Voss: Horse Owners Shouldn’t Be Mushrooms – Horse Racing News

Someone asked us the other day whether the owners who had horses with trainers in the federal doping case were going to face any penalties for having employed men who are now self-declared cheaters.

I’d have chuckled, if it wasn’t about the 50th time I’d heard someone ask the question.

The question makes me laugh darkly for two reasons. For one, I think the window for that has passed. If federal prosecutors were going to indict owners alongside the trainers they employed, they had the evidence they needed to do it in March 2020. For another, we are a sport that’s set up to make it easy for owners to claim ignorance when it suits them.

When I first started in this job, I heard a lot of people quote a saying often attributed to trainer Charlie Whittingham – “Treat owners like mushrooms. Keep ’em in the dark and feed ’em horse manure.”

And then the teller would usually chuckle.

I don’t think I ever found that funny, but in a post-indictment world I sure can’t laugh at it now. I’m not sure why anyone would hear the saying and want to become an owner, since the implication is you’re taking the word of a trainer who insinuates they’re lying to you, and you’re meant to merrily keep writing checks along the way.

I don’t know as this role has changed much in the years since the saying was popularized – a lot of owners are mostly in the dark when it comes to their horses, although they arrive there by different routes. I learned pretty quickly that if you’re a reporter and learn a Derby prospect has suffered an injury in April, you call the trainer to find out what happened, not the owner. The reason you do this is because the owner will probably only be able to tell you the horse is “hurt” but not much more. They may know which limb has the problem, but almost certainly not which structure. They won’t know the prognosis, either. Because they don’t know either of these things, they also won’t be able to answer the follow-up question readers will naturally have, which is ‘When is the horse returning to the races?’

I always found this odd, because if I were the owner of a Derby prospect, I’d want to understand exactly what kept me out of the race and where my best horse could go from here.

This isn’t true of all owners, naturally. Some of them come into racehorse ownership from hands-on experience with other horse sports, perhaps as riders themselves. Others grew up on the track and learned a lot from knowledgeable mentors. Still others came to the game green as grass but found patient trainers who were willing to explain things to them. I commend all those owners.

But there are still those who want to show up on race day and win, preferably making a profit…and their ambition ends there. They don’t want to know why their trainer makes the decisions he or she makes, they don’t want to know what the vet said because they know they wouldn’t understand it, and they probably don’t really want a realistic talk about what their horse can and can’t accomplish. They want to win big, whether at the betting windows or in the winner’s circle or both.

That type of owner is usually the one who worries me most when it comes to welfare and aftercare decisions for their horses, because I’m not sure they see the horses as horses so much as line items much similar to members of their fantasy football team.

That type of owner is easy in some ways for a trainer to deal with, though. An honest, knowledgeable trainer already juggling dozens of owners can be left well enough alone to make their own decisions with no interference. They don’t have to spend long stretches on the phone with this type of owner. A dishonest one can keep doing whatever they’re doing uninhibited.

Conveniently, this also means the owner can claim ignorance if their trainer turns out to be doing something they shouldn’t. “I’m never at the barn, how would I know what the trainer is giving my animal?” they can say, and we will largely nod our heads believing them, because we didn’t expect they were ever at the barn anyway.

Flip through any book of state racing regulations, and you find tons of rules that apply to trainers, but not too many that apply to owners outside of the requirement they be licensed. (Owners don’t terribly like the idea of this changing, by the way – sources have told me there was a fair bit of grumbling behind the scenes when owners realized the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act may require them to sit through a couple of hours of continuing education modules each year.)

Of course, it’s also true that an owner could try to be engaged and interested in their horses and encounter a trainer who lies to them. The now-infamous Navarro Juice Man video and subsequent wire taps in the federal case certainly suggested that, in some cases, owners were fully aware their trainers were administering performance-enhancing drugs. If those guys hadn’t been caught on video and on wire taps, they could have reasonably claimed to be just as much in the dark as anyone else. But there also have been owners who earnestly trusted their trainers and should not have.

There are some owners we see support the same bad actors over and over again, though whether they’re being duped or are happy remaining in the dark it’s always hard to say. Crossed Sabres Farm, which is the nom de course for Carolyn Vogel, has remained steadfastly loyal to trainer Marcus Vitali through his many, many indiscretions and remains a client today. One former turfwriter did reach Vogel to ask what, if anything, she planned to do with her horses after Vitali was suspended for a methamphetamine positive in 2021. She said Vitali always had a good explanation for whatever scrape he’d gotten into. Other than the lost training time and a few DQs, Vogel hasn’t ever faced consequences for consistently hiring someone with a poor integrity record … so where’s her motivation to do anything differently?

I assume regulators and alphabet soup groups tiptoe around owner responsibility because of how desperately the sport relies on owners to keep funding the game. I suppose it’s also legally shaky ground to try to make an owner culpable for the actions of someone acting as their agent, because the owner may be getting treated like a mushroom. But when the agent you’ve hired consistently runs afoul of medication regulations in multiple states, or consistently manages win percentages considered statistically abnormal, or has a terrible breakdown record … can ignorance really continue to be a plausible defense?

Racing tries so hard to recruit new owners that I think it’s lost sight of worrying about what type of owner they want. If it’s longevity and integrity we want, we should be most interested in owners who want to understand the sport and understand the athletes involved, not trophy-hungry ATMs.

After all, mushrooms grow best in rot. And most of them don’t live long in sunshine.