By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On a muggy, overcast mid-June morning at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, trainer Dallas Keen sits atop a gray speckled pony called Blue, preparing to exercise the thoroughbreds in his stable. Rain has fallen all morning, and the track looks like so much cold Malt-o-Meal. It's too muddy for the horses to gallop, so Keen jogs each horse around the track to stretch their legs.
As he leads a 3-year-old chestnut gelding named Valhol to the track, the other horses along the path buck and neigh around him while Valhol's rider sits relaxed. Intertwining Valhol's reins with Blue's, Keen leads the gelding and its rider around the track, then heads back to the stables, where Keen smokes a Marlboro Light while Lupe Alaniz, his assistant, calls for the next horse on the list.
Keen likes his horses to be impeccably clean and perfectly healthy. If even the slightest something is wrong with one of them, he calls a vet immediately. It's grueling work, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It can wear on even the most avid horseman.
"I would complain to Dallas about how [meticulous] he is," Alaniz says, "and he would say, 'What if one day we have a horse go to the Kentucky Derby?'"
That day came this spring, after Valhol won the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 10. The horse upset the field in a major stakes race that qualified Valhol to enter the first leg of the Triple Crown at Churchill Downs.
But as it turned out, there was nothing at all shipshape about Valhol's win in Hot Springs. Five days after Valhol's owner, James Jackson of Rockdale, Texas, claimed the $300,000 winner's purse in Arkansas, Valhol's jockey, Billy Patin, was accused of cheating. Track officials at Oaklawn Park insist Patin used an electric buzzer to jolt Valhol across the finish line.
The accusation opened up the dark cloud of suspicion over Valhol's head, and it rained like hell. Fairly or not -- Jackson and Keen insist it's not -- -everybody beneath that cloud got wet.
While Keen jogs his charges, Alaniz pauses to defend the man she calls the pickiest trainer she has ever worked with. "Dallas would never do anything like that. He's too strict...He does everything by the book," Alaniz says as she crosses Valhol's name off her list.
Keen and Jackson have gone to court in Arkansas to claim the prize money they say the Arkansas Racing Commission unfairly withheld from them. Keen insists that the accusations against Valhol were prompted by jealousy -- of Keen, of Jackson, and mostly of Valhol, a rookie horse that virtually no one expected to win.
In the meantime, horse, trainer, owner, and jockey face catcalls from fans and what may be an indelible stain on their reputations. Losing their purse is bad enough. Losing their good names would be worse.
The Arkansas Derby was Valhol's third career start and his first win. Never before had a "maiden" horse -- one with no prior wins -- taken such a prestigious race.
"It was awesome," Keen says. "The horse made history. Jackson was so happy, he had big ol' tears running down his face."
His happiness wouldn't last. On April 15, Oaklawn Park stewards announced that a tractor driver had found a buzzer on the track. They believed it to be Patin's. Patin denied the charge, and Keen and Jackson stood by their man. Keen told The Los Angeles Times, "They better have hard-core evidence, because Jackson won't take this lying down."
The evidence would soon come. ESPN released videotape that showed a small black object falling from the left side of Valhol's body after he crossed the finish line. The object landed in the same spot where the tractor driver found the buzzer.
A maiden horse, ridden by an unknown jockey, had beaten the favored contenders by more than four lengths. Some people were calling Valhol a fluke. After the Oaklawn investigation was launched, they called him a sham.
In the five days following the Arkansas Derby, Jackson and Keen were greeted with nothing but well-wishers who congratulated the two men on producing a winner. On the sixth day, their cheers turned to jeers:
"Hey, Eveready, got your buzzer?"
"Here comes the Electric Horseman!"
Once the main attraction, the Valhol camp was now a sideshow.
Jackson says that after the investigation started, reporters hounded him so much that he had to disconnect his home telephone. Weeks after Valhol was disqualified, his youngest son, 10-year-old Jared, overheard someone at the track saying that James Jackson was the guy who cheated in the Arkansas Derby. The boy ran crying to his mother, "I know my dad wouldn't do anything like that."
Racing officials in Arkansas suspended Patin from racing for five years and fined the jockey $2,500, despite Patin's claim that what the videotape captured was a rubber band used to secure his sleeves. Patin immediately contested the decision, and while his case is under appeal, the jockey rides in Louisiana.
Jackson and Keen were both cleared of any wrongdoing, but Valhol was disqualified. Jackson was ordered to return the trophy and the $300,000 purse. As Valhol's trainer, 10 percent of that money belonged to Keen.