Kentucky Derby

Controversy reigned throughout 2008 Triple Crown

To plug the collectors edition DVD of his movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal was on Letterman last week accompanied by a miniature Shetland pony he called “Little Brown.”

“Little Brown?” asked Letterman.

“This is Big Brown without the steroids,” answered Crystal.

That was the thing about this year's Triple Crown campaign. Judging by the national publicity, the boffo television ratings and the jammed on-track crowds, this was one of the more interesting racing series in recent years. For many of the wrong reasons.

The lasting image of Big Brown won't be his easy wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but of his mysterious easing at the top of the stretch i n the Belmont Stakes.

Just as the lasting image of the Derby won't be Big Brown's monster move to take total control of the race, but that of the filly Eight Belles fracturing her front two legs not long after she hit the finish line second.

Despite the strong overnight 10.5 television ratings, 169 percent higher than for last year's Belmont Stakes, most viewers came away talking more about steroids, track conditions, loudmouth trainers and shady owners than the beauty of the sport.

That's not all bad, however. We're better off dragging racing's dark side out into the light, starting with steroids.

Trainer Rick Dutrow's decision not to give Big Brown his monthly injection of the steroid Winstrol back in May had little or nothing to do with Big Brown's Belmont bust. As Dr. Larry Bramlage said afterward, Winstrol is not a stimulant, but a steroid that keeps horses' appetite up. There is no evidence Big Brown fell off his feed after he stopped receiving the steroid.

But the general public views steroids as performance-enhancing drugs, and for that reason racing needs to rid itself of the ambiguities. Twenty-eight states ban steroids in racehorses. Ten states allow it. The banned figure should be all 38. The sooner the better.

The same blanket policy should be applied to drug cheaters. If racing were ever serious about cracking down on drugs overall and illegal drugs in particular, it would not dispense such marshmallow penalties to offending trainers and owners. Instead, it would adopt the serious crackdowns administered by the governing bodies of such sports as track and field and cycling.

Which returns us to Big Brown's clown, the punished doper and chronic loudmouth who is Dutrow, who after Saturday's spectacular loss lacked the courage to meet the media at the barns on Sunday morning. When Dutrow finally talked Monday, he told the Daily Racing Form it was all jockey Kent Desormeaux's fault.

Dutrow's constant crowing was off-putting enough, but his dissing of the competition trampled the line with others. As David Carroll, the trainer of Belmont runner-up Denis of Cork, explained Saturday, “Basically what he was saying is my horse is (no good), and I knew he wasn't. That just rubbed me the wrong way.”

Many things could have rubbed the general public the wrong way these past five weeks. And, to be sure, there was not nearly the pre-race emotion Saturday at Belmont Park for Big Brown as there was for Smarty Jones back in 2004, nor the at-home viewers. The '04 overnight rating (13.4) was nearly three points higher than this year.

And yet, Saturday's overnight rating topped the first game of the vaunted Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals series, which drew a 10.4.

Lesson: Horse racing may be dying, but the Triple Crown trucks right along. Not even the inconsistent regulations, the boorish personalities, or the now 31-year drought in Triple Crown winners have caused people to stop paying attention.

Maybe the Triple Crown is like college football's BCS — it's the controversy that keeps the fans talking.

In that case, this year's Triple Crown had plenty to talk about.

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