Justice is too often delayed in racing, and sometimes never even administered. Weak, indecisive racing commissions rarely hand out severe penalties for infractions, regardless of how egregious, usually opting instead for a ceremonial slap on the wrist . . . if punishment is meted out at all.
Trainer Rick Dutrow was likely hoping for any of the above – delayed, puny, or non-existent justice – but it appears instead he will become one of the most heavily penalized licensees in the modern era if the 10-year suspension levied by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board passes its final hurdle next week and his long-awaited sentence is enforced. This would represent a most significant message, sent by racing’s regulators to those even contemplating breaking the rules.
Dutrow is one of the most successful trainers of recent decades, his most notable success coming with champion and dual 2008 classic winner Big Brown. Ironically, that same colt also provided a low point for Dutrow, who admitted he had (legally) given the horse anabolic steroids through mid-April, prior to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness triumphs and his epic flop in the Belmont Stakes.
The 2008 Eclipse Award finalist has owners who stand firmly in his corner for one simple reason: He delivers winners and a whole lot of purse money. But he also has plenty of detractors, not the least of which is a panel of state stewards who have come to see him as one of the biggest cheaters in racing. The numbers back that up.
According to the Association of Racing Commissioners International (RCI), since 1979 Dutrow has incurred 64 relatively minor sanctions at 15 racetracks in nine states. This is not the case of a man being caught once or twice breaking the rules, but of a defiant and chronic abuser. At long last, New York seriously challenged his license at a hearing in February of 2011, underscoring how very slowly the wheels of justice turn in our sport.
On November 3, 2010, three syringes had been found in Dutrow’s desk drawer at Aqueduct, each containing the tranquilizer xylazine (Rompun). Seventeen days later, one of his starters at that New York track tested positive for the illegal pain-killer butorphanol.
Dutrow’s infractions came at a time when racing’s sensibilities were heightened in the wake of the public’s growing disdain for "doping" in any sporting endeavor. At the same time, congressional committees were taking horse racing to task for its lax, inconsistent drug policies, and threatening federal intervention due to our failure to adequately address the problems.
Dutrow had initially received a 60-day suspension and a second 30-day suspension for those infractions of November 2010. After Dutrow appealed those sanctions in February of 2011, RCI President Ed Martin sent a letter to the New York Racing and Wagering Board, encouraging it to look at Dutrow’s overall record when determining his suitability for a license. According to RCI records, Dutrow has incurred more penalties for breaking racing’s rules than any other major active trainer.
"I formally request the Board to commence a proceeding and issue a notice to show cause as to why his license should not be revoked given what appears to be a lifetime pattern of disregard for the rules of racing," Martin wrote. "At some point, an individual who continues to violate the rules of racing forfeits through his own actions the ability to be in the game. At some point, enough is enough."
Shortly thereafter, the board ruled that Dutrow’s suspension would be 10 years, as opposed to 90 days, and the appeals process has, of course, been under way ever since.
The effect of the suspension – should his final appeal to a U.S. District Court in Brooklyn fail to stay the penalty – means that Dutrow, 53, will have been handed a virtual lifetime sentence. State commissions generally adhere to the rule of reciprocity, meaning that other racing jurisdictions will honor New York’s suspension and will not give him a license to train at their own tracks.
Dutrow could feasibly work at other jobs in racing, those that do not require a license, but if this penalty holds his training career is all but over.
Some will argue that a 10-year suspension is too much, too severe, and that Dutrow is being used as a scapegoat for racing’s past inability or unwillingness to deal sternly with rule-breakers.
Even if that is true, the effect is the same. This will serve as a firm warning to anyone thinking about skirting the rules. Wagering is at the core of this sport and the integrity of the game is at stake every time a horse competes. One infraction is too many and the sport cannot afford to have a single person tarnish its reputation.