May 30th 2012 03:00 pm |
The buildup is in full swing for yet another Triple Crown try at Belmont Park on June 9th, the eleventh attempt since the last sweep in 1978. The last try for the Triple Crown at Belmont failed with Big Brown in 2008. That horse’s connections, led by trainer Rick Dutrow, were as likeable as a stomach virus which made their failure with Big Brown easy to swallow. This year is different. I’ll Have Another’s trainer Doug O’Neil and his team seem a likeable bunch.
Unfortunately, O’Neil, like Dutrow, has a record of drug violations which makes him an understandable target for horse racing’s critics. However, some of the criticisms have gone a bit overboard. Bill Rhoden wrote in the New York Times that the sport didn’t “merit” or “deserve” a Triple Crown because of the problems with racing . Another idea being thrown around is that a Triple Crown win by a trainer with a checkered past would further taint the sport — another laughable idea when taking the long view.
Consider this: H.D. Bedwell, who trained the first Triple Crown winner Sir Barton, was as checkered as they come and yet he is immortalized in racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga. According to racing historian Ed Bowen in Masters of the Turf, Bedwell was “ruled off New York tracks for about six times longer than he was famed on them.” Dorothy Ours in her seminal work on Man o’ War reiterated a long-standing claim that Bedwell overcame Sir Barton’s delicate feet with a shot of cocaine before he raced.
Commentary in secondary sources written long after Bedwell died is one thing, finding a solid case of Bedwell’s method in primary sources is another. Aware of the long-standing accusations against Bedwell, I searched and found an interesting narrative embedded in the historic newspapers at the Library of Congress. If you want to get a glimpse of Bedwell’s method, long before drug testing became common, check this series of events constructed from news reports in 1909 and 1910:
Bedwell, a native of Denver, made his mark on thoroughbred racing in California during the early 1900s. When he moved a string of horses to New York in 1909, the Penscola Journal reported on the western invader’s success:
One of the surprises of the meeting at Empire City race track (New York) is the successful running of the horses owned and trained by H.G. Bedwell, formerly a druggist of Denver Col., which business he gave up a few years ago on account of ill health. Arsenic, a deadly poison, is the secret though which Bedwell had been able to keep his horses in good racing condition and twice a day they receive a small portion in their food as tonic.
The claim that Bedwell was formerly a “druggist” couldn’t be verified and is likely false. The accusation that he used arsenic on his horses was confirmed by none other than H.G. Bedwell. Bedwell was quoted in the Los Angeles Herald saying this:
Horses like men, lose their vital forces through hard work. In order to tone them up, I give them arsenic in small doses. It serves as a tonic for the blood, and with the blood in condition my horses thrive and are able to race at their best speed
The use of small doses of arsenic to improve a horse’s performance was well-known in Bedwell’s day. And, based on Bedwell’s acknowledgement, not illegal. However, his apparent cavalier use of stimulants on his horses caught up with him a year later in 1910. It all began with the acquisition of a horse named Nadzu who he purchased for an “insignificant sum” from a selling (claiming) race in California.
Nadzu went on to win the prestigious Thornton Stakes by thirty lengths at Emeryville in California in March 1910. The four mile Thornton Stakes was called the “most famous long distance feature of the American turf.”
A few months later, the New York Tribune reported this about Nadzu and H.G. Bedwell:
H.G. Bedwell, owner of one of the largest racing stables in the west…was ruled off the Latonia course today. The action by Judges Price and Dillon followed an investigation into the condition of the horse Nadzu, which was excused from the sixth on July 4. At the time Nadzu was apparently under the influence of stimulants, and this was so noticeable that the horse was ordered excused, and did not start.”
Bedwell claimed that he was the victim of foul play. According to the San Francisco Call:
H.G. Bedwell is reported to have enlisted the aid of the Pinkertons in an effort to find the negro stable-hand who he hopes will be able to throw some light on the doping of Nadzu, and thus removing the stigma caused by the action of barring him from the turf. Several clues are being followed, and it is hoped the boy will soon be found. It will be remembered that Bedwell introduced testimony to the effect that the negro told another of the employees that he administered a powder to Nadzu at the request of a stranger, who offered to bet for him.”
You don’t need to be Columbo to determine that the evidence against Bedwell in this case appears strong. The parts of this narrative might sound familiar to the modern race fan: A shady trainer claims cheap horse followed by the cheap horse making a major improvement. Trainer then gets caught doping the same horse and denies any involvement.
In Bedwell’s case, he attached his denial to the racism of his day. Most Americans in 1910 would easily believe the story of an unscrupulous “negro” drugging a horse to cash a bet.
The ruling against Bedwell inspired this rant from the El Paso Herald:
While Bedwell was at the Juarez track [in Mexico] he was touted by the official racing paper and the attaches of the race track as ‘the squarest man among the racing gentry.’ The result of the investigation [in Kentucky] shows just how square the squarest is and also throws an interesting light upon the conditions which prevail in the racing game, which allow such things as doping horses and the manipulation of races to permit a certain owner or crowd to win big bets on the outcome of the racing. The Latonia incident is only another proof that horse racing as it is conducted at present, is not on the square…”
Just as the reporter in 1910 used the incident of Nadzu and H.G. Bedwell as evidence that racing was crooked, so too will writers today use Doug O’Neil’s past to implicate the entire sport of racing. No one claims that Thoroughbred racing doesn’t have serious problems but emphasizing certain elements of the sport to represent it as a whole is something that has plagued it for most of its history.
SOURCES, NEWS, AND NOTES
Bowen, Ed. Masters of the Turf (2007). If you are interested in racing history, Bowen’s book about legendary thoroughbred trainer’s is a must have.
Ours, Dorothy. Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning (2007). Ours writes extensively about Bedwell, she makes the claim about Bedwell and cocaine on page 65.
Image of Bedwell and Sir Barton from The Washington Times, 16 May 1919
Thanks for reading!