Only in this age of gonzo journalism and reality shock television is publically airing dirty laundry on the most important day of horse racing viewed as “refreshing.” Whether or not Kentucky Derby winning owner Barry Irwin meant to be a jerk or not, the perception of the general public is that he was. Don’t believe me? Read the commentary streaming in from mainstream media reporters—not industry insiders who may know exactly to what Mr. Irwin was referring in his cryptic comments about “lying” trainers, racetracks needing to treat partnerships better, and apparently clueless turf writers. As an example, Hal Habib of the Palm Beach Post writes:
Maybe Barry Irwin needed a hug. Maybe he needed a mint julep. Maybe, when he was fiddling around with all those lovely red roses Saturday, he pricked his finger on a thorn. Whatever it was, if this is Barry Irwin during one of the highlights of his life, clear the way for when this chap goes ballistic. Irwin is the head of the ownership group whose horse, Animal Kingdom, had just won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Irwin rejoiced by saying he ended up with Graham Motion as his trainer because he got tired of his other trainers "lying to me." That's what the national television audience heard. What viewers didn't get to enjoy was Irwin spewing even more venom during a post-race news conference that surely smashed records for a lack of humility, grace and class.
From the comments left online for that article as well as any number of blogs, forums and websites, Barry Irwin is a polarizing figure. Some folks love his candor while others find him obnoxious and crass. Even my own non-horse racing fan mother asked me this morning if this “crazy man” (her words) on television before the Derby was “drunk.” That’s perception.
What else could the general public think when the press focused in on how shabbily jockey Robby Albarado was treated, being replaced by John Velazquez when Uncle Mo scratched, especially after he took himself off his Friday mounts just to be more fit on Saturday? They totally sympathized with Albarado, injured but perfectly able to ride a stakeswinner on the card—longshot Sassy’s Image in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff. How many of them have had a dream crushed by fate or circumstances beyond their control? No matter how common jockey changes may be, it just didn’t appear kosher.
For outsiders looking in, so much of what happened yesterday before and after the race leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and only validates the widely-held and historic opinion (rightly or wrongly) that horse racing morally and ethically brings out the worst in people.
Unfortunately, that less-than-flattering perception overshadows the fact that what Barry Irwin says about many things is spot on. His ideas on breeding, particularly the importance of international bloodlines on infusing stamina into the breed, and the evils of drugs to the sport should be applauded. Wanting his horses conditioned more in the international style, off-track on sprawling farms such as Fair Hill, and placing his trust in real horsemen like Graham Motion, is truly admirable. Yet, the lack of civility in the perceived gentile world of thoroughbred racing is jarring, nearly to the same extent that it is when forced to deal with truly morally bankrupt owners and cheats.
Maybe next time, for the sake of appearances, he’ll show some restraint before allowing others to use his honesty to formulate ugly misperceptions. Especially in this precarious age for the sport, we need honesty, but there’s a proper time and place for everything. Yesterday wasn’t it.