In the shadows were the days before. "This is what I want to do with my life, but we could have it all taken away from us," said Dean Roethemeier, a young breeder for Darley America. There, too, was Joe Drape, the horse racing reporter for the New York Times — "I'm pausing just because I think there probably is," he speculated on whether there might be an illegally doped horse in the race. "I wouldn't put it past them." And then there was Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer, asked how badly he wanted to win. "That is the stupidest question you guys ask," he said. "How bad do you wanna get laid? Huh? How bad do you wanna get laid? Tell me."
I was on the backside of Churchill Downs on the morning of the 138th Kentucky Derby, and the barns sat in a pre-dawn downpour befitting a sport springing to life and washing away. At the heart of it all was the grim statistic reported by Drape in the Times six weeks earlier: 3,600 horses — a staggering 24 per week — had died on the nation's tracks over the past three years. Drape's investigative series, co-authored with Walt Bogdanich, revealed the prevalence of drugs in racing and the corresponding effect on injuries: breakdown rates in America were reported to be five times those of top tracks in Canada, and twice those of England, where drug regulations are stricter. There are "better horses" in the Derby, Joe Drape told me, "they pay a lot of money for them, they have a lot invested in them, they are treated far better than the everyday horse." But, he said, "If you want to get to the Derby, you push it a little harder."
Outside the still-dark barns, assistants shoveled manure and a small trickle of observers made predictions under umbrellas. The doubts were some days away, but they would come as suddenly as the storm had that morning: "He can't win races if he doesn't cheat," a trainer from Hollywood Park would soon be saying of the victorious Doug O'Neill. "This guy has a reputation of being a butcher," a horseman from Santa Anita would add. Disquiet would reach the backside just hours after the Derby, when a Guatemalan groom would be found beaten to death in the back corner of Barn Number 8.
And through it all a sermon would daily echo across the morning — "Whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life…" — as if by benediction restoring Churchill Downs to the nostalgic vision of itself, frozen in time, where there would be no races and visiting crowds would just remember.
* * * * *
Three days earlier, a fat man in a suit stood at a podium. The audience eagerly awaited and everyone seemed a little surprised to be there. As the television stations readied themselves for the broadcast, reporters talked about the good old days. Additional men in suits, also fat, joined the first man on the dais. The trainers were there, and the owners, and the extended human families of each horse. The men on the dais were wiping sweat from their brows. "I'm ready," the fat man said. "Welcome to the Secretariat Lounge at Churchill Downs," he bellowed, "for the official post draw, the pill pull, the traditional way that we assign post positions for the Kentucky Derby."
The best thing you can have in a race as large as the Kentucky Derby is a clear path, and the gate you draw in the pill pull plays no small part. Get a post too far on the inside and you're boxed in before you can make a run. Too far outside and you're looking at 19 horses to your left with a shorter race. Only three horses have ever won from gates 17-20. None have won from 1 or 2 since the '80s.
"Great Derby," a couple of TV guys had bantered with me in the elevator. "Wide open." And it was — perhaps not another Derby this decade had been prognosticated with such even-handedness, anyone's guess which of the promising three-year-olds would come to distinguish himself. There were the frontrunners: Hansen, the all-white leader in purse money; Bodemeister, the famously trained favorite; Trinniberg, the short-distance sprinter — all expected to charge immediately to the lead. Then there were the stalwarts and late closers: Dullahan, the popular turf warrior; Gemologist, the undefeated physical marvel; Union Rags, the model of consistency — they were likely to hang back and wait for their chances. One of these, everyone hoped, would be the first horse to win the Triple Crown since 1978.
#3 went first to Take Charge Indy, whose rider, Calvin Borel, had been sainted after winning three Derbies of the past five. Borel prefers racing on the inside — against convention — and thus had landed the perfect draw. Gemologist acquired #15 and Dullahan took #5, sending a green-clad delegation into cheers. When #6 went to Bodemeister, the crowd oohed and the early favorite, who had blown away competition at the Arkansas Derby, solidified his position at the top of the betting. "Our stable is probably favored in races we run about 80% of the time," Baffert later said of the situation. "Yeah, we're used to it."
Alpha, the smallest horse in the field, was assigned #11, and after some of the less heralded contenders received their posts on either side of a commercial break, #14 went to Union Rags, provoking the crowd to a whispered "Yes." Union Rags was one of the most consistent horses of the bunch — top three in each of his last six races — and he was trained by Michael Matz, whose horse Barbaro had been tragically euthanized after winning the Derby in 2006. "With his post position, he's got to come away from the gate running," Matz told me of Union Rags. "He's in the fourth post — he has to get good position into the first turn and then try to stay out of trouble."
#8 went to Creative Cause, a popular first Derby entry for 71-year-old trainer Mike Harrington, and some celebratory yells circulated for the popular greyling. "That spot just lowered his odds," a woman from the Louisville Courier-Journal stated behind me.
A few of the underdogs received their positions, including Trinniberg at the desirable #9, before I heard the woman from the Louisville Courier-Journal saying, "Hansen's in trouble." There were only three spots left — and one of them, #1, was considered a death sentence. After El Padrino, a specialist in rainy environments, took #16, the crowd held its breath for the fate of the confident white horse. The fat men readied the draw, and #1 went to Daddy Long Legs. Hansen was safe. "Ooh!" said the audience. I later asked Hansen's trainer, a succinct fellow named Mike Maker, where the horse ranked on his all-time list. "10 out of 10," he declared. When Hansen's owners, not known for understatement, were the next day gathered outside of their barn, I asked one of them, Harvey Diamond, what he thought the horse's greatest strength was. "Oh, his color," Diamond replied.
In the front of the room, a giant green board filled up with the silks of each horse and the fat man tried to get the trainers to stick around for a photograph. People spoke detachedly into cameras about how they liked their chances. In the Dullahan delegation, kids in white monogrammed polos sat tired from the day. Eventually, I made my way to the fat man on the podium, who turned out to be John Asher, head of communications for Churchill Downs. "I think the potential is there in this field to see something you're going to be telling your grandkids about," he told me. I asked what had him most excited. "It's here," he replied.
* * * * *
Confidences ran high in the possibility of morning — reporters stormed the sunny, dusty backside and trainers held forth proudly with their prospects. "There's a famous trainer over there," a mother said to a daughter outside Bob Baffert's stable. When I later caught up with the three-time Derby winner to ask what he was most looking forward to in this year's race, Baffert replied, "Winning it." Mentioning an earlier conversation he'd had with his jockey, Baffert added, "He wanted to talk about strategy — and I said to him, 'What strategy? Just win.'"
Outside of Union Rags's stable, I talked to the horse's jockey Julien Leparoux. "He's the same as when you watch him being around people," Leparoux said of Union Rags's temperament during races. "He's very nice, very, very calm." I wondered what the horse thought of us as he ate his breakfast. "Like, you see him around people," Leparoux continued, "he just doesn't care. He's just calm, relaxed. For this race, I think that's very good, because a lot of horses can do the race before the race." I asked the jockey what he was most nervous about. "We're a little bit inside," he said. "Hopefully we don't get trapped."
As the horses left their stables to warm up on the track, Hansen's rider reached to pet Union Rags and the two horses walked in tandem underneath the bright morning sun. When they neared the track, they entered a circle with their opponents: there was Prospective, and there Optimizer, and there was Gemologist, entering regally, and as the circle widened the energy did as well. In moments the horses were whisking around the dirt and reporters talked to each other against the rail.
"The facts are the facts," Joe Drape told me. "It's been in decline. Thirty million people used to pay attention for the five weeks of the Triple Crown. Those numbers are dwindling. The thirty million people are sick of hearing about the abuse and watching horses go down."
The once thirty million are today barely fifteen, and even in the optimistic light of daybreak it's hard not to notice that horse racing is not what it used to be. The longtime lack of a Triple Crown winner and the ascent of other sports have often been discussed but tell only part of the story. Horse racing's greater loss of innocence — insomuch as a sport like horse racing can have a concept like that of innocence — was forged in the deaths of its popular champions earlier this decade. Barbaro, whose statute now resides prominently at the entrance to Churchill Downs, was considered one of the greatest horses in a generation before a shocked country watched him splinter his leg in the 2006 Preakness Stakes. Two years later, Eight Belles was euthanized a few steps beyond the finish line in the Kentucky Derby.
These deaths occurred simultaneously with injuries that raised further questions about the motives of racing's top trainers: Big Brown, competing for the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes in 2008, was pulled up in a fashion that led many to speculate that since-disgraced trainer Rick Dutrow had treated him with illegal drugs; I Want Revenge, the favorite for the 2009 Kentucky Derby, was scratched the morning of the race, prompting a lawsuit between owners on the grounds that one had failed to disclose a crucial injury. In each case, observers wondered whether drugs were allowing unfit thoroughbreds to hit the track.
"That's the question in the vet community and the horse racing community," Drape told me. "What is abuse and what is getting a horse to race?"
The question is complicated by the state of doping regulation in American racing: the country is unique in its permission of a variety of painkillers and diuretics that other nations have long since limited or banned. Discussions rage, such as one presently being fought out at the 2012 Breeder's Cup, about whether anti-bleeding medications like furosemide exist primarily to safeguard health or increase performance.
Less discussed is the more intimidating specter of illegal drugs, but Drape supposes that these, too, are widespread. "I don't know exactly — it would just be pure conjecture," he explained, expanding on his statement that there could be a horse in this year's Derby receiving illegal help. "But by the industry's own admission, [drug violators] have been ahead of the curve. They get a drug, they find the test for it, they move to the next drug. Or figure out a way to get by it."
"It's harder to get away with at the Derby," Drape added. "But there are things to do."
Also out of the public eye is the insalubrious world of claiming racing, where trainers trade horses back and forth in a system that constitutes the majority of activity at America's tracks. Drape and Bogdanich's series focuses on these largely unnoticed races, where the breakdown rates are 22% higher than those of stakes races like the Derby. Their danger is a function of their process: all horses in a claiming race are available for purchase at a predetermined price, generating a field of horses with equivalent value but offering incentive to those inclined to roll the dice with injuries — damaged goods can be passed off to unsuspecting buyers who place claims before a race, or, at tracks where purses have begun exceeding the value of the horses, trainers can gamble with their champions like assets, replacing one with another at the dire end of a lucky streak.
"The phrase that I hate the most out of anything is, 'Let's see if we can get one more race out of him,'" Ray Paulick, publisher of the influential horse racing website The Paulick Report, later told me. "A lot of trainers are willing to take a risk and say, 'Let's see if we can get one race out of him before this injury becomes serious.'"
"It sounds harsh," added Bill Christine, who covered horse racing for 24 years at the Los Angeles Times, "but that's the nature of the game."
The Kentucky Derby, of course, resides far away from the lowest of these races, but the demands of victory carry their own weight, and the trainers at the Derby who, in Drape's words, "push it a little harder" represent the tension between the visible world at horse racing's top and the unseen bargains of its middle.
As the horses finished their warm-ups on the crowded track, a few began returning to their stables. Gemologist left first, followed by El Padrino, whose connections praised Gemologist's strength while their own horse exited without commotion. D. Wayne Lukas, legendary trainer of four Derby champions, rode by the crowd in a funny leather vest and furry hat, escorting Optimizer. "Good luck, D. Wayne!" someone shouted. "Thank you," he replied seriously. Union Rags came next, confidently. "How are ya, baby?!" a rocker-looking dude in the crowd asked a short guy who must have been a jockey. Creative Cause exited, his rider laughing, and the policeman who guarded the track gave a thumbs up.
Back at their stables, the horses received morning baths. Hansen's owners stood around their barn, and one overzealous photographer positioned himself for a shot beneath Harvey Diamond's legs. "What the fuck was that all about?" muttered Diamond. "Take a picture of my dick?"
Dr. Kendall Hansen, the horse's majority owner and namesake, had recently guaranteed victory in the New York Daily News, and I wondered if the horse shared his owners' outsize personalities. "Yeah, he has a high energy level, correct," said his trainer, the succinct Mike Maker. I asked whether Hansen's predilection toward rambunctiousness could get him into trouble come Saturday, to which the trainer replied, "He's not really moody. He's just, you know, full of himself."
At Bodemeister's compound, Bob Baffert attracted further attention from the peanut gallery. "I think the pace is going to be the key for Bodemeister," he said when we spoke later. "If he goes too fast too early, then it could be tough on him in the end. The first quarter is going to be so important. That's where you win and lose a Derby. You've got to get a clear sailing and no traffic."
In the midst of our conversation, the famous trainer walked away from his horses sniffling. "The allergies are killin' me," he said to one of his assistants. "You have allergies, Jimmy?"
"No, not really," said Jimmy.
I walked across the empty track to get back to the grandstand for a buzzing afternoon of races, stopping along the way to greet the old codgers in the smoky Thoroughbred Association clubhouse and the seasoned betting cadres who sat with pencils in their ears outside the paddock. Grizzled veterans of the Derby lamented renovations to the grandstand, while a short man with binoculars did what he could to prove nothing had changed — "Come on, ya bastard!" he yelled under his fedora, slamming his racing form against the rail as a group of horses rushed for home. Outside the press box, reporters milled about in memories and expectations. "But it had charm," someone said.
* * * * *
That afternoon, I sat watching races in the stands. Jumbo jets came in low across the sky, gliding over fountains and fields. As I waited for the third race of the day, a sharply-dressed man in his late 20s appeared and sat down next to me.
"Hi," he said. "Dean Roethemeier."
Dean had slicked-back hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a very nice suit.
"Everyone feels like a winner today," he said. "But come Saturday, there'll be 19 losers."
Dean introduced himself as a breeder for Darley America, one of the preeminent stud farms in the United States and the birthplace of Alpha. It's owned by Sheik Mohammed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, who is one of the richest and most active players in the horse racing world.
"Eighty years ago, the thing to do was buy a farm," he told me. But now, he said, "Jay-Z isn't buying a horse farm," and a majority of wealthy Americans were spending their money elsewhere.
"I have the 4," Dean told me and we rose to our feet. The horses galloped by, and the crowd thundered when they approached the finish line. Neck and neck, a photo finish, and we tensely awaited the result. Dean's horse was announced to be second, and I sat down concerned for my friend. But Dean quickly and calmly forbid me from doubting him, saying, "I bet across the board, so I'm OK."
Dean and I talked about Alpha, whom Dean had known since he was a biology project. We discussed the specifics of breeding, which is horse racing's genuine moneymaker, and considered some examples. Street Cry, one of Darley's top stallions, "stood" for $150,000 a pop and tended to repeat the favor approximately 130 times a year. Bernadini, Alpha's sire, had recently doubled his fee to the same. Breeding is the secret to the way many in racing make their living, raising successful horses so that their genes may be sold to those who want their own shot at the Derby. For every Alpha, Dean said, there were a hundred horses that weren't as good. The little running back of a colt had just arrived at Churchill Downs after being held back in New York while receiving treatment for an infected cut. Dean assured me that the horse was healthy and getting his money in the action come Saturday.
We stood up as the horses once again took off and watched the #5 out of the gate. Dean's pick lingered in the back of the pack and seemed outmatched while they raced on the far part of the track. But when the horses rounded the stretch, the #5 came charging up the field and, out of nowhere, finished third. I looked at Dean with puzzled admiration. He smiled and sat down.
At some point in the afternoon a jolly man in a green shirt approached us with news that one of his favorite horses had been bred at Darley. The man slapped me on the back and said, "There are a lot of pretty girls here." We talked about some of the past Derby results and celebrated the third place finish of Congaree in 2001. "You can talk yourself into any one," the jolly green-shirted man said, with exceedingly good nature, and we handicapped the field for this year: Sabercat and Trinniberg were being underrated by the betting, he decreed, but it was certainly hard to overlook Bodemeister and Dullahan. We got around to extolling the virtues of just about every horse in the race, and ultimately he conceded, "I like all twenty."
The jolly man disappeared, and Dean told me how much he admired the Sheik. Dean had worked for him, mostly in Great Britain, since graduating from the equine business program at the University of Louisville. He said that he couldn't imagine a more deserving victor of the Derby. Dean, too, wanted to own a farm one day, in Lexington, like Darley, but he worried that the opportunity might pass him by. Animal rights issues were alienating the public; doping was angering even enthusiasts; the "pastoral" American sports were being surpassed. This was what he wanted to do with his life, Dean told me, but racing's inability to challenge its demons meant that everything could wither away — and poor Dean, with the horn-rimmed glasses, would be out of luck.
Sadly for my friend, a seasoned trainer would soon be telling me, "The Derby outcome couldn't have been any worse."
* * * * *
The morning of the race, at dawn, a man wandered from barn to barn, speaking to the trainers and the horses. I asked him what he was doing. "I'm the chaplain," he said. "I just have a word of prayer for the horses for the day."
Nearby, Union Rags was in the back of his barn grazing on clover. He was standing in a small field with his handler, Cesar. The rain steadily trickled and in the early light it was very quiet and lonely. I walked up to Union Rags and Cesar and said good morning. Cesar said that he had been with Union Rags since the beginning, and that everything the horse did was good.
"In his first race, he fly," said Cesar. "So we know he was gonna be a good horse."
Union Rags yanked his lead rope so he could get to some more clover. Cesar said that the horse didn't mind the rain, and the three of us stood together quietly for several minutes in the drizzle.
I asked Cesar if he thought Union Rags knew it was a big day. "I think he knows," he said.
* * * * *
The succinct Maker and I looked at each other in the rain, he from under his barn and I from under an umbrella.
"Looks fine!" he said of Hansen.
What about the weather?
"I didn't get his training session in, with the rain, but worse things could happen."
I wondered what effect that would have.
"I don't know. I'll let you know about 6:30."
Are you excited?
"Yeah, I am. You know, I'd be more excited on a fast racetrack, but then again, I can't control that."
"Let's run this thing."
* * * * *
At Bodemeister's stable, the powerful horse was jumpy.
"Hey, why don't you put a lip chain on him?" Baffert yelled out to his assistants as Bodemeister walked by, agitated. "Hey, hey, Buster! Hey, Carlo!"
"We just bathed him right now," Baffert explained. "He's…full of himself."
We discussed the race.
"I like him on the lead," Baffert said of his jockey. "He lets horses run. A lot of guys don't let a horse run and come from off the pace."
Coming from behind wouldn't work for Bodemeister. He was meant to detonate. Baffert would set him loose and cross his fingers.
"We are gonna be…close," Baffert explained. "We have to be close and we just gotta hope that we don't go too fast. There's a lot of speed in there. But you know what? Bode's fast."
* * * * *
As the sun began to rise, I found Michael Matz, Union Rags's trainer, standing at the edge of his stable. I asked if he had any particular expectations for the race.
"Well," he said, "I hope he wins!"
He did, however, outline his worries — "You go over a hundred things before the race," he said. "I hope he doesn't get boxed in. I hope he doesn't stumble out of the gate. I hope he doesn't blow the race, temperament-wise, before the race."
Did the trainer feel any special attachment to Union Rags?
"I'm attached to all the horses we have in the barn," he replied. "Obviously, he's a real good one and we hope that…you know…
"…You know, we were real attached to Barbaro. Barbaro was a real good horse also and…
"…And this is a great horse and the lady that owns him is a great owner and we're just hoping the best for her."
I was frozen by his heartbreak.
"We've done all we can do for the horse now," Matz reflected, "and right now it's raining."
What would be on his mind, I asked, when the horses entered their gates?
"I don't know, for Christ's sake!" he laughed. "I'm gonna be nervous. What do you think's gonna be on my mind? Jesus!"
* * * * *
When afternoon arrived, swelling crowds sweltered in the hot sun and a security detail elbowed people out of the way for the governor. "I'm Britt and I've lost everybody I know," said somebody in the sea of people and I was lost in the currents there, too, bounced among losing tickets as people formed impenetrable mazes and storm clouds, temporarily abated, lingered in the distance.
Somewhere in the crowd was ESPN's Gary West, who'd told me to look out for Take Charge Indy. And somewhere else were the betting buddies I'd met earlier outside the paddock — "Leparoux sure rode him terrible in the Florida," one of them had said of Union Rags before offering a prediction of Bodemeister. Drape was there somewhere, too, who'd told me he was picking Union Rags. "I saw him in August at Saratoga. It was a rainy day, there wasn't anybody out there, and he just was magical."
All were taking their places for the afternoon, and I fought the endless riptide to find my spot in time for the race. I passed women with fearful eyes, degenerates standing hopeful at videoscreens, and blue bloods. There was one woman passed out with an ice-pack on her head and paramedics fanning her. There was a large man in a Bud Light polo yelling at his beer stand disciple: "This shit's got to be done," he said, shaking his head and testing the brew. "There is too much shit to do if you get here late." There were sweaty laborers, angular powerbrokers, frowning white-hairs, anonymous ties, happy elders, uncomfortable heels, jolly fatsos, bottom of the bottom, uncertain blondes.
Celebrities arrived on the red carpet, and Millionaires Row filled with flowers and feathers and powder blue suits. Kenny Mayne from SportsCenter hurried by me while divulging picks of Creative Cause and Bodemeister. The fat man was back, this time on the big screen, stupidly introducing an announcement for Moet champagne. The thunderclouds loomed but were losing to the heat of a May afternoon. The announcer declared a crowd of over 160,000, and the horses began to walk in processional down the track.
As the horses entered the paddock, where they would be saddled for the race, I found my place in the press box. Distrustful suits were plucking reporters from their stations and replacing them with others, which is a fate I feared awaited me as well if I didn't start scribbling, and so I did:
The horses are walking circles in the paddock; trumpeter getting set to blow; the announcers give their picks; the press box is filling up; "My Old Kentucky Home" is in the chute; the trumpeter sounds!; the horses are on the track; owners and trainers are holding forth; the post time is off the board; the people in the infield are packed against the walls; the finish line shines; they're heading to the gates; the reporters are in their places; my palms are sweating and I hope I don't fall over; the crowd cheers; the Brit prefaces; the camera focuses; and they're off.
* * * * *
Trinniberg charged out immediately. Hansen and Gemologist, coming from his outside, gave him chase. But it was Bodemeister who shot to the front like a dart — establishing himself as the leader by the time the field sorted into something comprehensible. Union Rags was a step slow out of the gate and was bumped on the inside by Take Charge Indy, sending him into Dullahan, and he was squeezed to the back of the pack.
As five leaders separated from the field around the first turn — Bodemeister, Trinniberg, Hansen, Daddy Long Legs, and Gemologist — the time came in for the first quarter of the race: 22.32. Bodemeister was leading the pack to one of the fastest paces in Derby history. In another quarter mile, the leading group thinned to three: Bodemeister, Trinniberg, Hansen. The sprinters had dashed to the front as predicted, but the stalwarts were ready to make their moves.
As the horses began their long swing into the final turn, Creative Cause found a lane on the outside and charged frantically for the lead, emerging on the straightaway in third. I'll Have Another picked up a couple of spots in the turn as well, racing down the homestretch in fourth. Take Charge Indy, in some kind of distress, pulled up. Trinniberg began to slow.
Union Rags tried desperately to break to the front but, trapped behind a crowd of horses, had nowhere to run. Gemologist and Alpha idled hopelessly in the back, while Hansen found himself being swallowed by the late closers. Bodemeister raced by himself in front, one furlong to go.
Here, however, came I'll Have Another — right up the middle of the track. Creative Cause charged to his outside, with Dullahan, who burst through the field in similar fashion, outside of him. I'll Have Another gained some ground, while Bodemeister vied with every muscle in his inconceivable body to hang on to what seemed promised.
I'll Have Another pulled even with Bodemeister, and Dullahan continued flying down the outside. Dullahan surged ahead of Creative Cause, the turf warrior saving his energy just a second longer, but he was not able to touch what was happening a few lengths ahead of him — Bodemeister and I'll Have Another racing to the finish, Bodemeister fading, I'll Have Another storming forward like a fire, it was over, suddenly it was over, the finish line crossed the horses — I'll Have Another. Bodemeister. Dullahan. The horses rushed by, a man in purple stood up pumping his fist, and the crowd cheered for #19.
* * * * *
"How does he win so much?" someone in the press box said of Julien Leparoux. "At least get him out — why did he keep him on the rail?"
"This is the same thing that happened in the Florida Derby," a colleague responded. "He's not an aggressive enough rider. He does the day-in, day-out kind of stuff — totally different style."
"Never had a chance," I heard someone say.
In the crowds of Churchill Downs, handfuls of people high-fived while others sat in disbelief. "We who watched have seen too much," William Faulkner wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1955. I remembered also what Bill Mooney, a veteran reporter for the Thoroughbred Times, had told me the day before: "It's a multi-faceted carnival, and then it's over in two minutes."
I'll Have Another had been at the top of a handful of predictions but near the bottom of many others. Never in history had a horse won the Kentucky Derby from post #19. On the jumbotron, I saw an image of an anguished Michael Matz.
By 7:00 p.m., Churchill Downs was half-empty. The dismal scene I found in the grandstand — infinite buildup let out in one hot air balloon of a letdown, broken glass and burned out dreams, the lowest of the low betting the later races that no one ever even knew existed — gave the impression that the Kentucky Derby was never supposed to end.
But it had, and while some were taken aback, others were overjoyed: in the winner's circle, where I'll Have Another was receiving his garland of roses, an affable trainer named Doug O'Neill beamed inexhaustibly in the thralls of validation. "It's an incredible feeling," O'Neill later recalled to me over the phone, "and something I'll never forget and never really can articulate what it truly felt like." The trainer was charming and down-to-earth, and he jubilantly celebrated with his 25-year-old jockey.
Back in California, however, at Santa Anita Park, where Doug O'Neill frequently raced, a trainer wondered, "Of all the guys that had to win it, why him?"
* * * * *
"Central casting in Hollywood could never have come up with a Derby-winning trainer like Doug O'Neill," began a profile on Baltimore's WBAL a few days after the Derby. The piece was titled "What A Nice Guy," and it echoed those being published across the country about the "every-man" and "guy-next-door" who was doing everyone's dreams in middle America proud.
"Let me say it again," the piece presaged, of the trainer at the center of it all, "Doug O'Neill is too good to be true."
When I spoke with O'Neill that week on the phone, he highlighted the encouraging reception he'd received.
"It's been just real cool, real eye opening," he explained, "and just a good boost in my arm that, you know, racing's still alive and doing well. I know that's been the heart of it sometimes when we're getting bummed, thinking that it's sliding and we need to turn it around. But if you go out there and talk to people, people enjoy it, and it just doesn't get enough positive exposure."
As I'll Have Another traveled to Baltimore, however, to compete in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, reports began to surface that Doug O'Neill was being investigated by the California Horse Racing Board for giving a horse a concoction known as a "milkshake." The concoction, which contains sodium bicarbonate and elevates a horse's carbon dioxide levels, is illegal in racing due to its fatigue-battling properties. Because the substance is generally administered through a tube down a horse's nose, the practice is also known as "tubing."
When I asked O'Neill about the allegation, he responded with the mystified air of someone wrongly accused.
"I'm very confident that the one that we're fighting will be dropped," he said. "It would literally be like you sitting in your house and somebody knocking on your door and giving you a DUI."
But O'Neill turned out to have a history. He'd been cited for milkshaking four times and had received at least four other drug violations in the past six years. He maintained that high carbon dioxide levels in his horses could have been triggered by the permissible diuretic furosemide, but veterinarians I spoke with, including Dr. Rick Sams, the director of equine drug testing in the state of Kentucky, assured me that the diuretic was incapable of producing carbon dioxide levels in the neighborhood of a violation. Sams told me that horses testing over the threshold demonstrated a "high probability" of being artificially manipulated.
Meanwhile, at Churchill Downs, the backside reeled in the revelation that a body had been found in Barn Number 8 on the morning after the Derby. The man was eventually identified as Adan Fabian Perez, a 48-year-old Guatemalan groom. The hundreds of horsemen who had worked beside Perez, living near the barns or in the barns, carried on their routines as they had before, except the rain had been replaced by suspicion, and, with the police unable to find any leads, the groom's son said of his father's killer, "I imagine he's wandering around here."
While police were combing the stables for evidence, a staffer elsewhere on the track was typing up the final barn notes of the 138th Kentucky Derby, delivering to the world the lasting thoughts of all the trainers.
"It was the first time I finished second in the Derby that I wasn't pissed off," Bob Baffert stated, praising Bodemeister. "I was so proud of him. He ran an amazing race."
Dr. Kendall Hansen, commenting on his energetic namesake, said, "He's usually pretty hyper after a race, but last night he was calm, almost like he was embarrassed."
And Michael Matz, searching for explanations with Union Rags, lamented, "The gate has never been a problem. He's always broken good. It's such a disappointing situation right now. I'm trying to figure out what I did wrong."
As I'll Have Another settled in at Pimlico, the spotlight intensified on Doug O'Neill. The New York Times published a report that O'Neill's horses broke down or showed signs of injury at more than twice the rate of the national average. Furthermore, careful analysis of the trainer's record showed that a number of his breakdowns occurred under questionable circumstances.
In 2010, O'Neill claimed a horse named Burna Dette for $25,000 but only six weeks later raced her for $2,000. Why run a $25,000 horse in a $2,000 claiming race? In the minds of many, the only conceivable rationale was injury. The horse, who had earned $136,700 over the course of her career, was being offered at a $23,000 loss, and worst fears were confirmed when she broke down halfway through the race and was euthanized on the track.
"It was despicable," Jeremy Plonk, who covered horse racing for ESPN at the time, told me. He wrote in an article for ESPN that it was "a new low for me in 30-plus years watching horse racing."
O'Neill, not swaying from his trademark amiability, vigorously denied implications of wrongdoing. "I felt absolutely emotionally distraught over losing her," he told me. "We dropped her in class which we do all the time to try to build her confidence."
But many in racing were unpersuaded by his case.
"That was a horse he sent there to get rid of," said Bill Christine, the longtime Los Angeles Times reporter and former President of the National Turf Writers' Association. "The horse was obviously so sore, and he was hoping somebody claimed the horse."
One of racing's top veterinarians, who wished here to be quoted anonymously, added, "That horse he took over to Los Alamitos and ran a claiming race that broke down, and then he stood up and tried to tell the public that he was trying to build up the horse's confidence — why, that is the biggest bunch of bullshit."
There were other troubling incidents in O'Neill's past. Lava Man, who went to the Derby as I'll Have Another's stable pony, had been brought out of retirement three years earlier to race after having bone chips removed from his ankles. In his first race back, Lava Man finished in last place and drew observations from some spectators that his legs showed considerable signs of distress. The next week, he was retired for good.
"I think he got very lucky with Lava Man," Christine said of O'Neill. "I cringed when I heard what was happening to Lava Man because I thought, 'Haven't we had enough good horses die on the track?' and that we were gonna have one more."
Also worrisome was the case of Goodiemaker, who died while training with O'Neill at Hollywood Park in 2010. The horse's previous trainer, Humberto Ascanio, had reportedly warned O'Neill that the filly wasn't fit to be running. Tests had been ordered on the horse's ankles, leading Ascanio to recommend that Goodiemaker go to the farm for rest. The horse was instead moved to Doug O'Neill's stables, and shortly thereafter she broke an ankle in the middle of a workout.
O'Neill denies that the conversation with Ascanio ever took place. But when I asked Dr. Rick Arthur, the Equine Medical Director for the California Horse Racing Board, about the case, his response was telling: "There's no question of big, red flags there, yes."
As O'Neill's history of breakdowns and drug violations began to come to light, some in the racing community felt that I'll Have Another's accomplishments remained untarnished.
"Nobody should look at I'll Have Another winning the Derby and say that this was a product of some kind of chemical engineering," Jeremy Plonk said. "This was a very talented horse who has run good in all of his races."
Others, however, were more skeptical.
"He's got the history, right?" said Dr. Tom David, until recently the Equine Medical Director of the Louisiana State Racing Commission. "Past performances for people and horses are pretty suggestive of what they are going to do in the future."
"Those trainers," David added, of horsemen with records of drug infractions, "will tend to push the envelope with even a good horse. They're just going to do it. They might do it more with a cheap horse, but if the situation arose and they felt that they could gain a little edge, they'll do it."
I asked David whether he thought O'Neill could manipulate a major race.
"I wouldn't put it past him to want to try something," he said. "Whether he would or not, I don't know. Again, he tried it before, so it wouldn't be the first time."
In California, where Doug O'Neill stabled his horses, trainers spoke of the prevailing sentiments at the track.
"The general perception of O'Neill is that he's a cheater and he has always been a cheater," a second-generation horseman at O'Neill's home track of Hollywood Park told me. "His nickname is Drug O'Needle," the trainer added — replying, when I asked for an explanation of O'Neill's rise, with one word: "Drugs."
At Santa Anita, where I'll Have Another logged his most prestigious victory in the run-up to the Derby, a veteran trainer told me that perception was "that he's still using it, that he still tubes horses, and all this 'before my kids' eyes, I've never done it' stuff, that's a bad position to put your kids in, that's all I can say."
In the days before the second leg of the Triple Crown, the down-to-earth trainer from California left racing in a battle between its biggest dreams and most persistent doubts.
"He will bend the rules as much as possible," said the prominent veterinarian who spoke with me anonymously.
"If it were me at Pimlico," the veterinarian added, "I think I would have a security guard on that horse."
* * * * *
The afternoon of the Preakness, odds favored Bodemeister at 2-1 with I'll Have Another not far behind at 3-1. As the horses walked to their gates, NBC showed Doug O'Neill and Bob Baffert eagerly awaiting the race's start.
At 6:20 p.m, the horses shot off. Immediately, Bodemeister established the early lead as in the Derby. The horses reached the half-mile mark in 47.68 seconds, well behind the Derby's pace of 45.39, and the slower speed set up perfectly for the front-running Bodemeister. But I'll Have Another, who raced in third as they rounded the final turn, once again came charging up the track at the last moment, narrowly edging out his rival and emerging triumphant in the Triple Crown's second jewel.
"He's really shaking hands and holding babies," the satellite radio broadcast declared of O'Neill as he entered the winner's circle. "That guy could be mayor right now."
Later that week, the California Horse Racing Board decided to suspend Doug O'Neill for 45 days. The suspension, like any meant to set a clear example, would take effect three weeks after the Belmont.
In response to the suspension, New York racing authorities announced that the Belmont Stakes would feature an unprecedented set of security measures: all horses would be housed in a highly-monitored "stakes barn," and they would be subject to "scrutinized oversight" that included blood testing and surveillance of veterinary procedures. Furthermore, the barn would be provided with a security guard.
The Los Angeles Times, which two weeks earlier had written, "O'Neill's Irish charm and blarney have been everywhere," now published an article titled "Doug O'Neill Becomes America's Bad Guy."
In our conversation, Doug O'Neill leveled that he didn't want to become the poster child for all that was wrong with racing. And, to be sure, he might not deserve to be: this is a sport, after all, in which, according to the New York Times, "only two of [the] top 20 trainers have never been cited for abusing the rules." O'Neill, however, in competing for the sport's greatest trophies as well as lowest indulgences, embodies the distance between the genteel world racing wants for itself and the lurid one it often finds.
"Doug is a guy who is very cognizant of racing's falling popularity," said Ray Paulick, of The Paulick Report, "and at some point he's going to have to look at some of the things that he's been involved with in the past and say, 'You know, this didn't really help.'"
O'Neill, in defending his record, was particularly sensitive to the notion that he had neglected the safety of his horses.
"You can't run a horse in California if her legs aren't cold and they aren't jogging sound," he told me. "You can ask anyone in the barn area and they can like me or hate me. If they tell you that you can run a horse with a hot leg who's sore, that you can get them through in California, if you can get that guy quoted, I'll give you a million dollars."
The trainer I spoke with from Santa Anita, however, told me precisely that. "I see a lot of sore horses, I've got to be honest," the trainer said. "They do a pretty thorough exam in the mornings — they go over their legs way better than they did like ten or twenty years ago, they are way more thorough — but they still get by. They still get by."
The problem, according to the trainer, is a system that, even at its highest levels, lacks accountability.
"Sometimes the vets are afraid to scratch some of those big guy's horses," the trainer said, "and the jocks are, too, to be honest, because they're afraid if they scratch something going to the gates, they're not going to ride anymore."
The morning before the Belmont, O'Neill took I'll Have Another to the track at 5:30 a.m. It was earlier than his usual routine, but the colt was said to gallop well. After the workout, however, trainers noticed swelling in I'll Have Another's front left leg. They hoped that he'd simply nicked something on the track, but the swelling didn't go down. At 1:00 p.m., Doug O'Neill called a press conference where he announced that I'll Have Another was being removed from the race. The swelling was discovered to be a symptom of tendinitis, and the California colt would be retired from racing for good.
"It has just been an incredible ride," Doug O'Neill told reporters, "an incredible run. And I've taken so many notes, a lot of mental notes and I know we are going to be back here again. I know some people have asked if I thought the detention barn had anything to do with that. And absolutely not. Just a freakish thing."
Later reporting by Drape and Bogdanich in the New York Times revealed that I'll Have Another's injuries had been known to the horse's veterinarians for weeks. Osteoarthritis had been discovered in X-rays four days after the Preakness, and the colt had been treated with legal but powerful painkillers, as well as synthetic joint fluid, in preparation for the Belmont.
The week after the announcement, the second-generation horseman from Hollywood Park texted me, "Did you notice how O'Neill didn't last 24 hours in the detention barn?"
Following the New York Times report, Richard Shapiro, former chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, circulated an e-mail to Joe Drape defending Doug O'Neill, saying that Drape's representation of the trainer as a cheater was "wrong and misguided," adding that he did not know of a trainer more eager "to find the reason one horse tests so differently than another." But even Shapiro could not avoid concluding on a melancholy note, writing, "The sport is in serious trouble, field sizes are dwindling, the sport is pretty much gone and now it's just a form of gambling, and a lousy one at that."
When the Belmont did go off, with eleven horses and no Triple Crown, a horse named Paynter was edged out at the last minute by Union Rags.
"It was the real Union Rags today!" the announcer shouted. "He won the Belmont."
* * * * *
When the wild, weary days of the Triple Crown faded at last to quiet mornings at empty tracks, I labored at home and at night I dreamt about horses. I dreamt of eccentrics and enthusiasts at the cold, wet races where seasons began. And my dreams were punctuated with waking spells where I thought of the past: "No," Drape said, when I asked if a Triple Crown winner would save the sport. "Those days are over." Which isn't to say that I'll Have Another couldn't thrill us — his race just couldn't last forever. "It seems like every time racing might be making a little bit of a comeback," Bill Christine told me, "things like this pop up and just drag it down again."
There were, in the weeks that followed I'll Have Another's initial triumph, more problems for horse racing than anyone would've cared to count. One of the best-known trainers of Tennessee walking horses was convicted of abusing his animals. Mexico's terrifying drug cartel, the Zetas, was found to be laundering millions of dollars through the highest levels of quarter horse racing. Drape and Bogdanich's investigation in the Times continued to draw attention to ballooning injury rates across the country, while missives like Richard Shapiro's pointed to the detrimental effects of breeding — "The root of the problem…starts with how fragile the animals have become," he wrote, criticizing horses that are "bred for brilliant speed, not endurance, not soundness."
And then there were the retirements. I'll Have Another, of course, was first, garnering $10 million from breeding interests in Japan and setting off for Hokkaido in August. After him came Union Rags, who injured a tendon of his own and was retired in July. "It's a love affair she had with this horse," an adviser to his owner told USA Today, of the decision to keep him in the U.S., "and she doesn't want him to go somewhere where she can't find him." Next was Bodemeister, who suffered a shoulder injury while training in August and attracted $13 million for the right to bear his offspring. "He is the most brilliant horse that I've had the privilege of owning," said Ahmed Zayat, "and my family and I will miss him thrilling us in the afternoons." Finally, later in August, Dr. Kendall Hansen declared an end to the "ride of his life" and announced that his namesake had also suffered a tendon injury. "I am in shock, and with tears and heartbroken," he told Blood-Horse magazine. None of the horses would race again. They would go, instead, to lives of luxury and procreation at farms across the world, dispatching their fragile sons and daughters to one day join the next promising batch of three-year-olds.
And they would become part of horse racing's bizarre circle of life, in which thousands of horses are foaled so that they may be pushed to the brink of death and then examined themselves for signs of superlative genetics, all in the hope that nature will provide something unexpected.
And still I have dreamt about horses — with my light going off and the stands coming on, and here they are now, back to me, the men in fedoras shouting their joys and desires and the men in the press box, they are watching virtuously as they always have, and they are all so warmly and sharply lit up — for in these dreams, the grandstand somehow shines in the radiant warmth of evening and the races go off in day — and now here are the horses, coming back to me, too, in that bright young day, rounding the stretch a bay colt in profile with a white stripe down his nose, kicking up dirt just like you see in movies or postcards, running so fiercely you could swear he knows just what he's doing, that this is the one he needs to win — black colts behind him, maybe a white — the race never concludes before I wake up, and when I do I shiver, knowing that I could try to go back to sleep but that race is gone to me now, it's over, with its result gone and locked away from me, not mine to know, somehow like it always was, that is the fate I wear into my day
— where, too, I think of horses, I dream of them more or less the same, except these dreams have question marks — the same question marks, really, that were there when I was walking the backside underneath those rainy purple barns, lightning cracking above, the morning of the Derby — I wonder whether Union Rags will win, whether that kindness and courage I see in his heart are things other people see, too, and, if they are, whether that will have anything to do with the race — I hope it does, but am scared, too, that I'm falling for what must be the folly of all sports — this, I see, is why it's dangerous to love a horse —
— and there are questions, still, of whether the track will clear up in time for Hansen to make a run, or whether some longshot will savor a muddy romp — with the rain falling so steadily, no lights except the trainers' offices that hid behind the rain — could it be that the track was truly dry? — there are questions, there are questions, never by two minutes could such wonder be fulfilled —
— and in my day, in these dreams, I see Drape limply holding the backside rail, the sun hotly blanketing the morning track, while the horses gallop, rounding the backstretch with wonders themselves — even Trinniberg looked an able contender in the brightness of that day — anything could happen, can happen, there are questions —
— and I see, sure enough, Dean Roethemeier, sharp suit round glasses slicked hair, who stood while the horses raced and told me his dreams, too, of owning a farm one day and making this his life — a wonderful life it would be, I know, but will it be there for Dean? Dean who holds the racing form, who worked in London for the Sheik —
— and I have walked the track many times since I left Kentucky, always with Bill, the reporter from the Thoroughbred Times — I tell him the image I cannot shake of Hansen walking cozied up with Union Rags, noses bent toward each other — the sun was awfully bright then, too — and when they walked into the circle, with other horses and reporters, did they know what we were thinking, did they know there could be a world —
— where guards monitored the barns, and trainers talked about chemicals — did they know? — and did they know that one among them, in their midst, might go on to be immortal — did they know that while a horse would rise a man would fall? Of such magnificent grace and human limitation could they know? —
— I see Baffert, with white hair, smiling to reporters after the race, the famous competitor happy for once to accept second place — and Matz, as Baffert was happy, forlorn — this, an image I cannot stand, heartbroken, one I shared — and I see the succinct Mike Maker, somewhere, shaking his head —
— I see Cesar, standing quietly in the clover —
— And I see the fat man, at the podium, never prouder —
— And I see the light shining through in the grandstand after a race not supposed to end, people whose faces I could not read disappointed or fulfilled, and myself, walking back alone through the paddock in pockets of drunken revelry, around me desolate and shattering glass, the few sorry asses still betting on the two hopeless races after the Derby — I see all of this, I have nothing left, I see myself walking away, and looking back over my shoulder, for what I don't know, maybe something to say it's not over, it's just begun — and, of course, in my dreams, it has — it's not easy to walk away from the Kentucky Derby.