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The Skammerz Ishu

The Sport of Kings Is Full of Scum

Cheating is deeply woven into the fabric of horse racing. The sport is such a magnet for shady characters and below-the-table dealings that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was introduced in Congress this past May, with the intention of curbing...

John Swenson

Veterinarian Dr. Mark Gerard (left) entering the courthouse in Mineola, New York, with his attorney, F. Lee Bailey, September 1978. Dr. Gerard was convicted of fraud for masterminding a horse-racing scandal that involved switching two thoroughbreds. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

Cheating is deeply woven into the fabric of horse racing. The sport is such a magnet for shady characters and below-the-table dealings that the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act was introduced in Congress this past May, with the intention of curbing rampant dope abuse and “ensuring the integrity and safety” of horse racing. The bill has little chance of becoming law, but it speaks to the potential for corruption in a sport that, to the public, is perceived to be venerable and accessible to all classes.

I first learned about dishonesty at the track in 1966, when I was 16 years old. My father, an avid gambler, would take me to Vernon Downs in central New York to see the standardbreds, harness horses who trotted or paced while pulling a two-wheeled sulky and driver. My father would always look for an “uncle” of mine who magically knew which horses would win and lose; if he wasn’t there, we were out of luck.

As a horse-racing journalist for nearly 40 years, I’ve reported on racetracks all over the country. Along the way I’ve witnessed countless scams ranging from ingenious scores to harebrained disasters, and during my time as a reporter at the New York Post in the 70s, I became an expert in analyzing suspicious races.

Sometimes, if you look closely, it’s obvious that a jockey is pulling on his mount’s reins to slow it down; other times you see a worse-than-usual finishing time and can glean that the riders conspired to let a subpar horse beat the field. But the best indication that a race has been tampered with is when exotic bets on the order of the first few finishers (exactas, trifectas, and superfectas) produce payoffs much lower than normal because everyone in the know has laid down heavy money.

In the 1970s I hung around New York’s three thoroughbred racetracks: Belmont, Aqueduct, and Saratoga. Back then the biggest payoff of the day was the trifecta in the last race—and the races routinely defied all handicapping logic. During the summer of 1974 at Saratoga, it was generally accepted that the jockeys were greedy little men in cahoots to fix the triple on a near-daily basis. Favorites inexplicably finished out of the money, and long-shot trifecta payoffs were far smaller than they should have been.

This all came to a head in 1974, when the popular jockey Michael Hole told trainer John Cotter that he’d been approached to pull one of John’s horses during the Saratoga meet. John reported it to the stewards and was subsequently questioned by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board about the alleged foul play at the state’s thoroughbred tracks. In allegations that first surfaced publicly in a 1978 Sports Illustrated article, John implicated two-time Kentucky derby winner Jacinto Vasquez in the Michael Hole bribery incident and identified jockey Angel Cordero Jr. as one of its ringleaders. The board notified state and federal authorities, who were already investigating the man who was ultimately behind the attempt to bribe Michael, a Boston mobster named “Fat” Tony Ciulla, for race fixing.

Fat Tony, who had been pinched for bribing a jockey in New Jersey on tape and later convicted on charges related to race fixing in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, subsequently agreed to testify against many of the top figures in horse racing about hundreds of fixed races. In his testimony he explained how he paid off jockeys to engineer outcomes, like at the Aqueduct on April 2, 1975. On that day he bribed four separate jockeys to make sure their heavily bet-on steeds finished out of the money at the ninth race. According to Fat Tony, jockey Braulio Baeza stiffed Ham, the favorite, who finished fifth, while Jorge Velasquez ensured that Boston Boy came in sixth. Angel Cordero Jr., on Saratoga Prince, and Mike Venezia, on Sassy Prince, trailed the field. I remember the race well, because I bet on Saratoga Prince and went home broke.

Rags to Riches (left) passes Curlin to win the 2007 Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. Photo courtesy of EPA/Justin Lane

The sensational testimony of Fat Tony resulted in numerous convictions all over the country. In return, the mobster got to brag about his exploits in public and was given a new identity by the Feds. Michael Hole, on the other hand, was found dead of asphyxiation on April 22, 1976. His body was discovered in the front seat of his parked car, its tailpipe blocked. The death was officially ruled a suicide, but given his involvement in exposing fixed races, it doesn’t take an overactive imagination to believe foul play might have been involved.

But you don’t need to be a jockey to manipulate what happens on a racetrack. Mark Gerard, a top veterinarian whose clients included the great Secretariat and Kelso, masterminded one of the ballsiest attempts to game the system in history. In 1976 Mark bought a pair of horses from Uruguay and shipped them to his Long Island barn. One of them, Lebon, was a cheap horse, a low-level claimer. The other, Cinzano, was a champion. The two horses were almost identical, aside from some subtle markings, and Mark prepared a double scam. First he reported that Cinzano died in an accident the day after arriving in the United States and collected $150,000 in insurance money. In actuality, it was Lebon who suffered the “accident,” leaving Cinzano free to race as Lebon. On September 23, 1976, “Lebon” was entered in a $16,000 claiming race at Belmont Park. His modest past performances were reflected in his 57-to-one odds. But the competition was easy for Cinzano, who won the race under his alias. Mark slipped up by making and cashing a big bet on Lebon/Cinzano himself—he picked up $80,440 in winnings, but was recognized while receiving his ill-gotten gains by racetrack officials, who were naturally suspicious. Mark was eventually caught, and his license suspended. He ended up in Florida, treating polo ponies.

Lest you think these types of schemes are relics of some fast-and-loose golden era of betting on the track, last April, when members of the Zetas cartel were on trial in Austin, Texas, for money laundering, Gerardo Mata Morales, an operative in the Mexican drug gang, testified about his smuggling of cars and cash through Texas and New Mexico. Some of these profits, prosecutors claim, were used to fix a big quarter-horse race—the 2010 All American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico.

Miguel Trevino Morales, Gerardo’s brother and leader of the Zetas at the time, wanted Gerardo’s 22-to-one long shot, Mr. Piloto, to win no matter what. Quarter-horse races take place over very short distances; if a horse gets a bad break from the gate it has almost no chance of winning. With this in mind Miguel bribed the assistant starters, who ensure the horses exit cleanly from the gate, to hold the favorites. Mr. Piloto crossed the finish line first, taking home the winner’s share of the $1 million purse.

While the general public hears about high-profile scandals involving ruthless drug cartels, over my decades of reporting, I’ve found that most racetrack regulars believe there’s a lot more fixing going on than what makes the headlines. Any game that involves gambling will inspire attempts to control the outcome, but unlike cards or dice, horseracing has an extra element of difficulty—a wild, four-legged beast that isn’t in on the scheme and can ruin a fixer’s best-laid plans.

My favorite story about a cheater trying unsuccessfully to influence a race’s outcome happened on February 24, 2007, at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. The meet was in its closing stages, so I was paying close attention to trainers who had yet to win a race—for instance, I knew John Botty was a solid horseman, but he had suffered a run of terrible luck. After 15 starts his horses only had two second-place finishes and five in third place. John entered a horse named Ghostly Magick in the next race, confident about his chances. I was feeling optimistic as well, so I placed a bet on the horse. Then John told me about the peculiar way jockey Donnie Meche was warming him up.

“He took him away from the pony and started warming him up as if he were arthritic or sore,” John said, adding that it was a sign that something fishy was going on. Donnie, who’s received multiple suspensions over the years for suspicious rides, tried to get Ghostly Magick scratched by telling the track vet the horse was lame and he wouldn’t ride it. After the vet found nothing wrong, John had only seconds to find another, more honest rider before the race started. He went into the jockey’s room and found a youngster named Ramsey Zimmerman looking for a mount. Minutes later Ramsey rallied Ghostly Magick down the stretch and caught odds-on favorite Content Cot in the final yards to win the race.

I went to the window and cashed my bet. It felt good to make an honest buck.