01/26/2009 12:00AM

Latest supertrainer feat raises suspicion


WASHINGTON, D.C. - When a 3-year-old delivers a phenomenal early-season performance, racing fans get excited. They hope that the youngster will be a star of the future, maybe a Kentucky Derby winner, maybe even the Triple Crown winner that the sport has awaited for decades.

But after a gelding named This Ones for Phil scored a remarkable victory Saturday at Gulfstream Park, many fans - or at least the cynical ones - had a different reaction. This Ones for Phil epitomized what is wrong with the modern American racing game.

Thoroughbred racing has become less a test of horses than it is a competition among trainers. The most successful have been dubbed "supertrainers" because they achieve results almost without precedent. They compile winning percentages that dwarf the records of horsemen enshrined in the Hall of Fame. They acquire horses and transform them in ways that history's greatest trainers never dreamed of. Accordingly, bettors disregard the normal logic of handicapping when they evaluate horses saddled by Rick Dutrow in New York, Bruce Levine or Jason Servis in New Jersey, Marty Wolfson in south Florida, Kirk Ziadie and Jamie Ness at Tampa Bay Downs, Jeff Mullins in California and countless other miracle workers.

Wolfson pulled off an amazing feat when he saddled a pair of modestly bred 2-year-olds, one colt and one filly, in stakes races Oct. 18 at Calder. Both delivered explosive performances to win by more than 10 lengths, and the two of them ran what were arguably the two fastest races by any of the nation's 2-year-olds in 2008.

The colt, You Luckie Mann, was favored to win Saturday's Sunshine Millions Dash at Gulfstream, and he would have but for the presence of a rival in the care of another supertrainer. This Ones for Phil started his career in claiming company at Calder Race Course, raced eight times during the summer and fall, and won twice without running notably fast. He had been trained in those eight races by Kathleen O'Connell, a capable horsewoman but a mere mortal, before the animal was sold and placed in Dutrow's care.

Even people accustomed to improbable wake-ups under such circumstances were astonished by what happened Saturday.

Wolfson's You Luckie Mann went to the front, but This Ones for Phil made a powerful four-wide move on the turn and blew past the leader to score by more than two lengths. The winner sped six furlongs in 1:09.10 on the same day that high-class older female sprinters covered the distance in 1:10.55, and the effort earned This Ones for Phil a Beyer Speed Figure of 117. No horse so young has ever earned such a high number since the Daily Racing Form began publishing these ratings in 1992.

Not only was the performance extraordinary, but so, too, was the degree of improvement by This Ones for Phil. In his eight starts for O'Connell, the gelding had never earned a figure higher than 81. Dutrow had managed to improve his form by nearly 15 lengths.

Dutrow, of course, was the object of controversy as he trained Big Brown through the 2008 Triple Crown series. His admission that he regularly administered steroids (legally) to the colt stirred a national firestorm that led to the banning of the substances in most jurisdictions. Dutrow's long history of medication infractions was a subject of discussion throughout the Triple Crown. Nevertheless, drug testing is strict in the Triple Crown races, and there was no evidence that Dutrow did anything improper in his handling of Big Brown. He managed the colt flawlessly to prepare him for a peak performance in the Kentucky Derby. He is a skillful trainer who certainly has the ability to improve horses put in his care.

If This Ones for Phil were an isolated case, racing fans might be inclined to hail a brilliant training feat. But in an era when certain trainers repeatedly perform feats that defy the laws of nature and the logic of handicapping, bettors invariably suspect that they are using illegal substances.

Other trainers do, too. Jack Van Berg, the No. 2 race-winning trainer of all time, appeared last summer before a congressional hearing on drugs and was asked about the nature of the modern racing game. He replied: "It's chemical warfare out there."

Such distrust has corroded the very foundation of the sport. Honest owners are reluctant to invest in the game when they believe they can't compete with the cheaters. Many bettors have lost enthusiasm because the art of handicapping has become an exercise in guessing who has the best "juice." The public at large is alienated when it suspects that drugs are tainting the sport's greatest events. This is what happened in last year's Triple Crown series, and it could happen again in 2009.

(c) 2009, The Washington Post