It took 35 years to throw the punch, but when he swung last week, just days before the Kentucky Derby, nationally known sports columnist Billy Reed threw a beauty. It was a literary uppercut heard nationwide.
As a young sports writer for the Louisville Courier-Journal in May of 1968, Reed went to Churchill Downs to get a story on what had happened to Dancer’s Image, the colt that won the Derby that year but was disqualified for a medication that was illegal at the time, and is still misused today.
He was leaving the stable area when he was accosted and knocked down by Dr. Alex Harthill, a veterinarian at the center of controversy then and ever since. A master of his craft, Harthill also has been hounded by suspicion, having had, as Reed put it, "a long history of scrapes with racing authorities in Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, Ohio and New York."
Reed picked himself up that morning years ago, along with his glasses, notebook and camera, and left Churchill Downs. He soon wound up at Sports Illustrated, where editor Jerry Tax told Reed that if the knockdown happened again "we’ll have the New York attorney general on the SOB’s doorstep in an hour." Reed later moved back to Kentucky, where hardboot Harthill still held sway.
It was not until last week, however, that Billy landed his counterpunch. In a three-part story in Snitch, a tell-all magazine with an online edition, he hammered Harthill in a story headlined, "No one doubts that Alex Harthill is a veterinary genius; but no one wants to talk about the other side of Dr. Fix-It."
Reed talked about him, at length and in spades. He characterized his 35-year quest as being similar to that of Ahab of Moby Dick, chasing the great white whale, or Sherlock Holmes, pursuing the elusive Dr. Moriarty. He said the long wait was mostly an exercise in futility.
Harthill, Reed said, was "one of the most significant characters in the history of American sport. In no other major professional sport does an owner, manager, coach, trainer or doctor have the ability, through working with several entrants in the same event, to directly affect the outcome."
Because Harthill often treats more than one horse running in the Derby, Reed wrote "the only analogy is a referee accepting a bribe to make a couple of calls, or non-calls, to rig the outcome of a Super Bowl or NCAA tournament championship game."
Once Reed threw that bold punch, he launched a free-swinging two-fisted attack. "If Harthill has been meddling with the Derby for more than 50 years, as the evidence strongly suggests," he wrote, "his best protection is the outrageous boldness and audacity of the possibility."
To make his point he quoted an interview that thoroughbred trainer Jimmy Croll gave the Los Angeles Times, talking about his star pupil, Holy Bull, who finished a dull and soundly beaten 12th as the 6-to-5 favorite in the 1994 Derby.
"Can you imagine how much money is to be made," Croll asked, "if you knew - if you knew for sure - that the favorite was going to run off the board in the Kentucky Derby?" Croll believes, and said in the interview, "They got to my horse."
Reed linked that line with a 1996 case in which Harthill and his wife were sued by the U.S, Drug Enforcement Administration on 102 charges of ordering unusual quantities of controlled drugs not usually prescribed for horses, such as sleeping pills, painkillers and amphetamines. The suit, which sought $2.5 million in penalties and an order that Harthill be required to keep accurate records of controlled drugs, was settled out of court.
All of this is pretty thin circumstantial evidence, and Reed acknowledged as much when he wrote that Harthill is "secure in the knowledge that he has secrets I’ll never know. All I know for sure is that today, at 77, Harthill is still treating Derby horses, and I’m still adding to my bulging file of facts, rumors, theories, coincidences, and circumstantial evidence."
Others in racing may share Billy Reed’s views, but no one in the game has shared his courage in asserting them.