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KENTUCKY DERBY : Trying to Save Best for Laz : Barrera Has Derby Spotlight a Year After Being Vindicated but Hurt by Drug Controversy

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lazaro Barrera, keeper of the unbeaten flame known as Mister Frisky, has been through two heart surgeries, three countries and nearly every peak and valley in almost 50 years as a thoroughbred trainer.

But nothing prepared the ebullient Barrera for the emotional roller-coaster ride of the last 15 months. From the depths of a physically debilitating depression to the giddy heights of national acclaim, the 65-year-old native of Cuba has survived the worst-case scenario of racing’s arcane regulations to emerge on the threshold of a possible third Kentucky Derby victory.

Barrera has been holding court at Churchill Downs for the past week, putting the finishing touches on Mister Frisky’s Derby preparation. The chestnut colt with the 16-for-16 record won the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 to place himself alongside Summer Squall as co-favorite to win the 116th Derby in Louisville, Ky. But it has been Barrera, one of the best-known trainers of the modern era, who commands just as much of the spotlight.

A son of a Havana quarter-horse jockey, Barrera has won the Derby twice, with Bold Forbes in 1976 and with Triple Crown winner Affirmed in 1978. He has trained nearly 150 stakes winners, statistical territory occupied only by the likes of Charlie Whittingham, Wayne Lukas and Woody Stephens. He led North American trainers from 1977 through ’80, and in 1979 he became the first Latino to be elected to racing’s Hall of Fame.

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Inevitably, though, Barrera’s pre-Derby interviews this time around have turned to the events of early 1989, when his name was linked to the alleged discovery of cocaine in the post-race urine samples of six Southern California thoroughbreds. Barrera was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, but the process was traumatic--not only for the trainer, but for the entire racing industry.

As a result of the cocaine controversies, the California Horse Racing Board was criticized by the Legislature, which funds its annual budget of about $8 million. The seven CHRB commissioners have taken several steps to bring order out of the chaos, but the fact remains that Barrera and the other accused trainers have gone through public torment.

“I certainly don’t think what Laz went through was positive in any respect,” said Dr. Rick Arthur, a race track veterinarian who has been an activist in reforming the state’s post-race testing procedures.

“And I don’t think we necessarily had to go through that to get where we are today. I think what happened to him was a reaction by the CHRB staff that they felt they had to show they were doing something. Unfortunately, it showed exactly what we’d contended all along--that they didn’t know what they were doing.

“What happened to Laz was the point of no return. After that, the commissioners could no longer drag their feet about the problems in the drug-testing procedure. There was no confidence in their negative tests, just as there was no confidence in their positive tests.”

In the wake of the botched cocaine accusations, the racing board reduced the power of its executive staff and added an equine medical director to the process of evaluating all post-race test results.

In addition, a second laboratory was contracted to run parallel tests on post-race samples, using advanced technology. At the same time, procedures in the collection of post-race samples have been tightened, and referee samples are being split off to give trainers a separate specimen to conduct independent tests if an illegal substance is discovered by the official lab.

Barrera said he welcomes the changes, especially if they protect the innocent. But nothing will erase the memory of Feb. 10, 1989, when the trainer was told by the Santa Anita Board of Stewards that one of his horses, a colt named Endow, tested positive for a small amount of cocaine after a retest of a frozen urine sample taken more than five months earlier.

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At the time, Barrera still was reeling from the announcement just two days earlier that his son, Albert, had a filly that allegedly tested positive for cocaine after a race on Feb. 2. Two other trainers--Anthony Hemmerick and Bryan Webb--were similarly implicated. On Feb. 10, it also was revealed that Wayne Lukas’ colt, Crown Collection, was flagged for what the lab called a cocaine positive, based on a retest of a frozen specimen.

Three weeks later, Leonard Foote, executive secretary of the CHRB, brought formal charges against Barrera and the others, based on a racing rule that holds trainers ultimately responsible for everything involving their horses. They all faced the same six-month suspension and $2,000 fine that was levied against trainer Roger Stein in October, 1988, when his horse, Emperor’s Turn, was alleged to have tested positive for cocaine. At the time of the new incidents, Stein received a stay of his penalties and was in the midst of an appeal.

The announcements triggered a firestorm of protests and recriminations. Foote, the board’s spokesman and chief investigative officer, was accused of acting precipitously. Truesdail Laboratories, the official testing firm, was accused of shabby procedures. Paranoia spread among trainers, who feared either sabotage or contamination of post-race samples. And the cynics in the media and on the backstretch had a field day.

“No wonder Barrera and Lukas win so many races,” went the wise guy line. “Their horses are flying.”

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Three months later, the charges were dropped.

Responding to pressure from the state attorney general’s office, which essentially saw the cases as unwinnable if challenged in court, Foote took the trainers and the board off the hook by citing a lack of evidence based on “the accepted standard for the identification of cocaine.” In other words, the rules were changed after the game was well under way.

Truesdail, now bidding for a renewal of its testing contract, continues to stand by its original findings. Dr. Norman Hester, Truesdail’s technical director, has repeatedly stated that their analysis was based on existing guidelines and their results were confirmed by the equine drug-testing facility at Ohio State University.

However, Barrera and his attorney, Donald Calabria, maintain that the only way cocaine could have been found in a urine sample taken from the trainer’s horse was through outside contamination. According to Calabria, extensive independent tests conducted at the University of Utah revealed no cocaine in the specimen taken from Endow. The same negative result, the attorney said, was obtained for the Lukas horse.

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As a result, Barrera has sued Truesdail for $25 million in damages, although the lab reportedly carries barely $500,000 in liability protection.

“I don’t care about the money,” Barrera said earlier this year as he contemplated the suit. “If a lab can do this to me, they can do it to anybody. Let them go out of business. Let them use their building for the homeless people to sleep in.”

Barrera, known for his ready sense of humor and an endless round of tall tales from his colorful past, was serious. During his period in limbo--between the Feb. 10 announcement and the May 30 dismissals--he became alarmingly morose, and his health deteriorated drastically.

A robust 6-footer, Barrera dropped as much as 30 pounds. His diabetic condition became aggravated, threatening his vision. His doctor warned him that the combination of stress, depression and exhaustion was taking its toll on a heart that had gone through bypass surgery in 1979 and a bypass replacement in ’84.

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“He took it too hard,” recalled Carmen Barrera, Lazaro’s wife of 40 years. “It was like watching him die a little bit at a time.”

Hal King, a fellow trainer who first met Barrera in Mexico City 36 years ago, was not surprised that the cocaine allegations weighed so heavily on his friend.

“He’s a very prideful man, and for his entire life the only important things to him have been his horses and his family,” said King, who retired from training earlier this year.

“He had trained for 46 years in three different countries without so much as a single ruling against him . . . and considered himself a role model for Latin American people everywhere.

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“So when this (cocaine) thing came out, it just about destroyed him. The most difficult thing to do is prove your innocence. And on top of that, he became paranoid about even the people he knew. If somebody didn’t talk to him, he would think, ‘Do they think I really gave my horse cocaine?’ ”

Said Barrera, whose daughter, Blanchita, is married to a Mexico City attorney: “In Mexico, there was even an article accusing me of using cocaine. Kids were asking my grandchildren about their grandfather and cocaine. Can you imagine how that made me feel? I was so embarrassed, I wanted to die.”

On the professional side, Barrera’s stable was already struggling when the cocaine allegations surfaced. He lost his major client in December, 1988, when Oregon lumberman Aaron Jones decided to hire a private trainer. The once-flourishing Barrera barn was down to about 20 horses, very few of them stakes-class and many owned all or in part by Barrera himself.

Joe Garcia, Barrera’s assistant at the time, attempted to keep the staff running smoothly while the boss coped with the CHRB accusations and their aftermath, but morale around the barn clearly suffered. At year’s end, the Barrera horses had won only 31 races and earned just $1,562,562, his lowest total since 1973, when he first made the North American top 10.

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Then, Mister Frisky came into Barrera’s life. The Florida-bred colt won his first 13 races for owners Jose and Marta Fernandez in San Juan, Puerto Rico, then was shipped to Barrera at Santa Anita in January. For Barrera, Mister Frisky was a four-legged miracle tonic.

“I’m alive again,” said Barrera, who never dodges a chance to be dramatic. “And I don’t hold anything against the racing board. But you know something? Nobody has ever come up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry we did this to you.’ Nobody.”

Foote, who retired in February, sympathizes with Barrera.

“But the one thing that can’t be done, because there are lawsuits all over the place, is to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Foote said this week from his Sacramento home. “That’s an expression that would imply there was some negligence involved. And actually, there was not. The one basic error made throughout was that no one had ever established a standard for what constitutes a positive. And California is not alone in this.”

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Veterinarian Arthur, on the other hand, said the reason for the cocaine controversy is not that simple. He and several colleagues in the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Assn. maintain that there was and is an ongoing threat of cocaine entering the system of racehorses and that the racing board of 15 months ago was not equipped to respond to the problem.

“Trainers do have to be very afraid of cocaine positives, because it is a drug of abuse,” Arthur said. “There’s always the potential of personnel in the barn getting involved with something like that. When Laz said, ‘If I’ve ever touched cocaine, you can cut off my hand,’ undoubtedly he meant it. The investigations should have been looking elsewhere all the time, but because of the trainer insurer (responsibility) rule, the trainer was the focal point.”

Arthur is confident that the system has been changed to prevent a recurrence of the incidents.

“The program is now being overseen by someone in an independent scientific manner,” he said. “The entire process is under constant review. Procedures have been implemented that would prevent someone being accused publicly before all the facts are in. These are things that the HBPA was recommending for a long time, and I think it will end up positive in the long run.

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“I certainly don’t think Laz had to be embarrassed the way he was,” Arthur concluded. “I think the whole thing demonstrated exactly what we had been talking about--that the California Horse Racing Board drug-testing program was a disaster waiting to happen. And it happened.”

Horse Racing Notes

Mister Frisky, ridden by Gary Stevens, worked five furlongs Tuesday in 1:01 4/5. The Santa Anita Derby winner, who will be ridden by Stevens in the Kentucky Derby, finished especially strong, covering the last eighth of a mile in :11 2/5. “That’s the way you win the race,” trainer Laz Barrera said. . . . Unbridled, the Florida Derby winner, worked in the same time. . . . The track was fast before heavy rain made it sloppy for the races in the afternoon. . . . More rain is possible through Friday. The forecast Saturday is for clearing, with no rain and temperatures in the 60s.

Staff writer Bill Christine contributed to this story.

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