Updated on 09/16/2011 7:58AM

Appearance is everything

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WASHINGTON - When War Emblem ran in the Haskell Invitational on Sunday at Monmouth Park, his presence produced the expected excitement. A crowd of 45,212 packed the Oceanport, N.J., track to see the nation's star 3-year-old. The Haskell had a predictable outcome as War Emblem won easily, but it also produced an unexpected result: a controversy over ethics.

A few days before the race, Bill Finley reported in The New York Times that trainer Bob Baffert received a $50,000 "appearance fee'' for bringing War Emblem to Monmouth. Last year the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority, which runs the track, paid him the same amount for entering Point Given in the Haskell.

Was this appropriate? From the racetrack's standpoint, it certainly made sense. A Kentucky Derby winner such as War Emblem is always a big box-office attraction. Moreover, paying an appearance fee is a better way to attract a top horse than offering special enticements - such as a favorable weight assignment - that compromise the integrity of the game. Monmouth officials extended the offer to Baffert in June.

After the revelation that he had taken these payments and hadn't told the colt's owner or the stable manager about them, Baffert issued a statement saying that he would donate half of the fee to charity. And he defended his actions, saying, "Fees for public appearances and other promotional work are common in other sports."

Yes, Tiger Woods and Venus Williams receive appearance fees, too. Nobody would question the propriety if a racetrack paid Baffert to make an appearance, give interviews, sign autographs, etc. But Monmouth Park was paying $50,000 for the presence of War Emblem, who is owned by The Thoroughbred Corporation. By all rights, that money belongs to the owner, not the trainer.

If there is an appropriate analogy to other sports, it might be this: A golf promoter wants Tiger Woods for a tournament and offered an appearance fee to his agent. The agent pockets the money without telling the golfer and books him for the tournament.

The late Prince Ahmad bin Salman, who created The Thoroughbred Corp., doubtless would have shrugged off any concerns about this issue; $50,000 was pocket change to a fabulously wealthy man who owned more than 250 high-class Thoroughbreds. The troubling ethical question is this: Did the fee sway Baffert's judgment?

Of all the canons of horse training, the holiest is this: Do what is right for the animal. A trainer's decisions are supposed to be guided by this rule - not by personal ambitions or the desire for personal gain. Little more than two weeks before the Haskell, Baffert said publicly that he would skip the Monmouth race because it wasn't in the horse's best interests.

He said he worried that New Jersey heat, as well as the 124 pounds that War Emblem would have to carry, might take too much of a toll on the colt. He told Daily Racing Form: "I know he got the same weight as Point Given last year, but Point Given weighed 1,300 pounds and this horse weighs 1,020. The prince wanted to keep him fresh to run in the Breeders' Cup Classic. ... I don't want to run him too many times." Baffert said he would not run War Emblem until the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 25.

Four days later a Daily Racing Form headline read: "War Emblem does flip-flop." Baffert and Richard Mulhall, racing manager of The Thoroughbred Corp., had changed their minds. In the interim, Came Home, the speedster who would have been War Emblem's main rival, had withdrawn from the race. The Haskell was shaping up as a cakewalk with a $1 million purse. And War Emblem had been training well. The reasons for the flip-flop seem transparent - until the revelation about the $50,000 fee. The only reason for Monmouth to offer an appearance fee is to persuade a trainer to do something he otherwise might not. A trainer with a good 3-year-old has plenty of options at this time of year, and this money is designed to make the Haskell look like the most attractive option. The money is offered to the trainer, not the owner, to achieve maximum leverage. Why not offer it to the owner? An added $50,000 would boost the winner's purse from $600,000 to $650,000 - no big deal. But assuming Baffert earns the typical 10 percent, his earnings go from $60,000 to $110,000 - a significant incentive.

A trainer's decision should not be determined, or even slightly influenced, by such an enticement because he should be ethically bound to make decisions purely in the interests of the owner and his horse.

Thoroughbred owners incur enormous expenses, shoulder all the risks of the game, and pay their trainers very well. Baffert's 10 percent of the purse winnings of Point Given and War Emblem add up to $700,000. For such money, a trainer owes his absolute loyalty to the owner.

Running War Emblem in the Haskell was almost certainly the right move - but Baffert should want to avoid any hint of impropriety by collecting a fee to do it. He has done a masterful job managing his 3-year-olds such as War Emblem and Point Given; he shouldn't tarnish his reputation by making everyone wonder if he is putting his personal interests ahead of his horses and the owners who employ him.

(c) 2002 The Washington Post