LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Big Brown's owner doesn't want to wait for the federal government to come in and clean up horse racing.
Michael Iavarone, the co-owner of IEAH Stables, said Monday the 50-plus horses owned by the syndicate will be drug free by the end of the year. That includes steroids and all other legal racing medications except for Lasix.
Iavarone said last week's Congressional hearing in which owners, veterinarians and industry officials expressed a strong desire to rid the sport of steroids led to the decision.
"You see that people that are influential in the game all want it," Iavarone said. "Hopefully we're the first of many (owners) to take the step, but you've got to show you really want it."
U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield - the ranking Republican on the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection - called the move a good sign, but doesn't expect to see other owners lining up behind IEAH.
"I'm confident there's not going to be a mass stampede by owners," Whitfield told the Associated Press. "There are owners in some states who fear (by not taking the drugs) they would be less competitive."
Maybe, but the move by IEAH could take some of the sting out of a rough two weeks for the syndicate and their superstar horse following Big Brown's lethargic last-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.
Trainer Rick Dutrow created a stir before the Belmont when he told reporters he decided against giving the horse his monthly dose of stanozolol, a legal steroid sometimes sold under the brand name Winstrol. Some critics speculated Big Brown was suffering from steroid withdrawal during the race, a notion Iavarone dismisses.
What happened during the Belmont remains a mystery to Iavarone, though a picture he received from a freelance photographer taken during the race shows Big Brown running with a seemingly dislodged shoe on his right hind foot. There was no evidence of injury to the hoof after the race, but Iavarone doesn't think it could have been comfortable for the horse, who was wearing an acrylic patch on his left front hoof to compensate for a painful quarter crack.
"It has to be considered a very strong possibility," Iavarone said. "If the shoe was off, it's like running on a wobbly cleat."
Hoof issues aside, taking such an aggressive stance against drugs sends the right message said National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alex Waldrop.
"I think they were affected by all of the criticism suggesting that Big Brown was some kind of pumped up, steroid-laced phenomenon and it wasn't legitimate," he said. "They rightly concluded the only way to remove the cloud of suspicion is to remove steroids from horses, otherwise they're going to be constantly under suspicion."
Instead, Iavarone would like to put the onus on owners who don't come forward to adopt his position. He is asking all chart makers to put annotations in daily race programs that highlight all drug-free horses.
"It credits people that come aboard and do it with us," he said. "Every horse that runs on Lasix only should be known as such, and it spotlights the people that aren't interested in doing it."
Whether other owners come forward and take a similar stance might not matter. The NTRA and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium are pushing the 38 racing states to adopt a model rule that would ban all but four steroids considered therapeutic in nature.
Under the model rule, which could be in place in each of the states by the end of the year, horses that are administered one of the four approved steroids - including stanozolol - would be prohibited from racing for 30 days. Once they return to the track, they must test under the allowable threshold for the drug or the trainer and owner would be subject to penalties and fines.
"If they're not going to do it properly, it's going to be imposed upon them," said California Horse Racing Board chairman Robert Shapiro. "I applaud anybody who can see the writing on the wall."
The writing may not be enough. Winfield isn't convinced the model rule is strong enough, citing the complicated rule-making process in each of the states and the inability to adopt uniform penalties.
"It sounds good to say X state has adopted a uniform rule, but when you look closer you see that they're not really consistent in any way," said Whitfield, who said the government is considering several options, including creating a national body to oversee the sport.
IEAH's position goes far beyond the model rule. When Big Brown heads to the starting gate for the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic in Santa Anita in October, he'll be clean, or else.
"We're willing to forgo everything," Iavarone said. "If we win the Breeders' Cup and test for anything positive, even if it's legal, we're going to give up the purse."
A loss on the track would pale in comparison to the loss in the breeding shed.
IEAH sold Big Brown's breeding rights to Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Ky., for a reported $50 million. If he struggles in the summer and fall - his next race is the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in August - his stud fee will plummet and the stable's reputation could tumble.
It's a risk the man who grew up hopping the fence at Roosevelt Park in New York to watch the races is willing to take.
"We're trying to take a forward step to regain the public's confidence," he said. "It comes down to the public in this game. If the public doesn't show up, if the public doesn't bet on horse racing, they're going to stop betting. Is it the end-all, cure-all? I think it's a step in the right direction. I think if owners just agree to play the game the right way, this can only help."