By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"The original ruling said that [Patin] was going to be fined $2,500 and be suspended until December 31, 1999," Jackson says. "No guilt have they found in myself, nor in Dallas. Yet they're going to penalize me with my 'no guilt' $300,000. Who's being punished?"
Five days after the Arkansas Derby, Dallas Keen was back at Lone Star Park when he got a call from Randy Moss, a reporter with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Do you know what's going on in Arkansas today?" Moss asked. Oaklawn stewards were investigating Valhol's camp. After Moss hung up, Keen says, at least 20 other reporters were on the phone.
And Valhol was on a plane bound for Kentucky to prepare for the biggest race of his young career.
"Everything was leaked to the media," Keen says. "They were supposed to have the press release at 3:15, and by 2, I'd done talked to probably 10 different reporters, and I still had not heard anything from any of the racing officials on anything. I thought it was a hoax, some kind of joke or something, you know? I knew they weren't happy about me winning the Arkansas Derby with a maiden. I thought it all stemmed from that -- some kind of witch hunt."
Oaklawn Park stewards went to the Arkansas Racing Commission to ask that the prize money be withheld pending an investigation. Without the purse money, Valhol would not qualify to run in the Kentucky Derby. The Derby field is limited, with some entries selected based on their earnings in graded stakes races. (The Arkansas Derby is a graded race, meaning it has national significance.) With only two other races under his belt, Valhol's total winnings were less than $40,000 -- and the horse would not make the Kentucky Derby's qualifying list.
Moving quickly, Jackson appealed to the Arkansas Racing Commission to overturn the decision at Oaklawn Park. According to their own rules, stewards had 96 hours to release the purse money to winners unless an animal tested positive for illegal drugs. There was nothing on the books about buzzers, and Valhol's tests were clean. Until the Arkansas Racing Commission later reversed its decision, Jackson had his purse money. And Valhol got to race in the Kentucky Derby, where the horse and its owner and trainer were greeted by reporters -- and by jeers and taunts from racing fans.
Some looked at the Kentucky Derby as an opportunity for Valhol to prove himself. Others thought his presence brought negative publicity to the prestigious race.
Keen was willing to let Patin ride Valhol at Churchill Downs; Jackson vetoed the decision. Both men agreed that the negative attention would distract Patin. More important, Patin had never ridden in the Kentucky Derby, and they believed a seasoned vet would be a better jockey. They ended up with Willie Martinez, and Valhol placed 15th out of 20 horses.
Jackson says that the uncertainty over whether Valhol would be allowed to run left them with little choice for jockeys. Top jockeys were afraid to commit to the horse.
"It all came down to Martinez not having a mount...He was all that was left," says Jackson.
Undeterred, Jackson and Keen took Valhol to the Preakness in Baltimore, where the horse placed ninth. Valhol was on his third jockey by then, Edgar Prado. Keen says politics hurt Valhol there as well, after another trainer requested and was given Valhol's stall for his horse. Valhol was moved to a side of the barn where the horses were coughing. On the day of the Preakness, as Keen led Valhol out to the field, he heard him cough. After the Preakness was over, they found out the horse had bled from his lungs, a condition common among thoroughbred racehorses.
But the horse's showings in the Derby and the Preakness do raise the question: Was Valhol a fluke in Arkansas?
"People talking about him being a fluke is people who don't know the horse business," Keen says. "Look at all the horses he beat in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. If he was a fluke, why didn't he run last? He was only beat by 10 lengths by the best horses in the world. That proves he's no slouch."
But no matter how many races Valhol almost wins, it will be a long time before racing fans forget the disgrace that surrounds the horse.
Dallas Keen has watched that tape of the Arkansas Derby win dozens of times. Even he admits "it looks pretty bad." But he also has to take Billy Patin at his word. The jockey was at Keen's side when the phone calls from the media began pouring in, so Keen handed the phone to the jockey and got on the wire to James Jackson. First thing he told the owner: "There's some crap goin' on."
Not only did Keen believe in Patin, but he believed in Valhol. Keen knows the horse as well as he knows his own children, and he insists he never saw a sign the horse had been tampered with -- the flipped tail, the neck bending toward the shock, even the slightest flinch. Besides, Keen and Jackson both say, a buzzer can't make a horse do something it's not capable of.