Written in Darkness

When Jose Santos and Funny Cide left behind their rivals at Pimlico, and left even further behind the suggestions of impropriety, the jockey stood in the irons and kissed his right hand. He flashed the victory sign, and then he opened his hand to the world, as if to show again that it held nothing. And was that a wave? Did Santos wave goodbye to foolish allegations?

But how could it have happened? Why was it necessary for Santos and Funny Cide to win the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) twice?

The Churchill Downs stewards, as everyone now knows, investigated the running of the 129th Kentucky Derby because of a story and photograph that appeared in the Miami Herald suggesting Santos might have carried something, perhaps an electrical device, in addition to a whip in his right hand.

Such a suggestion, based on a blurry dark area in a single photograph, was tantamount to seeing a flicker of light in the sky and assuming it to represent the start of a Martian invasion. There was more evidence for the existence of the Loch Ness monster than for a "machine" in Santos' right hand.

And indeed the Churchill Downs stewards totally dispelled the suggestion and discredited the story with the release, five days prior to the Preakness (gr. I), of their findings. The stewards looked at 280 photographs, blown up 250 times, chief steward Bernie Hettel explained. They examined video of the Derby, talked to all the people involved, and even enlisted the expertise of the Video Technical Services Unit of the Louisville Metro Police. The forensic investigation literally turned up nothing.

To think Santos carried a "machine" in the Derby, here's what you had to believe: First, that he was brazen enough to use such a device in front of 148,000 people at Churchill Downs, a national television audience, and an army of high-speed cameras, and that he carried it in his right hand, rather than his left, just so it would be even more visible. Second, he was capable of palming this electrical device without shocking himself or dropping it while at the same time encouraging Funny Cide several times with his whip. In fact, during the stretch run of the Derby, Santos switched his whip from his right hand to his left hand and then back to his right hand.

Third, you had to believe Santos made the device disappear magically into the ether. At the wire, he twirled his whip, turning it down--that's when the photograph that led to the investigation was snapped--then clutched his whip tightly, kissed his hand, and a moment later opened it.

In other words, you had to believe Santos to be the greatest sorcerer since Merlin. But some people--the ignorant, the envious, and the chronically captious--somehow found all that easier to digest than the obvious explanation: It was nothing, just a dark spot.

Santos said he was more embarrassed than angered by the allegations. Anybody who understands racing or knows how to watch a race, the jockey explained, knew he "was clean." But apparently nobody at the Miami Herald understood racing; nobody there knew how to watch a race.

The poet was wrong: Ignorance isn't bliss; it's dangerous. It leaves a void that suspicion quickly fills. And frankly, some of the sport's more prominent persons regularly foment suspicion.

When trainers blatantly lie to the media, when they go AWOL on prearranged national teleconferences, when they renege on agreements to appear on radio shows, when they literally hide from the media and refuse to talk--all recent occurrences--they turn off the light. And in the darkness of ignorance, suspicion grows.

Only a few trainers get it. D. Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, John Ward, Nick Zito, and a few others understand that the sport has four opportunities every year to put itself on the front page of public attention. Only four chances to intrude on the popular awareness. If the sport misses those chances because the moment's stars are chagrined or anxious or just drunk with self-approval, then it has lost not just an opportunity to sell itself but also an opportunity to turn on the light.

And stories such as the one that appeared in the Miami Herald can only be written in darkness.

Dallas Morning News columnist Gary West is a regular contributor to The Blood-Horse.