LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Across the decades, Big Stan rides on. You cannot derail Big Stan. You should not doubt Big Stan.
Here we gather for the biggest thing in horse racing, except it's the second-biggest thing in horse racing at the moment as the world's largest, richest stable implodes in a gripping multinational doping scandal that has brought back to mind a durable old word: stanozolol.
Awww, stanozolol. What nostalgia you coax! We hardly knew how to spell ye when Ben Johnson won the 100 meters at the Seoul Olympics, urinated in a cup and brought you to our consciousness. That ancient moment will find its silver anniversary this September, but Big Stan plods on agelessly.
Performance-enhancing drugs come and go, they gain and lose fashionableness, they run their merry race against the harried testing, but here we have an indestructible old warhorse. What a long run in a changing field for this synthetic steroid offspring of testosterone. Big Stan has burned on through Johnson, through a prominent Russian racewalker in the late 1990s (which I bring up because there's no scandal I love any more than racewalking doping), all the way to the baseball finger-wagger Rafael Palmeiro (after which experts expressed shock because of Big Stan's easy detectability), and clear on to 2013 and the mighty Godolphin stable of Dubai and Greater London and Planet Earth.
Yeah, Big Stan probably sits around in its bottles sneering at the pharma-come-latelys across the shelves.
Among horse-racing drugs, he probably trash-talks cobra venom.
This past late winter, it seems, Big Stan somehow got from Dubai to London unimpeded, in the radioactive luggage of big-time horse trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni. Now, as somebody who spent a while traveling through Dubai and Abu Dhabi regularly, let me say the very thought of it gives me a shudder. I have never been into drugs beyond the ones they sell at pubs and vineyards, yet almost every time I flew from or into there I suffered some paranoid fever dream about some unwanted pill falling from the ceiling and cascading into my belongings.
I have read the first-person account from the English resident of the United Arab Emirates who returned from vacation with two stray pills in his carry-on, which led to your everyday airport blood test, which detected the presence of marijuana, which led to hard time in prison.
Then again, Al Zarooni is -- or was -- one of the two bigwig trainers working for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president of the UAE and the ruling monarch of Dubai (which is one of the seven emirates of the UAE, Abu Dhabi being another).
And then again, in the UAE it's legal to inject horses with drugs before a window of time preceding competition.
And then again, in the United Kingdom it is not.
Therein comes the messy splash across England in recent days, with the British Horseracing Authority's full report released Tuesday. Somehow these drugs went undiscovered through six hours of flight and two security zones. Why, it's as if there'd been no security at all! The drugs administered to 15 of Godolphin's hundreds of horses included stanozolol and some other stuff that lacked the Johnson-Palmeiro cachet. They brought huge embarrassment to the huge. Sheikh Mohammed expressed his disgust with Al Zarooni. The British authorities quickly banned Al Zarooni for eight big years. Godolphin promised a thorough scouring of its sprawling facilities.
And rational voices called for British authorities to interview Sheikh Mohammed, which would qualify as a venture into the ticklish.
The whole thing is riveting.
I never met Sheikh Mohammed, though I once did witness up close as he ran giddily and athletically at age 62 toward his family after one of his four entries won the 13-horse Dubai World Cup at the track he owns, Meydan, which really does look like Oz. I did interview once his daughter, the taekwondo practitioner Sheikha Maitha, who extolled her father's support of her participation in sport, which I took as encouraging and commendable.
Then, on the horse racing side of it, there's also this from 2012, from the splendid Geoffrey Riddle's interview with Al Zarooni for The National newspaper (my former employer), on the subject of Sheikh Mohammed: "He's my master. He's the one telling me to do this, this, this. He calls me daily, nearly. He must be so busy. He runs a whole country, but often he comes here to watch the gallops sometimes for morning and evening lots. It is his idea how to work the horses. What they do exactly, what pace they go and over which distances they run. He tells me: 'Mahmood, feed that horse this,' or, 'This horse doesn't look too good,' and so on."
And to think that at many dawns of May, Sheikh Mohammed has concerned himself with his pursuit of the elusive Kentucky Derby, which he once vowed to win, where he has never finished better than sixth and which he once, in Jason Levin's book "From The Desert To The Derby," said had proved harder than he thought. (Yup, that realization makes a long queue.) Now he's uncommonly embroiled in unwanted noise as another Kentucky Derby goes off over here with 20 probables, the human connections overwhelmingly American.
And to think that even though doping has become a common thought at American horse tracks, and the issue has bedeviled American racing in recent years, and even though the questions about its legality have grown loud enough to stoke the involvement of -- oh, no, please, no -- Congress, I used to attend entire race weeks without even thinking about doping.
That's because I was naive, and that's because I overlooked Big Stan.
Big Stan won't stand for that.