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Book review: Like industry, 'Headless Horsemen' has issues

Jim Squires has some issues.

Not just because the venerable breeder lets his emotions run almost as strong as his mouth, a point he won't dispute.

No, what Squires has issues with these days is what he sees as the demise of the sport that has brought him some of the most remarkable highs and heartaches of his life.

Squires contends in his new book that after years of flirting with collapse, the Thoroughbred industry is finally starting to crumble under the weight of its longstanding problems, thanks to doped-up horses, unscrupulous sales practices and a blue-blooded hierarchy unwilling to give up control.

Squires' 249-page yarn, Headless Horsemen: A Tale of Chemical Colts, Subprime Sales Agents, and the Last Kentucky Derby on Steroids, is no paean to horse racing.

The former Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor first gained fame in horse country as the breeder of 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos and has long been one of the most outspoken advocates for reform in the ranks of Thoroughbred owners.

Now, a disheartened Squires pulls no punches in detailing his view of racing's ills, zeroing in most frequently on what he calls the "Dinnies" — the wealthy ruling establishment that controls every meaningful organization in the sport and that refers specifically to Ogden "Dinny" Mills Phipps, chairman of the powerful Jockey Club.

It is the "Dinnies," Squires writes, who have hijacked any project or initiative that threatens their power. And even if a brazen interloper is able to penetrate their ranks, it isn't long, Squires contends, before that person is either pushed out entirely or shuffled back into an ineffective role.

"Only the industry problems the Dinnies encounter themselves get quick attention" Squires writes.

Squires hardly stops at going after the ruling elite. Instead of breeding for the racetrack, he claims many farms are focused mostly on sales-ring success, which results in bands of steroid-induced, surgically enhanced babies parading through the auction arena.

Helping buyers purchase such horses are nefarious bloodstock agents who Squires claims prey on ill-informed newcomers and consummate behind-the-scene deals with regularity. Though his own encounters with such agents give that notion credence, Squires stops short of truly naming the names of the predators.

Poster boys for drugs

Squires really digs in when he asserts that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is prevalent in the sport — going so far as to point to two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown as the poster boys of racing's steroid era.

As he does too often in this book, however, Squires gets into dangerous territory when he recounts rumors that Secretariat may have been on steroids and that Ruffian's trainer, Frank Whiteley Jr., enhanced his horses' abilities with cocaine. While Squires doesn't present those claims as absolute truths, their mere mention is toying with the reputations of legends, something you don't do when your only ammo is hearsay.

One of my biggest problems with Headless Horsemen, however, is that it may be the most poorly edited finished book I have encountered. I found no fewer than 10 factual errors in my copy — most of which could have been checked with a 30-second Google search.

Among the errors: writing on page 119 that Funny Cide won two legs of the Triple Crown in 2004 (he won in 2003); on the same page saying Azeri won Horse of the Year in 2003 (she won in 2002); repeatedly spelling the name of WinStar Farm co-owner Bill Casner as Castner on page 179, and writing that New York legalized the use of Lasix in 1985 on page 133 (it was 1995).

If you are going to rail against the industry with stories based largely on third-party accounts and innuendo, you'd better make sure every duck you do have is perfectly in its row.

And when the basics aren't right, it can make it awfully easy for the very people Squires says don't want to hear his message to discredit its validity.

As an industry insider, he knows this. As a former Chicago Tribune editor, he should know better.

Fascinating, disturbing

Despite such sloppiness, Squires does raise valid points about racing's need for reform, and there were several enjoyable qualities in his latest tome. His chapter on veterinarians, specifically the practices of the late Dr. Alex Harthill, who treated at least 26 Derby winners with his cutting-edge and sometimes controversial use of medications, was simultaneously fascinating and — if assertions of manipulating Kentucky Derby results are true — disturbing.

But where Squires shines is in describing why people like himself continue to be so enthralled with a business he contends is hopelessly flawed. As he succinctly but powerfully writes, "There is just something about the horses."

When Squires talks of how he held it together publicly for his parents' respective funerals, but wept openly over the death of his two favorite equines, it was hard not to get choked up right along with him.

Squires' conversational style and descriptive writing make Headless Horsemen an easy read. And the warnings he serves up are worth heeding.

But in offering too much discontent, too much hearsay and too few real solutions, Headless Horsemen — like the industry it details — has its share of issues as well.

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