The natural habitat of Thoroughbred racing isn’t the Twilight Zone—but sometimes it certainly seems that way.
Case on point: Within the span of a few days last week, Rick Dutrow Jr. was named the leading trainer during the spring/summer meeting at Belmont Park and a New York appellate court upheld a 10-year suspension handed to Dutrow last October by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board (NYSRWB). If this juxtaposition of events has your head spinning, you’re not alone. Saddling 27 winners doesn’t sound very much like a suspension, at least not the way the term is usually understood.
You can almost hear the eerie music and Rod Serling’s sonorous voice introducing an episode titled The Last Days of a Jockey: "Rounding the far turn and coming up fast on the rail—is the Twilight Zone."
Despite the apparent contradiction, it’s altogether proper and above board for a trainer to benefit from an advantage provided by the law.
Dutrow, a beleaguered trainer who won the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with Big Brown, has a history of medication violations. What triggered the current suspension, according to court records, was a search in November 2010 that turned up three unlabeled hypodermic needles in Dutrow’s desk at Aqueduct Racetrack. Around the same time, a Dutrow-trained horse tested positive for a prohibited medication. Based on the pair of violations, the trainer’s license was suspended for 90 days. Dutrow appealed the suspension, an option guaranteed by the rules of racing, and he was allowed to continue training while the legal wrangling proceeded.
The NYSRWB then escalated the charges based on the earlier violations, the presence of xylazine in the syringes, and the "inadvisability of his continued involvement in horse racing given his history of rule violations and improper conduct." An administrative hearing officer recommended that Dutrow’s license should be suspended for life and the he should be fined $50,000. The NYSRWB accepted the recommendation, with a modification allowing Dutrow to apply to have his license reinstated after 10 years.
The stay of Dutrow’s suspension remained in effect all the while, and he continued to send out winners on a regular basis.
Burden of Proof
The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court found several reasons to uphold Dutrow’s suspension:
●Dutrow claimed that his administrative hearing was unfair because the Chair of the NYSRWB (John Sabini) failed to recuse himself from the hearing. Sabini also has a connection with the Association of Racing Commissioners International, an organization categorized by the court as "devoted to maintaining a multijurisdictional database of licensed horse racing professionals’ disciplinary histories," and it isn’t unreasonable to argue that an official in his position might be prejudiced against a repeat violator. Administrative bodies such as the NYSRWB are presumed to be honest, however, and the court found no proof to dispute that presumption.
●Although there was contradictory evidence regarding the positive drug test for one of the horses trained by Dutrow, the court determined that there was "substantial evidence" supporting the NYSRWB finding that the horse had raced with a prohibited medication. That was good enough. Appellate courts don’t decide whether an agency was right or wrong, only whether there was evidence in the record to support the ruling.
●The court ruled that it was proper for the NYSRWB to deny a license to Dutrow on this occasion, despite the fact that he had been licensed by the agency in the past. Dutrow’s history of violations, coupled with the current charges, could be the basis for denying a license, the court explained.
●Finally, the court said that a 10-year suspension and fine were "not so disproportionate to his proven, recurrent misconduct as to shock one’s sense of fairness."
An appeal of the decision to New York’s highest court is likely. Until things are finally resolved, the stay of Dutrow’s suspension probably will remain in effect.
Is a 10-year suspension for a trainer with a history of medication violations too harsh, too lenient, or just right? Or have we stepped over into the Twilight Zone?