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A Tumultuous Horseracing Season

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

At Belmont Park on Long Island tomorrow, Big Brown will attempt to become horse racing's first Triple Crown winner in 30 years. To do so, he'll have to beat out nine other horses including one flown in from Japan just for this race.

Well, joining us now to talk about what has been a tumultuous Triple Crown season is Stefan Fatsis, who joins us most Fridays to talk about sports.

Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Robert.

SIEGEL: Big Brown is the overwhelming early favorite in the 148th Belmont Stakes. Is there anything that could stop him from winning?

FATSIS: Well, on paper you wouldn't think so. He's just one of two horses ever to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness by four and a half lengths or more. The other was Whirlaway in 1941, before even you were watching horse racing, Robert. Big Brown drew the pole position for this race, closest to the rail. It's not going to help him. One possibility is that other jockeys will ride a race designed to slow down Big Brown, and that's happened before. The other is the Japanese horse we've talked about, Casino Drive, his owners paid $950,000 for him at a yearling sale in Kentucky at 2006. They say he's been trained especially for the long Belmont race, a mile and a half. And he's got the Belmont breeding. His half-brother, Jazil, won the race in 2006, and his three-quarter sister, Rags to Riches, won it last year.

SIEGEL: His three-quarter sister?

FATSIS: Yes, they share three grandparents.

SIEGEL: This is the small world of thoroughbred breeding. It doesn't seem though that the trainer of Big Brown is worried about this. He said that the Triple Crown is a foregone conclusion.

FATSIS: Yeah, there have been two focuses in the days leading up to the race: Big Brown's cracked left front hoof and his trainer Rick Dutrow's big mouth. Now, the hoof seems to be okay. Big Brown ran five furlongs on Wednesday. The race is 12 furlongs. And he did it pretty fast. Dutrow hasn't stopped predicting that this horse will win handily, though, which has been entertaining. But it's also drawn some attention to his checkered past in the sport, which to be fair he's addressed with candor. He's drawn several suspensions in the past for violating industry rules regarding drugs and training regimens. The legendary horse racing writer Andrew Beyer had a column in yesterday's Washington Post questioning Dutrow's record of transforming unremarkable horses into winners. Big Brown doesn't fall into that category, but...

SIEGEL: But. Now, questions about the use of anabolic steroids and other drugs on the race horses.

FATSIS: Yeah, there's been progress in horse racing in terms of testing and the eradication of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. But there's no overall regulatory body at state by state. And the U.S. is considered to be behind other countries in terms of outlawing drug use in horses. Some anabolics are legal. Dutrow said shortly before the Preakness that he gives all of his horses a shot of a steroid every month. That steroid was Winstrol, and it's legal in 28 of the 38 states with horse racing and it's permissible in the 10 other states for therapeutic purposes.

SIEGEL: But you know, we're all thinking about steroids in human sports. The bioethics are quite different. We start with the idea that race horses are bred to be race horses. We'd never do that with baseball players.

FATSIS: Yes. And steroids serve a similar purpose, breeding or not - work out harder, be stronger, add muscle, recover more quickly. In horses, steroids can be beneficial because there's one - one side effect of training is that horses sometimes lose their appetite and steroids sometimes help them regain it. So there is this larger issue of we're already down a slippery slope, where breeding has been shown to be a problem in horse racing. Are we making it worse when steroids are added to the mix? Does it contribute to breakdowns? Does it do other long-term harm that maybe we're not even aware of yet?

SIEGEL: And is Big Brown racing on steroids tomorrow?

FATSIS: We're going to assume no. The New York Times reported yesterday that Dutrow said Big Brown hadn't received a shot of that steroid Winstrol since April 15th. On the other hand, the newspaper reported on Monday that Big Brown will compete on anabolic steroids and it quoted Dutrow at that time too. Whether it matters, I don't know. As one steroids expert said, steroids have already affected Big Brown's training.

SIEGEL: Stephan Fatsis, who talks with us about sports most Fridays. Have a good weekend, Stefan; don't bet the whole house on this one.

FATSIS: I won't, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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