He is our Felix Unger, almost compulsive in his quest to clean things up in an industry that has more than a few problems. He is Mr. Clean without the earring, standing proudly with arms crossed, a slight smile on his face showing his sense of accomplishment. He is a friend of politicians, a mover and shaker in the Thoroughbred industry, serving on numerous committees and boards on multiple organizations across the alphabetical landscape that is the Thoroughbred industry.
He is Robert Clay, the owner of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky.
Clay has been in the news a great deal this spring. Along with Serengeti Stable, Clay was co-breeder of Eight Belles, the filly who ran a game second in the Kentucky Derby but broke down after the finish and was euthanized. He was blamed by some, including the acting chairman of a Congressional committee that looked into the welfare of the Thoroughbred in a June 19 hearing, for producing “a genetic disaster waiting to happen” in the case of Eight Belles.
Knowledgeable people inside the industry are not questioning his part in producing Eight Belles, who was an exceptionally fast and sound filly before her demise. But some are wondering why Robert Clay (along with son Case, who is president of the farm) was so quick to embrace and recruit Big Brown to his Three Chimneys stallion barn, considering the baggage the son of Boundary brings with him.
Big Brown is trained by Rick Dutrow, a sleazy racetrack character whose list of regulatory violations, stretching from California to New York, is prodigious by any measure. Before Big Brown's victory in the Kentucky Derby, Dutrow freely admitted that all of his horses, including Big Brown, get regular injections of the anabolic steroid Winstrol. Controversial veterinarian Steve Allday said he stopped working for Dutrow a couple of years ago because Dutrow asked him to do things Allday refused to do.
Then there is the IEAH Stable, the ownership group that bought majority interest in Big Brown last September from Paul Pompa Jr. One of IEAH's first trainers, Greg Martin, is a confessed cheater who was convicted of a felony for juicing an IEAH runner in 2003. IEAH co-president, Michael Iavarone, is a former penny stock trader who worked at four now-closed “bucket shops,” including one firm shut down by regulators. Iavarone was fined, censured and suspended for making unauthorized trades. Yet IEAH portrayed Iavarone as a “high profile investment banker on Wall Street.” IEAH also stiffed Keeneland on the purchase of several pricey yearlings in 2003.
Clay and the Big Brown team truly are the “odd couple,” with either Dutrow or Iavarone capable of playing the part of Oscar Madison, the sloppy, corner-cutting counterpart to Clay's pristine Felix Unger, who has the reputation for doing everything by the book.
Perhaps, however, Dutrow and Iavarone are angels with dirty faces. Before the Triple Crown's final leg, Iavarone and IEAH pledged to give a substantial portion of the Belmont purse Big Brown was expected to win to support a scholarship fund for the son of a stricken police officer on Long Island (I'm not sure where that stands, since Big Brown earned nothing in the Belmont after being eased). In addition, Dutrow said he'd stopped giving Big Brown anabolic steroids before the Preakness. Then, in a surprise announcement on June 22, Iavarone said he was swearing off drugs for his entire stable because of his concerns for the “integrity” of the sport.
So, how did Robert Clay, whose mantra has been personal integrity in the horse business, wind up doing this deal?
“My mother taught me to take people as they come,” Clay told me. “They (Big Brown's owners) have done nothing but what they said they would do and more, and have been totally straightforward in their business dealings with me.”
Clay wouldn't comment on the reports about Iavarone's embellished resume and prior problems, which were published May 28, the same day Case Clay helped Big Brown's owners ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
Rick Dutrow, however, seems to be another story.
“The trainer and owners are two kettles of fish,” Clay said. “I don't have a relationship with Dutrow, and Dutrow speaks for himself, obviously. I guess it would be fair to say we don't have the same styles. I have no control over the trainer, nor his scheduling.”
Published reports valued the Three Chimneys-Big Brown stallion deal at around $50 million, with sources saying Three Chimneys bought just 10% of the horse. That type of valuation would typically command an initial-year stud fee north $100,000, even for a horse like Big Brown who doesn't have a top stallion pedigree (and no other stakes winners in the female family until the third dam). Big Brown's puzzling display in the Belmont will make that difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
“Those days of $100,000 are over,” said one bloodstock agent who specializes in the stallion market. “Of course, how he does in the Haskell and other races could help.” Another bloodstock agent suggested something closer to $50,000 as a realistic first-year fee.
Clay acknowledges that Big Brown will enter stud with question marks. “He's got feet problems,” Clay said. “Dynaformer's got feet problem, too; the worst feet of any horse on the farm. Do we not take a horse to stud because of feet problems? Dynaformer does not pass bad feet along. It doesn't mean that won't happen (with Big Brown).”
Clay said the publicity over Dutrow's use of anabolic steroids with Big Brown is “concerning,” though he pointed out that countless other horses have been retired to stud after racing on steroids.
“Steroids is like Lasix,” he said. “You can't find a trainer who doesn't use it. It's the industry's responsibilities to make the rules that we want to live by, and not the trainer's responsibility to not abide by the rules. If I were to speculate, I'd say (steroids) don't have anything to do with their genes. If we are being fooled, then we are taking the wrong genes to the breeding shed. I'm not smart enough to know the answer to that. I think we ought to take any performance enhancing drugs out of the sport…period. But the resistance to that is broad.”
Clay said Three Chimneys doesn't give its yearlings steroids. “Never have, never will,” he said. “I am a big advocate of what Keeneland is doing, taking steroids out of the sales. I'm not sure taking steroids out of racing is as simple as it sounds.
“Big Brown is the most famous horse that raced on steroids,” he said, “and it concerns me that I've got a poster child horse.”
By Ray Paulick
Copyright ©2008, The Paulick Report
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