Trainer Rudy Rodriguez's path to Kentucky Derby cleared, but controversy shows racing's underbelly

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Tuesday meeting of the licensing committee of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission (KHRC) was a revealing look at the skullduggery that can exist in thoroughbred racing.

One man came before the committee seeking reinstatement of his trainer’s license three years after he was banned, in part, for having an employee who was found with a vodka-filled syringe in a horse’s stall at Turfway Park. Jeffrey Scott Raley, the trainer in question, had his request denied.

But a license was granted to the man who was the feature attraction of this meeting. That was Rudolpho “Rudy” Rodriguez, who was seeking his license so he can saddle Gotham Stakes winner Vyjack in the Kentucky Derby on May 4. That dream now will come true, but with an unprecedented order for 24-hour video surveillance of the horse’s stall in Barn 4 at Churchill Downs – something Rodriguez requested himself during an occasionally contentious two-hour hearing.

At a time when American racing is trying to clean up its drug culture, the KHRC ordered Rodriguez to appear and make his case for why he should be granted a license after a string of disciplinary issues in his career as a New York-based trainer, jockey and exercise rider.

The most recent Rodriguez controversy was a filly named Majestic Marquet, who last month tested positive at Aqueduct Race Course for a high level of Banamine, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug that is legal for horses but must be below an allowable limit on race day. It was the third time in the last year that a Rodriguez horse has tested positive for excessive levels of Banamine.

The other two overages were for small amounts that could, conceivably, be attributed to a mistimed injection by a veterinarian too close to a race. But on March 10, Majestic Marquet was so far over the legal limit of the drug that there was only plausible explanation in the mind of the trainer and his attorney, Karen Murphy:

The horse was sabotaged.

Someone, they insist, got to Majestic Marquet in his barn and administered a high dose of Banamine in order to register a positive test and further jeopardize Rodriguez, who was just about to begin serving a 20-day suspension for the previous Banamine positives. Murphy said that Rodriguez has thousands of dollars in video surveillance at his barn but was asked to move to a different barn, and the video equipment was not relocated and activated by New York Racing Association officials during that time. They say that with the cameras off, the filly was tampered with.

This explanation was accepted without significant questioning from the KHRC committee, which otherwise thoroughly grilled Rodriguez.

“There’s a lot of jealousy in this business,” Rodriguez told Yahoo! Sports afterward. “Our horses, from Day 1 (as a trainer), they’ve been running very, very good. People get jealous.”

In other words, there is a strong belief that this stuff actually happens in the "Sport of Kings." A $50,000 reward has been offered for information on who may have drugged Majestic Marquet, fliers have been posted at NYRA tracks and a private investigator is working on the case.

The notion that something as cloak-and-dagger as an unknown figure slipping into a barn and injecting a horse with a drug can be presumed plausible tells you a lot about horse racing. It is a beautiful, dramatic and compelling sport with a veneer of luxury and glamour. But the underbelly can be as gritty and grimy as boxing.

Rodriguez has spent much of his adult life working to get from the gritty side to the glamour side. A native of Mexico, he spent years scratching out a living as an exercise rider. He'd show up at the barns in the morning to work out expensive horses for big-time trainers, earning $20 a pop. Then in the afternoon he rode the races, but rarely got good mounts or had much success.

“He exercised some of the best horses ever,” said Michael Dubb, a trustee of the NYRA and thoroughbred owner who currently has about 25 horses with Rodriguez. “And as a jockey he rode some of the worst horses that ever raced.”

Along the way, Rodriguez said he absorbed lessons about horsemanship from the trainers who employed him as an exercise rider. He hung around the barn and watched everything they did.

“He was the first man to come on the backside in the morning and the last man to leave at night,” said Dale Romans, who won the 2011 Preakness and the 2012 Eclipse Award as North America’s most outstanding trainer. “He wanted to learn how to be a horse trainer.”

But it was one of the trainers Rodriguez learned from that has caused much of the concern about his record. He was an exercise rider for Richard Dutrow Jr., as big an outlaw as racing has had in a long time.

Dutrow won the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Big Brown, but is currently serving a 10-year suspension from the New York racing commission for a laundry list of violations. Association with him can make a horseman radioactive, and it appears to have cast suspicion upon Rodriguez.

The KHRC spent a long time Tuesday asking Rodriguez about penalties he incurred while in the employ of Dutrow in 2007. Rodriguez was suspended for a week and fined $2,500 for “conduct detrimental to racing,” as part of a ruling pertaining to Dutrow training a horse named Wild Desert under a false name in New Jersey, while the trainer was under suspension. Rodriguez denied any association with the scam, which caused commission members to ask why he would go along with a fine and suspension if he was innocent.

“I just pay the fine,” Rodriguez said. “I still don’t know why they accuse me like that. … I just get on with my life.”

Dubb explained to the KHRC that Rodriguez is “non-confrontational to a fault,” and said he should not have to continually defend his employment with Dutrow. Rodriguez says he no longer speaks with Dutrow, beyond curt greetings.

“His last boss may have been an idiot, but you shouldn’t be judged by your last boss,” Dubb said. “It just breaks my heart that he has to go through this. … You shouldn’t be singled out because you work hard.”

Since striking out on his own as a trainer in 2010, Rodriguez has had to persevere through a plethora of questions and plenty of scrutiny. He started with three horses and now has 80, and his prodigious early winning percentage has aroused curiosity and outright suspicion in New York. Some wondered whether Rodriguez’s success was a product of Dutrow’s dark arts – or perhaps even Dutrow himself.

According to a 2010 report, Rodriguez’s Aqueduct barn was placed under surveillance by NYRA. In a January 2011 story in the Daily Racing Form, Rodriguez said his barn still was being monitored regularly by investigators.

During the past two years, Rodriguez horses have had six drug overages in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland – not counting the alleged sabotage last month. Murphy, Rodriguez’s lawyer, told the KHRC that her client’s drug record is comparable to other trainers who will be saddling horses at Churchill Downs on May 4.

“A majority of people going into your Derby in 2013 have had penalties for overages,” she said. “Including some for Banamine.”

So there are two competing narratives coming to Louisville with Vyjack and Rudy Rodriguez. Is he the hard-working immigrant who is trying to capture the American Dream and being waylaid by the jealous and the discriminatory, who may accord more respect to an upcoming trainer named Rudy Smith? Or is he another drug cheat in a sport full of them, trying to stay ahead of the posse long enough to win the biggest prize in racing the way former boss Dutrow did five years ago?

In modern horse racing, there always is doubt.

“Every trainer should have the right to have his name on the (Kentucky Derby) program and walk over (beneath the Twin Spires) with his horse,” Romans said.

Rudy Rodriguez won that right Tuesday. But come May 4, will 150,000 fans be cheering or booing him?

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