Commentary

Petrino 'jolt' an everyday reality in racing

Updated: December 15, 2007, 1:43 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Earlier this week, the National Football League felt a seismic shock of mistrust when Atlanta Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino bolted just 13 games into his rookie season, in effect shunning the pro game and returning to the land of coeds and campus coffee shops. While disbelief permeated the NFL and its fan base, those in the Thoroughbred racing industry probably didn't even feel a blip on their "done-wrong" radar.

It's not as though the racing industry cares not about football. In fact, the two are quite a bit closer than you'd imagine. It's simply that those working in the racing game have built up an incredible intolerance for mistrust. They have to -- it's woven into their business plans.

What Petrino did to Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the business boomer behind Home Depot no less, essentially is what racetrackers call "spinning." It's no different than Garrett Gomez's wonder-agent Ron Anderson having to tell one trainer one thing, while secretly working behind the scenes to gather a better mount. That's no knock on Go-Go or Anderson, just an example to toss names out there. After all, it's happening right now at tracks, big and small, around the country as you read this very piece -- guaranteed.

While many European riders are booked to specific stables (known as "yards" overseas), that's simply not the case with American jockeys. In fact, our riders are called "journeymen" for good reason. They are the most free of free agents. Have whip and boots, will travel. Sometimes, with the direction of their agents, they'll travel across two, three, four barns in the very same race. Where the wheel of desired fortune stops, no one knows. Other than a scant few ultra-tight, meal-ticket-type situations -- John Velazquez riding for Todd Pletcher, for instance -- there's a daily juggling act going on at the entry box between agents, trainers and the noble steeds in which they hope their jockey to ride.

The tricky balance of trust also extends from trainers to owners. At the urge of a bad hair day, owners have been known to rip their horses from the tutelage of one trainer and move them to another. No questions need be asked. No contracts exist protecting the trainer from said actions. They operate in symphony with owners only under the auspice of trust; sometimes, of course, leading to lack of trust.

Over the years, thousands of big-name horses have been moved in and out of the care of trainers at an owner's whim. Seattle Slew was pulled from Billy Turner's barn just one loss after winning the 1977 Triple Crown; the legendary Cigar was rerouted from young trainer Alex Hassinger to eventual Hall of Famer Bill Mott in 1994; and more recently, 2005 Horse of the Year Saint Liam was yanked from Tony Reinstedler in favor of Rick Dutrow.

In some cases, changes in venue have had a meteoric impact on the career of the subject racehorse. Sometimes, it simply doesn't work out as well. But in all cases, someone feels "jobbed" -- no different than that sinking feeling in the gut of the Atlanta Falcons organization this week.

That two-way emphasis on trust between trainers and jockeys, as well as trainers and owners, makes training Thoroughbred racehorses a career path befitting of an intravenous Pepto-Bismol drip. Some are forced to walk on a continuous bed of eggshells. Take Chicago dominator Wayne Catalano, for instance. His on-again, off-again relationship with top Illinois-based owner Frank Calabrese makes the George Steinbrenner-Billy Martin/Joe Torre soap operas look like "Leave It To Beaver." Catalano and Calabrese have had more public "divorces" than Elizabeth Taylor, and the vast majority of Catalano's entire, short-term livelihood depends on the dizzying decisions of his chief racehorse owner.

The trust factor -- rather, lack-of-trust factor -- opens the racing game up to many of its demons. Critics like me have been tough on trainers, especially in 2007, for what appears to be an ever-growing veterinary drug problem in the sport. And though a trainer's pressure to produce big-time results doesn't excuse illegal behavior, it certainly can be cited as a motivating factor for its very presence. "Win and You're In" was a popular marketing slogan for the racing industry this year, but "Lose and You're Out" has been a way of life for racehorse trainers.

I know this: I couldn't handle that job. As critical as we pundits can be in terms of trainers doing this, or not doing that, the Petrino situation should make those of us who follow horse racing take a minute today to respect the precarious working environment that those in the racing game choose to pursue.

The days of the Jones gang, Ben and his son, Jimmy, training decades-worth of championship runners for Calumet Farm are a distant memory. Today's trainer has to hang his hat on many racks, none of which can be guaranteed to continue his or her employment beyond today, much less take a contract buyout.

Bobby Petrino coached four seasons at the University of Louisville prior to his ascension to the NFL. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if he learned some of his business tactics hanging around the racetrack.

Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine and its Web site, HorsePlayerdaily.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or any other racing-related topic at plonk@horseplayerdaily.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.