06/08/2008 11:00PM

Lots of attention - not all of it good

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People in the racing business hope every year to see a Triple Crown winner who can stimulate the public's and the media's interest in the sport. Big Brown's bid to make history has indeed attracted widespread attention, but it has often been attention that the industry doesn't want, because the 2008 Triple Crown has sometimes shown racing at its worst. The series began with a filly, Eight Belles, dying on the track at Churchill Downs, and it is likely to end with the dismaying sight of owner Michael Iavarone and trainer Rick Dutrow celebrating in the winner's circle at Belmont Park.

Horse racing has always attracted its share of rogues and charlatans, but few have been as brazen as Iavarone, co-CEO of the IEAH Stable. Iavarone presented himself as an investment banker who had made a fortune on Wall Street and was turning his business acumen to the horse racing game. The media lapped up his story, and even publications such as The New York Times and Business Week credulously reported that he had prospered on Wall Street.

Writer David Evans of Bloomberg.com exposed the lies: Iavarone had never been an investment banker. He was a stockbroker at firms peddling penny stocks; he was fined and suspended for securities offenses. When his career in the investment business fizzled, he turned to horse racing.

Iavarone's sudden prominence in racing underscores the weakness of the sport's regulatory system and should be a caution for any innocent who considers investing in horses. Iavarone couldn't sell a share of a 10-cent gold-mining stock without being licensed by the securities industry and making his professional history a matter of public record. But he was soliciting investments for a $100 million horse-racing "hedge fund" without disclosing his background - a fact that has sparked disbelief and derision from commentators outside the sport. John Helyar, co-author of "Barbarians at the Gate," wrote for Bloomberg.com: " 'Big Brown' has taken on a whole new meaning. It describes the . . . dung piles littering Iavarone's past."

For his part, Iavarone acknowledged to Evans that in 2003 he "wasn't in good financial shape." He told The New York Times: "I've learned my lesson and moved on from that life, and I don't know how the mistakes I made 15 years ago are relevant now."

There are plenty of problems in Dutrow's past, too, and since he has been in the public eye with Big Brown they have all been dug up again. The trainer's record includes many drug-related infractions, most of them in cases where medications such as phenylbutazone and clenbuterol have registered over the legal limit in a horse's system. In U.S. racing, this is considered business as usual; trainers regularly push the envelope and try to give their horses the maximum allowable dose of every drug that can help them.

Dutrow acknowledged that he administers the anabolic steroid Winstrol to Big Brown once a month, and before the Preakness he told reporters: "I don't know what it does. I just like using it." He was at least candid enough to talk about the use of steroids, which is one of the sport's dirty little secrets. With no national regulatory organization, there is no uniformity in the banning of performance-enhancing substances.

But in the aftermath of Eight Belles' death, when the sport has been heaped with criticism about the way racehorses are treated, Dutrow is an uncomfortable reminder that successful trainers use drugs - including ones like anabolic steroids that may do them harm.

Dutrow's record lists many more serious infractions. He got a 60-day suspension in 2005 when two of his horses tested positive for Mepivacaine, a drug that deadens pain and might allow infirm horses to keep running hard, further injuring themselves. He was suspended for violating the terms of a suspension by maintaining contact with his assistants. He was fined for falsifying workouts of Wild Desert before the colt went to Canada and won the nation's biggest race, the Queen's Plate. (After the owner of the colt boasted that he had won $100,000 betting the horse, Canadian racing officials were seething.)

Yet even if Dutrow didn't have a single blemish on his official record, rival trainers, track officials, and bettors would still view him with suspicion. After Dutrow acquires new horses, he seemingly has the power to transform them magically. When he took over the training of Saint Liam in 2003, the colt had won only two minor races in seven starts. Under Dutrow's care he was a new horse, winning four Grade 1 stakes and the Horse of the Year title. When a trainer does this once, it's a remarkable feat. But when he improves horses dramatically on a regular basis, he will be suspected of taking some unfair edge. Dutrow does it on a regular basis. Over the past five years, the horses he has claimed have won an astonishing 35 percent of the time in the first start for his barn.

In many other countries, trainers with Dutrow's record and reputation would be booted out of the sport. In the U.S., where penalties for medication violations are usually laughable, an unsavory reputation is scarcely a handicap, because owners gravitate to high-percentage trainers. When the IEAH Stable's previous trainer was socked with criminal charges for cheating with one of the stable's horses, IEAH sought out Dutrow. And thus did he eventually get the opportunity to train Big Brown.

Even Dutrow's severest detractors have to admit, however grudgingly, that he has distinguished himself since he has been in the public eye with Big Brown. He has been entertaining, candid, and disarmingly frank about his own past malfeasances. He has handled the colt with marvelous finesse, using an extraordinarily light regimen to get him ready for his powerful Preakness victory. He will deserve abundant credit if Big Brown captures the Triple Crown, just as Iavarone will deserve credit for being smart enough to buy the colt when he was a virtual unknown. But the only admirable figure in the Belmont winner's circle will be Big Brown.

(c) 2008 The Washington Post