08/24/2009 11:00PM

Author has no fear of sacred cows


TUCSON, Ariz. - This is about a new book, which some in racing thought could never be written, others hoped would never be written, and more contend should never have been written. It has been, however, and will fuel the fires of racing debates for long to come.

It is "Headless Horsemen: A Tale of Chemical Colts, Subprime Sales Agents, and the Last Kentucky Derby on Steroids." It was written by Jim Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, master of Two Bucks Farm in Versailles, Ky., and breeder of the 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos.

Editors delight in working with words, and Squires is good at it. The title refers to leaders of Thoroughbred racing, and Squires uses his editorial broadsword to behead most of them. He sets the tone early, writing of Kentucky's horse auctions, "There is no backstabbing at Kentucky horse sales, just frontstabbing, usually by slick, smiling charlatans armed only with deception and a sharp mastery of a flawed system that promotes fleecing of the unaware."

Squires engages in some homilies about farm life. He spends considerable time extolling the virtues of his life companion and guiding compass, his well-educated biochemist wife Mary Anne, referred to here as "the dominant female."

Then, in his chapter titled The Last Steroid Derby, he turns to the subject of chemical colts. Squires says the truth, as insiders know, is that the longer horses are on a steroid regimen, the more likely they are to be permanently damaged. He says long-term regimens not only deplete hormones and retard liver function, but also strip muscles of the fat between the sinews, increasing the chance of tendons and ligaments stripping away from the bones during exercise. Steroids are now largely banned in racing horses, but Squires says they are used regularly in yearling preparation and beyond,

He writes about the cowboys who have changed Thoroughbred racing, starting with Rex Ellsworth, including D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, and winding up with a man he admires greatly and knows was wronged: Larry Jones, the trainer of Eight Belles.

Squires pens a vigorous and impassioned defense of Jones, saying he was maligned so unfairly and inaccurately that it changed his life and led to his announced retirement from racing. In a poignant passage, he quoted Jones's requiem for Eight Belles, told to a racing crowd: "I was the lucky one to see her come into the barn as a long-legged gangly two-year-old . . . lucky enough to see her turn into a lovely, gallant and courageous racehorse. She stole a piece of my heart that day, and when she fell . . . she ripped a big piece of my heart right out."

Squires quotes one of his good guys, Arthur Hancock, an implacable foe of illegal medication, telling a Congressional committee that racing "is a rudderless ship, and the way we are going we will all end up on the rocks." Hancock said racing needed federal control. He mentioned 10 leading racing organizations and 38 state racing commissions, calling them "fiefdoms . . . with Nero-like CEOs, each one envisioning himself as the savior of racing and most not even owning a horse. . . . "No one is in charge," he told the House committee, possibly inspiring the title of Squires's book.

The brilliant John Gaines once told Squires he was "a mere pygmy, with no value in dealing with industry pooh-bahs." Squires says Gaines had that right, and he was not insulted, nor did it affect his great admiration for Gaines.

Pygmy or giant, Squires is a Marxist (Groucho, not Karl), invoking the late comedian's maxim that any group that would have him as a member he would have no interest in joining.

Squires talks of the Breeders' Cup, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and the New York Racing Association, saying "they all plod along in lockstep with The Jockey Club." He quotes journalist Ray Paulick, former editor of Blood-Horse and now editor of his own daily newsletter, as calling The Jockey Club's annual Round Table in Saratoga Springs "a throat-clearing exercise for industry pooh-bahs," controlled by Ogden Mills Phipps, whom Squires credits, along with Will Farish, as the de facto rulers of American racing. Phipps is chairman and Farish cochairman of The Jockey Club, and have been, Squires notes, for 27 years.

The billionaire Texan Robert McNair and Californian Gary Biszantz, founder of Cobra Golf - come off as heroes of realism and reform for their intransigence and refusal to follow the herd.

In two chapters - titled Shenanigans and Subprime Salesmanship - Squires unloads his heaviest editorial guns. He exposes what he says are practices that have damaged the sport, including horses that are sold before a sale even begins, and then run up for the profit of those involved. He tells how Jess Jackson and Satish Sanan, both very high-level victims, rebelled at this, and led to modest reforms that still fall short of optimum practice. He concludes, "These are neither isolated nor exaggerated incidents, but rather common occurrences at every sale in the last 20 years. While not illegal, they are hardly entertaining, victimless shenanigans. Moreover, sale scheming is only one wave of a plague of detrimental sale practices and trends that have left victims galore, including the quality of the horse, the health of the breeding industry, and the reputation and future of the sport itself."

Squires also indicts some veterinarians as part of the problem, and devotes pages to one of the very best - considered a master rogue by some, including Squires - Dr. Alex Harthill.

Squires closes his essay with this hopeful note: "The unexplainable addiction of people to life around a horse is why horse racing has survived all these years, and how it will survive the ravages of the economic downturn, the ire of its enemies, and the headless floundering of its leaders that comprised the cataclysm of 2008."

You will like or hate this book. But you won't put it down without reading every one of its 249 pages.