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Published: Friday, 5/16/2003

Derby scrutiny justified

FUNNY Cide won the Kentucky Derby, but its jockey won more scrutiny than accolades after thoroughbred racing's premier event. A photograph of the derby-winning jockey and accompanying story in the Miami Herald raised the possibility that Jose Santos may have used more than a whip - some wondered if he had carried a small, electric prod -to get his prized gelding into the winner's circle.

Upon closer examination, however - the track photo was magnified to 250 times its original size - the suspicion was dispelled and Mr. Santos exonerated, free to race in tomorrow's Preakness. What the photo actually showed was the silks of the jockey behind Santos and part of the strap of that rider's goggles.

The ordeal left Santos angry and his legal advisers upset that the issue of funny business with their client was even raised.

Yet while the intense inspection and investigation by Churchill Downs stewards of the jockey's behavior was unfortunate, it was not at all inappropriate or unnecessary.

The Miami newspaper was right to raise questions about possible wrongdoing in such a high stakes race. It would not have been the first time participants in such big money competitions tried to rig the outcome with banned medications to the animals, or illegal devices to make them run faster.

The Herald was vilified in some quarters for its report, but the newspaper had alerted race officials to the possibility long before running its story. Had the Churchill Downs stewards completed their investigation more swiftly, the exoneration could have been part of the report, or the whole thing could have become a non-story.

Funny Cide's owner, Jack Knowlton, dismissed the investigation of his jockey as “an uneeded distraction” during preparation for the second leg of the Triple Crown in Baltimore. But rather than condemn those who exposed and examined the merits of this controversy, he and the others involved should understand how important it is that the Derby be without taint.

Any sport that openly embraces gambling cannot allow sinister suspicions to fester. A problem was noted, it was found to be without merit, and Funny Cide and his jockey can deservedly ride into history as winners of horse racing's most prestigious prize.

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