When Big Brown won the 2008 Kentucky Derby, he launched his high-profile — and sometimes controversial — owner IEAH Stables into the national spotlight. This year, IEAH is back in the Derby forefront as part owner of Grade I winner and probable race favorite I Want Revenge.
Shortly after arriving on the grounds for this year's attempt at the roses, IEAH President Michael Iavarone discussed the impact last year had on his operation and addressed some of the criticism that has been directed at his stable.
Question: This time last year was when IEAH became a household name in racing. What are the emotions and memories like coming back to Churchill?
Answer: I think this is different. I think, last year, we had never been here before, and everything was new. I think, this time, we know the routine here, and we're going to really get to enjoy this one. Last year, there was so much pressure on us and, this year, we can sit back and enjoy it. I think you hear in sports, the ones that win the championships the second time, they always say the second time is better than the first time because they can go through with their eyes open, and we're kind of in the same situation.
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Q: How did the deal for I Want Revenge come about?
A: The horse won the Gotham, and I spoke to (bloodstock agent) Nick Sallusto, and ... he had liked the horse from day one. So I said, "I think I'm sold," and flew to California, met with (owner and breeder) David Lanzman, saw the horse. It took us a couple weeks, but we made the deal happen, I think, three or four days before the Wood Memorial.
Q: What was it about him that stood out?
A: Nick liked him when he ran on the synthetic. But when he ran on the dirt, I saw he had a much more substantial turn of foot on the dirt than I saw on the synthetic. I think that was the final straw.
Q: Last year, IEAH came one vote away from winning the Eclipse Award (for leading owner). Is it bittersweet to have people recognize you but to fall just short of an honor like that?
A: I don't think anything was bittersweet about it. I think we were fortunate to be in the position to be in the top three at the end of the year, and obviously one vote is as close as it gets. But we had two champions in this barn (Big Brown, champion 3-year-old male, and Benny the Bull, champion sprinter), and I don't think anybody is disappointed or looks back at it and says anything was upsetting about last year.
Q: Is IEAH looking to expand more into the breeding side of the industry?
A: We're already into breeding. We have about 30-something broodmares; we have two stallions in Frost Giant and Big Brown. The breeding side of it will be a very important element going forward.
Q: The issue of safety has been key in racing the last year. What impact do you think these new safety accreditation measures might have?
A: I think racing has done a fairly good job of trying to clean up its integrity. I think, obviously, steroids were a hot button last year, but I can't say that I believe in my heart of hearts that's the only problem in racing. But I think it's a step in the right direction.
Q: As great as last year was for IEAH, there was also some controversy along the way (with trainer Rick Dutrow saying he gave Big Brown steroids, etc). Do you think the criticism levied against you was unfair, and how do you respond to critics who question some of the trainers IEAH has aligned itself with?
A: I think, if you're going to be at the top of the game, people are going to take their shots. I think the criticism was directed at us because we were in the spotlight for most of the year. We've never had a horse test positive with Rick Dutrow on anything. So I think we were just in the spotlight so we caught the attention.
Q: Was there any concern with Jeff Mullins (trainer of I Want Revenge) and the AirPower incident?
A: Yeah, naturally there was concern with that when we first heard about it because nobody knew what was really going on. But when you look back on it, AirPower is not a medical-substance violation, it was a detention-barn violation, and Jeff took his penalty and moves on. I think if they're going to call it a racing-medication violation, they're misinterpreting it. It was a detention-barn violation.
Q: It's so hard to get a horse to the Derby let alone win it. How do you describe the magnitude of coming back here with a horse who — again — probably will be the favorite?
A: It's amazing. I think it's a credit to our staff and to Nick and the hard work these guys put in. It shows that our model of how we buy horses is effective, and I think it's going to be our focus every year to try to get to the Derby with the right horse. This is the Super Bowl of racing, and this is why owners spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year trying to buy horses. I think our system is effective, and it's working. As long as we keep ourselves in the game, we're going to keep trying.