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ON THE first Saturday in May 2003 a bay gelding named Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby and in scarcely more than two minutes shifted the paradigm of the public's interaction with its equine stars. Funny Cide was owned in part by a bunch of buddies from upstate New York who kicked in a few thousand bucks each at a boozy Memorial Day picnic and wound up with a Derby winner who went on to win the Preakness. Funny Cide fell short of the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, but more than 100,000 people watched in a cold, daylong rainstorm. It was not just about the horse. It was also about the story, and this one was a fairy tale.
A year later Smarty Jones won the Derby and the Preakness, and fans—not just racing fans—were drawn to his wheelchair-bound septuagenarian owner, Roy (Chappy) Chapman. In 2005 Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex connected the public to Alex Scott, a little girl who had died of cancer 10 months earlier; she had started a fund-raising charity called Alex's Lemonade Stand and it became ubiquitous at racetracks. The Derby of '06 brought us Barbaro, whose trainer, Michael Matz, had been a plane-crash survivor and an Olympic medalist. Barbaro's subsequent fight for survival after breaking down in the Preakness elevated him to an iconic place in the sport's history.
Now along comes Big Brown, who won the Derby with ease and the Preakness with arrogance, as jockey Kent Desormeaux throttled back Brown more than 100 yards short of the finish to save him for Saturday's Belmont. Big Brown will be a stout favorite to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown. "He's one of those freaks of nature that you see once in a while, just a really great horse," says longtime trainer Bob Baffert. A cracked hoof discovered six days after the Preakness has been repaired, and Big Brown seems ready to make history.
His accompanying story, though, is problematic. The hurdles between Big Brown and a warm and fuzzy relationship with fans are steroids, money and the perception that his ownership's backstory wasn't written by Disney. In April, Big Brown's trainer, Rick Dutrow, guilelessly told New York's Daily News that once a month he gives his horses Winstrol, a steroid. Steroid use is legal in New York and 27 of 37 other states in which thoroughbreds race, but the issue is cloudy. "We've seen how anabolic steroids work in humans," says Dr. Don Catlin, a steroids expert who has studied equine doping for the last four years. "It's going to work the same way in horses."
Not everyone in the horse business agrees. California veterinarian Vince Baker, who has treated horses with steroids for more than two decades, notes that "research shows that human steroid users are taking four times the dosage that horses get, twice as often. And this is an average 200-pound person versus a 1,200-pound animal." Baker estimates that roughly 50% of the horses at California racetracks are on some type of steroid regimen, largely to stimulate the animals' appetites. (Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel estimates that many horses receive more frequent doses than Dutrow and Baker suggest.) "I don't know what [a steroid] does," Dutrow said before the Preakness. "I just like using it."
A steroid ban in racing looms likely in the near future—"strictly for public perception," says Baker. And while there have been whispers about steroid use for at least 30 years, nobody knows how many great horses have run on them. ( Barclay Tagg, who trains Tale of Ekati, is the only other trainer in this year's Belmont to acknowledge steroid use.) Whether Belmont viewers will see a Big Brown victory as tainted is impossible to know but central to the tale.
There's little debate, however, that the reputation of Big Brown's co-owner has taken a hit. Bloomberg News reported last week that Michael Iavarone—who in 2003 founded IEAH (International Equine Acquisitions Holdings), the company that owns Big Brown—has been involved in a series of missteps. In 1999 Iavarone, 37, who is described on the stable's website as having been a "high-profile investment banker on Wall Street," was fined $7,500 and suspended for 10 days by the National Association of Securities Dealers for trading stocks without his clients' approval. Last Saturday, Iavarone released a statement saying the bio on his website is misleading; his Wall Street experience was limited to a few years at small brokerages. (On Monday, Iavarone said, "I should have been more open about my past.") In '03 Iavarone was sued by the Keeneland Association of Kentucky over horses he bought but failed to pay for. (He later settled.) In '04 he was assessed a $130,000 lien by the IRS for unpaid taxes.
In an interview with SI last week Iavarone said, "My suspension was for mistakes I made when I was 22 years old, cutting my teeth in the industry, and I got mixed up with the wrong people. The tax issue, I had a bad year in the market, but I have paid my taxes. And things have been taken care of between me and Keeneland. This was my past. I'm not proud of it. But we've got a horse that's making history. Why is the focus on me?"
The revelations about Iavarone are pertinent because he has been recruiting investors for IEAH while building what he describes as a racing hedge fund; the minimum buy-in is $500,000. The idea that he might be acting only in the interest of turning a profit makes some racing purists queasy. (In fairness, IEAH is building a $16 million equine medical treatment center near Belmont.) His loyalties—the sport or the buck—will be tested quickly if Big Brown wins the Belmont because cynics expect that the colt, already part of a $50 million breeding deal with Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky, will never run again. This is a problem with good modern racehorses. They are one check away from the breeding shed. But Iavarone says he will keep Big Brown in front of the racing public. "I am committed to the game," he says. "If Big Brown comes out of the Belmont the way he goes in, his next race will be the Travers and after that the Breeders' Cup Classic." Two more races, however financially perilous, would be a bold and meaningful step.
This week, however, there is only Big Brown and the desperate wish for an end to the longest Triple Crown drought in history. If it happens, that should be story enough.