04/29/2009 11:00PM

Not the face horse racing needs

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WASHINGTON - While the Triple Crown races capture the public's attention, the sport of Thoroughbred racing hopes to win new fans by showcasing its glamor and excitement. But the 2008 series turned out to be a public-relations disaster. When Big Brown became the nation's dominant 3-year-old, his trainer, Rick Dutrow, became the face of horse racing. The media recounted his long history of drug-related infractions. Dutrow unblushingly admitted that he regularly administered anabolic steroids to the Kentucky Derby winner. The steroid issue exploded just after the death of the filly Eight Belles in the Derby, and it fueled a national outcry about the way Thoroughbred racehorses are treated.

Could anything be worse?

Meet Jeff Mullins, the trainer of I Want Revenge, who is favored to win Saturday's Derby.

Mullins has a reputation as clouded as Dutrow's, without any of Dutrow's roguish charm. While Dutrow is always quotable, Mullins is taciturn and guarded. He had almost nothing to say when he was recently caught red-handed in possession of an oral syringe at an inappropriate time and place, becoming the latest symbol of horse racing's drug problems and the industry's ineffectual response to them.

Until now, Mullins has never had a top-class 3-year-old to put him on the national stage. But he has been a dominant force in California since he started training there regularly in 2001. He had paid his dues dealing with cheap stock at minor-league tracks in the southwest, and he earned respect as a skilled horseman and an obsessive hard worker. Nevertheless, his success in California generated more suspicion than praise. Horses improved too suddenly, too dramatically when they went into the Mullins barn. In one instance, Mullins claimed a horse named Kid Royal, who in four career starts had recorded Beyer Speed Figures of 62, 11, 67, and 8. Kid Royal promptly won by eight lengths with a speed figure of 98 in his first start for Mullins.

The California Horse Racing Board put Mullins under scrutiny. Twice the trainer's horses tested for a high level of sodium bicarbonate - evidence of the banned procedure known as "milkshaking." One of these tests, in 2005, prompted the authorities to put Mullins's horses under 24-hour surveillance for a month, and during that time his winning percentage plummeted. Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the CHRB, told John Scheinman in a 2005 story for The Washington Post that Mullins's main problem was "basic ethics." Arthur said: He "does things his own way and thinks it's right."

I Want Revenge helped bring a Mullins controversy to the East Coast. The colt had been running on California's synthetic racetracks with moderate success, but Mullins thought the colt's pedigree suggested he might be more effective on dirt. He shipped him across the country to Aqueduct, where I Want Revenge scored a smashing victory 8 1/2-length victory in the Gotham Stakes. He returned to New York and won the Wood Memorial impressively. The two performances solidly established I Want Revenge as the horse to beat in the 135th Derby.

However, it was the events before the Wood that galvanized the racing industry. The Mullins-trained colt Gato Go Win was entered to run in the Bay Shore Stakes about an hour before the Wood. Both he and I Want Revenge were in Aqueduct's security barn, which exists to prevent horses from receiving any illegal treatments in the hours before they race. Shortly before Gato Go Win was to go the track, Mullins entered the barn, went to the colt's stall, and treated him with an over-the-counter cough syrup called Air Power. Security guards spotted him, Aqueduct racing officials ordered Gato Go Win scratched, and the incident turned into a cause celebre.

Air Power might be a natural product, but any substance that affects respiration may enhance performance. (Mullins acknowledged that Gato Go Win didn't have a cough, so why else was he using Air Power?) In any event, for a trainer to treat a horse with anything in the hours before a race is flatly illegal. Carrying an oral syringe into a barn before a race is a bit like carrying a weapon past airport security. Mullins said he had made an honest mistake, but it is almost unimaginable that any trainer would not know he was breaking the rules. Mullins's brazenness was no less distressing than the response by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board's. The guardians of the sport's integrity gave Mullins this penalty: a $2,500 fine and a seven-day suspension, beginning May 3. And what's the significance of May 3? It's the day after the Kentucky Derby, with the "punishment" seemingly designed to cause minimal inconvenience to the trainer. He can spend the week at Churchill Downs, serve his suspension, and be back in action at Pimlico for the Preakness.

The New York ruling was just another reminder that the Thoroughbred industry, despite its posturing, isn't serious about policing itself. Because rule-breaking trainers rarely receive meaningful penalties - even when they are caught red-handed - they thrive at the expense of their honest rivals. And that is why the key players in the biggest American races are so often trainers whose prominence should be an embarrassment to the sport.

(c) 2009, The Washington Post