair of $500 fines in January for illegal amounts of Phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug, at Gulfstream Park in Florida. According to the report, his horses have also tested positive for illegal amounts of Clenbuterol, a respiratory drug, and Lasix, an anti-bleeding medication. Told there are others, he only acknowledges the 2005 charge, which he maintains was bogus.
The ARCI report actually contains 72 total entries. Thirteen are for drug-related offenses. Many of the entries are for minor violations - not having the proper paperwork or a late scratch here and there. And many others center on Dutrow, not his horses. Several marijuana offenses. A suspension in Maryland 28 years ago for "allegedly participating in a scheme involving stolen checks, forgeries ... and cashing checks under false pretenses." A 1991 suspension in New York for attempting "to provide a false urine sample by means of an apparatus concealed upon his person." Fined in 2003 for "being the aggressor in an altercation."
Dutrow is refreshingly open. He doesn't make excuses about his past and owns up to his personal transgressions. It all has played a role in him getting to this point, he figures, high atop the racing world with the most dominant 3-year-old in the field.
While Dutrow admits he used illegal drugs, he vehemently denies that his horses ever have.
"I don't care what anybody writes or says, we do things the right way around our horses," he says.
"And I know there's people that don't. I'm in the game, I know what's happening. When these kind of guys beat me, I don't like it because I know what they're up to."
Comments like that are why it's so difficult to discern whether Dutrow's reputation or his brazen speech is more believable. When it comes to drugging horses, he's especially passionate - which made a particular exchange yesterday outside the barn all the more curious.
Dutrow was asked about Winstrol, the anabolic steroid that the trainer acknowledges he gives his horses on a monthly basis. Winstrol is the same steroid that has been linked to Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and Ben Johnson. Unlike other sports, horse racing has no uniform rules, but Winstrol is not considered a banned substance.
Dutrow was asked why he uses the drug.
"You'd have to ask the vet what the purpose of that is," he said. "I don't know what it does. I just like using it."
You like using it, but you don't know what it does? Why would you like using it if you don't know what it does? You must see something?
"No," he said. "I don't."
Do you see something from not using it?
"No," he said.
This is why your conflicted feelings about Dutrow are understandable. No doubt he cares about his horses, but to suggest that he doesn't know why he uses the steroid is absurd. Trainers monitor every little thing that goes into their horses. None of it is happenstance. You don't take an injectable shot of steroids for good luck.
"I know what I do," Dutrow said. "I take care of my horses the right way. I train them as good as I think that I can. I stay on it all the time. I don't get there by cheating or drugging. Look how good my horses look. Just go into the stables and look at my horses. That tells you everything. And go do it with a couple of other clowns that I can lay names on you and see what they're doing with their horses.
"I put a lot of money into our horses. They don't. They bed them on the ground, they give them the worst hay they can possibly find. I go overboard. I spend $5,000 a month on mints. I mean, come on."
Just about every trainer you meet will acknowledge drugs are a problem in the racing game - usually someone else's problem. The sport somehow has escaped serious scrutiny even though some of its top trainers have embroiled themselves in controversy.
No one has won more these past few years than Todd Pletcher. He was slapped with a 45-day suspension in 2004 for a positive test. And don't forget last year's Preakness winner. Steve Asmussen, Curlin's trainer, served a six-month suspension in 2006 after one of his horses was found with 750 times the legal limit of mepivacaine. For Asmussen, it's one of 22 drug-related offenses on his record.
These are the people charged with salvaging a sport teetering on the edge of relevance.
The best thing horse racing has going for it is the Triple Crown, and it really would be great to see the 30-year drought end. But it's a legit question to ask: If Rick Dutrow is able to win all three jewels, is he the best one to wear the crown? Is he and his long rap sheet really the best thing for this embattled sport?