Bad track record
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.
"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.
"This horse won by four and a half with the jockey easing him," Keen says. "[Valhol] is looking back over his shoulder for the other horses. The horses chasing him ran out of air trying to run with him...There's no doubt in my mind that we won it. He was sharp, perfect, going in. He was the best. Bottom line."
Keen once fired Patin after he disobeyed the trainer's instructions during a race in California. Keen told Patin not to bother coming back to his barn. A year and a half later, when Patin's brother-in-law was working for Keen, he decided to put the jock back on his payroll.
Patin rode small-stakes races in Louisiana and Texas for years. Valhol was his shot at something big. Now, Keen says, the incident in Arkansas appears to be a "career-ending move." He can't help but remark how almost tragic it is: Patin quit school at a young age, and his younger brother was killed in the New Orleans projects. Patin also came back from a career-threatening injury. (Patin could not be reached for comment.)
"After the race [in Arkansas], he was so excited," Keen says. "He asked Jackson if he could have the lei they put around the horse's neck, and he took it to Louisiana and put it on his brother's grave."
Listening to Dallas Keen talk about Billy Patin's hard life -- forgetting that Patin was once suspended from racing for a year after he tested positive for drugs, forgetting that he fired the guy for disobeying his orders, and forgetting the ESPN tape -- it's easy to marvel at how even-tempered Keen is toward Patin. You'd think he'd be at least a little angry with him. But Keen truly believes him innocent, at least until Arkansas racing officials prove otherwise.
Some might say that's because there is still a possibility that blame may be laid at the trainer's feet. A trainer's job is to know everything about his horses, and if Patin was training Valhol to respond to a buzzer, it's easy to think Keen knew about it.
Keen, of course, insists he would never do anything to hurt his sport.
Keen grew up with horses and follows in the footsteps of a well-known veteran jockey and trainer -- his father, Corky Keen. Dallas Keen was the lead trainer at Lone Star Park during its first two thoroughbred meets in 1997 and 1998. He has trained horses since 1986 and worked with Jackson since 1994. Both men are well respected in the horse-racing business.
James Jackson owns a 754 acre thoroughbred ranch in Rockdale in Central Texas called Valhalla Farms. When he purchased Valhol in a private deal for $30,000, he wanted to name the horse after his farm, but that name had already been taken. So he chose the Norwegian spelling of Valhalla, Valhol.
"In Norse mythology, when a Viking fought bravely and died with sword in hand, he was allowed to go to Valhalla to be with their god," Jackson explains.
If Valhol gave the two men a taste of heaven, a jockey named Billy Patin may well have brought them hell.
Jackson still wants his purse money. He is waiting to hear from the 7th Division of the Arkansas Circuit Court in Pulaski County, where his attorneys have filed a petition for review of the Arkansas Racing Commission's decision to allow Oaklawn to withhold the purse money.
Byron Freeland, an attorney representing the Arkansas Racing Commission, says he doesn't think either man has much of a chance in court.
"The horse was disqualified because there was a rule violation. A disqualification by definition means you lose the purse, the trophy, the everything," he says.
"If the horse is disqualified -- for whatever reason -- you don't receive the prize. Their argument is that I didn't do anything therefore I should receive the prize."
Whatever the outcome in court, Keen and Jackson say they have been encouraged by the major trainers and jockeys who have supported them.
Keen says several people have told him that he "got a raw deal," and letters of support have poured in. One little girl from Wyoming wrote: "I don't care what they say. Valhol won that race by himself. I think Valhol is the greatest horse since Secretariat. I hope you and Mr. Jackson don't mind, but I've started a fan club."
Things like that keep Keen going -- that and his desire to be like his father. "I figure if I can be half the horseman he is, then I can be great," Keen says.
Keen says he's not worried about proving his horse. Both Keen and Jackson agree that Valhol is the best thoroughbred either of them has ever raced.
"I think he's gonna be a better 4-year-old than he is a 3-year-old just because that's the way he's bred. His dad was a late bloomer himself," Jackson says.
"I wish that I would've picked another race to prove my colt," says Keen. "I wish I never would've gone to the Arkansas Derby."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.