Digging the dirt: wake-up call for the American dream

The brilliant Big Brown can join the legends of American horseracing this weekend by becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 30 years. However, his story also reveals the dark side of the sport: the rampant use of steroids, and the terrible toll inflicted on horses by dirt tracks

On the face of it, his claims to greatness would be immaculate. If Big Brown wins the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, he will become the first winner of the American Triple Crown in three decades. He is not merely unbeaten, but untested. He won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes more or less at his leisure. Even champion thoroughbreds, as a rule, leaven their careers with moments of vulnerability. This brawny braggart, Big Brown, seems to be imposing himself on history with incontrovertible clarity. The aggregate margin of his five wins so far is 39 lengths.

Yet his story somehow grows more complex, more challenging, at every turn. As it happens, it is certainly one of redemption – but also one of brazen decadence. Far from delivering American racing from doubt, he is becoming a cipher for its crisis. To many, his Triple Crown would be veneer to the basest metal.

Like every racing fable, Big Brown's has disclosed more about men than horses. Seabiscuit, for instance, became a parable of fortitude in the Depression. His reticent trainer was a relic of the cowboy era, whose methods were a last echo of forgotten horse lore. But Big Brown has introduced a man whose own experience of adversity has engendered a very different kind of defiance. Rick Dutrow is long past caring what people might think of him. And, as such, he does not seem to care what he gives his horses, either.

Dutrow has a litany of fines and suspensions from the racing authorities. Sometimes the trainer has failed drugs tests; more often, it has been his horses. By his own admission, on the 15th day of each month Dutrow administers Winstrol to his horses – the same anabolic steroid that caused Ben Johnson to be stripped of his gold medal at the 1988 Olympics. There is nothing illegal about this. Winstrol is permitted in 28 of the 38 horseracing States, including all three hosting Triple Crown races. But Big Brown, having first excited admiration, and then interest, is now provoking disgust as well.

Outsiders are astonished to discover that trainers routinely administer steroids to horses. And the American sport's internal debate – hitherto a sotto voce dialogue between a minority of anguished crusaders and a majority of ruthless pragmatists – has reached a critical intensity.

Even before learning of this squalid complication, the American public had been revolted by their first encounter with Big Brown. The Kentucky Derby runner-up, a filly named Eight Belles, shattered both ankles as she was being pulled up and was put down on the spot. The vivid tragedy was a sequel of other recent catastrophes, notably Barbaro, who won the race two years previously but broke down in front of the grandstand during the Preakness. Vets abandoned the struggle with Barbaro eight months later. Then, last autumn, the European turf champion, George Washington, suffered irreparable injury on a sloppy track at the Breeders' Cup.

The trainer of Eight Belles, Larry Jones, furiously denied that steroids contributed to her demise. But her tragedy helped to focus attention on the rapacity of breeders and trainers who have, between them, clumsily tilted the exquisite balance of bone and brawn in a thoroughbred. And it also reinforced the case for accelerating the replacement of traditional US dirt courses with safer, synthetic surfaces.

On Saturday, Big Brown could confirm himself perhaps the last of the great dirt performers. This surface is deep and unforgiving and tests horses' legs in the way that running on a sandy beach exerts wear and tear on human joints. Although it can vary from clinging suet to sloppy black soup, it always fails to support hooves in the same way as cushion-sprung artificial surfaces and even allows them to pound through to the hard base below.

But it suits the conformation of horses bred from past dirt champions – now valuable stallions – and powerful vested interests have tried to retard the inevitable revolution. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, will doubtless be one of the last tracks dug up.

Dirt, of course, will find any weak links in the thoroughbred. And steroids will hide them. Dutrow's blunt, cynical ways have offended many, but others have at least commended his honesty. Anecdotally, the use of steroids in American racing – first thought to have infected the sport in the 1960s – is now endemic. The Phipps racing dynasty scrupulously confines its superbly bred horses to a regime of "hay, oats and water". They made Shug McGaughey one of the world's most successful trainers 15 or 20 years ago, but he has now been left far behind by brash young trainers who turn out winners on an industrial scale. A similar decline has affected other respected horsemen, such as Bill Mott and John Kimmel.

Before banning steroids in Pennsylvania, racing officials tested 998 horses and came up with 61.7 per cent positive samples. The abiding ethic seems to have become: "If you can't beat them, join them". Meanwhile, Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher, two of the most prolific trainers in American history, have both been punished in recent seasons for drug violations. And, with a notoriously generous regulatory mesh, how many other big fish have slipped through?

Some hold that steroids do not enhance performance. According to Dutrow's own vet, they assist horses that would otherwise lose appetite and condition after racing. The therapeutic use of steroids helps listless animals cope with the training schedule. A horse like Big Brown, he says, will dominate by innate ability.

It is surely fatuous, however, to deny that denser muscle tissue enhances performance. And certainly the use of steroids on young horses, entered for auction by commercial breeders, disguises the frailties within. Bulging, wild-eyed cavalries notoriously emerge from the same barns every morning at American training centres. Perhaps that inner fragility will emerge in some catastrophic breakdown. Or perhaps it will remain hidden in expensive stallions and bequeathed to the next generation, a corrosive genetic secret.

Until this year, only one State – Iowa – prohibited steroid use in racehorses. But increasing political concern over medication abuse in other sports has prompted federal pressure on racing authorities to clean up their act. Tighter regulations are being widely timetabled for 2009.

The pity of it is that horses are unwitting accomplices in this alchemy. Unlike Johnson, or the baseball player Barry Bonds, or any of the other names tainted by drug abuse, Big Brown cannot say no to his coach's needle.

And maybe Nature made him truly as talented as any horse since the one they called "Big Red": Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner. Although even Dutrow admits he has beaten sub-standard fields, visually Big Brown has the éclat of greatness. And, when all the innuendo and resentment is put aside, some of the people around him have earned his consolation.

Now 48, Dutrow himself had reached rock bottom, just 10 years ago. He was sleeping in a filthy tack-room at Aqueduct racecourse, in a tough precinct of New York. His father, a prolific trainer in Maryland, was fighting the sickness that would kill him before they could heal their estrangement. His former girlfriend, the mother of their daughter, had been murdered. Dutrow was fighting for custody. He had one groom working for him, Jose Rodriguez. Sometimes, if Dutrow needed a coffee, he had to borrow a dollar from Jose.

But he would occasionally treat himself at a clam bar in Little Italy. One of the waiters introduced him to a Wall Street investor, Sandy Goldfarb. Goldfarb was into harness racing. What would his edge be in thoroughbreds? "You're looking at him," said Dutrow. Within two years he was sending out more winners than any other New York trainer.

A hard road has excoriated any soft margins in Dutrow. "I know some people think the wrong way of me and that's fine," he shrugs. "We do not have time to straighten out why people do not like me. Some of it is true and some of it just doesn't add up to a whole lot. It doesn't bother me."

As his father used to say, Dutrow was always going to end up in some kind of institution: either a state penitentiary or the Hall of Fame. But the most fulfilling chapter of the Big Brown story instead concerns his jockey, Kent Desormeaux. Not because he missed out so narrowly on the Triple Crown 10 years ago, when Real Quiet was nailed on the line, but because his youngest son, Jacob, will eventually lose his sight to Usher Syndrome, an incurable genetic condition.

Now nine, Jacob was deaf at birth and has had 17 operations, allowing him to hear by implants that send signals to his brain. The boy's palpable joy lit up Preakness day. "He has just completely changed life for all of us, and we're so much more appreciative of every little thing," Desormeaux's wife, Sonia, said. "We just want Jacob to experience as much of life as possible and see everything while he's able."

Science will never redeem everything. Nor can it poison everything. It is fitting that the Big Brown story will reach its climax in New York – a place, according to Robert Pirsig, that "has always been going to hell but somehow never gets there". For you might say much the same of a sport that would not know whether to welcome its 12th Triple Crown winner in elegy or paeans.

Select few: The Triple Crown winners

1919

Sir Barton (ridden by Johnny Loftus)

1930

Gallant Fox (Earl Sande)

1935

Omaha (Willie Saunders)

1937

War Admiral (Charlie Kurtsinger)

1941

Whirlaway (Eddie Arcaro)

1943

Count Fleet (Johnny Longden)

1946

Assault (Warren Mehrtens)

1948

Citation (Eddie Arcaro)

1973

Secretariat (Ron Turcotte)

1977

Seattle Slew (Jean Cruguet)

1978

Affirmed (Steve Cauthen)

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