Electricity in air over Derby entry

April 28, 1999|By John Eisenberg

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Dallas Keen looked out from beneath his baseball cap at a gray sky and steady drizzle -- weather that matched his mood.

"You go from the highest high to the lowest low," he said yesterday, standing outside his barn at Churchill Downs.

The high came 18 days ago when Valhol, a chestnut gelding trained by Keen, won the Arkansas Derby in a romp as a 30-1 shot and became a serious Kentucky Derby contender.

But Keen's greatest triumph turned sour when Arkansas racing authorities questioned whether Valhol's jockey, Billy Patin, had jolted the horse with an electrical device during the race at Oaklawn Park -- an accusation threatening Patin's and Keen's credibility.

"This is what every trainer wants, a horse that can compete in the Kentucky Derby," said Keen, a veteran trainer on the Texas-Louisiana circuit, "but this [situation] has taken away all the thrill."

There was positive news yesterday when a judge ordered Arkansas racing officials to pay Valhol's winning purse, which had been withheld pending an investigation. Adding $300,000 to Valhol's career earnings guaranteed his inclusion in a probable 20-horse Kentucky Derby field Saturday. (The 20 highest earners get in when more than 20 want to run, as is the case this year. Valhol's owner, James Jackson, sued to have the purse paid in time.)

"[Now] people will see what kind of horse he is," Keen said.

But the judge's ruling didn't blow away the dark cloud of doubt lingering over Keen, Patin and their horse.

Did Patin, a self-described "no-name" jockey with a dubious past, use the device to drive a previously winless horse to an unthinkable victory? Valhol was making only his third career start and had finished fourth in his prior race as a 107-1 shot.

And if Patin was "packing" a device, did Keen, 41, know?

Or did Arkansas racing officials go on a witch hunt after watching such an unprestigious horse win their signature race?

Keen vehemently denied any wrongdoing yesterday. So did Patin before going into seclusion last week.

This much is known: An Oaklawn track maintenance employee found a device -- a battery wrapped in an electrical coil, with a spring-loaded trigger at one end -- on the first turn soon after the race. And replays of ESPN's broadcast clearly seemed to show an object falling from somewhere near Patin's left hand shortly after he crossed the finish line.

"The ESPN tape looks bad; it absolutely looks bad," Jackson, the horse's owner, recently acknowledged.

It's hard to believe a jockey would use a device in a race as important and scrutinized as the Arkansas Derby, and then drop it right after winning the race, when he knew national TV cameras were trained on him.

But Patin, who won't ride the horse in the Derby -- Willie Martinez will replace him -- is from Louisiana, where using electrical devices is an untoward tradition among rogue jockeys. Patin's brother, also a jockey, once was suspended when an electrical device was found in his locker.

Patin doesn't have such a violation on his record, but he was suspended for a drug violation at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and he does make for an easy target. There is speculation that Arkansas officials will continue to attempt to levy some punishment against him, despite yesterday's ruling.

How will Keen feel if it turns out his jockey was guilty?

"I'll be very disappointed," Keen said.

Veteran racetrack observers say a jockey caught in such an act often isn't acting alone.

"You have to try [the device] out in the morning [workouts first]," Walter Blum, a retired Hall of Fame jockey, told the Daily Racing Form. "You have to let them train on it to see if they react too strongly or if it even works. He's liable to go straight up in the air or right through the rail."

The trainer would know exactly what was going on, of course.

The irony in Valhol's case is he didn't need help in the Arkansas Derby, regardless if he did or didn't get a jolt. He took the lead on the backstretch and won by almost five lengths, easily beating a field that included horses with better credentials such as Answer Lively, Ecton Park and Etbauer.

It was a surprise to everyone but Keen, who'd watched his horse, originally a $30,000 purchase, put in a series of strong morning workouts.

"But I didn't expect him to win that easily," Keen said. "If you look at the tape, there's one part where he almost falls down because he's turning around to see how far behind the rest of the [horses] are."

But that tape also shows the unidentified object apparently falling from Valhol shortly after the race.

The judge decided yesterday that that evidence and whatever else the investigators dug up wasn't enough to rule that a device had been used, or, say, carried and not used. But the allegation short-circuited the Valhol victory celebration and has left Keen haunted as the Derby approaches.

Only a victory on Saturday will ease his mind, and even that might not.

"It's been a strange deal from the beginning," Keen said. "A lot of stuff about it is strange. I don't understand it. I just don't."

Pub Date: 4/28/99

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