Score one for the jockeys. And their sport's image.
Controversial owner Michael Gill, who led all North American owners in wins and purse earnings in 2009, is liquidating his stable so that he can leave racing. Again. Gill's actions were the result of the firestorm that erupted following two breakdowns at Penn National Race Course in late January. Since the early 2000's Gill has operated out of Elk Creek Ranch, a large training center in Oxford, Pa.
In early February Gill was ousted from Hollywood Casino at Penn National by order of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission. Gill was boycotted by members of the Penn National riding colony after his horse Laughing Moon broke down shortly after the wire in the fifth race on January 23, causing another horse and rider to also go down.
Only after Gill's one remaining horse on the card was scratched did the jockeys agree to saddle up again. Two nights before, Gill's Melodeeman suffered a similar catastrophic breakdown. The jockeys took action following repeated instances where Gill-owned horses broke down at the Grantville, Pa. track. According to reports in the Daily Racing Form (DRF), six Gill horses have suffered catastrophic breakdowns since Oct. 1, an unusually high number. Another nine of his horses were pulled up, eased or went lame over that span of time. Several jockeys on horses behind the fallen horses were thrown from their mounts.
Many jockeys and horsemen at the track, citing safety concerns, informed the Pennsylvania Racing Commission (PHRC) that they would not take mounts or enter their horses in races alongside Gill's horses. On the morning of Feb. 3 Gill said he received a call from the PHRC asking him if he planned to scratch his horses entered for that evening. He stated he intended to race and an hour later received the ejection notice from PHRC acting executive secretary Michael Dillon.
Citing the jockeys' threat, the Commission said the boycott would "negatively and adversely affect pari-mutuel racing at Penn National Race Course and the orderly conduct of that race meet." The Commission's investigation into Gill was ongoing as of mid-February.
Rick Abbott says the jockey boycott carries a lot of weight.
"The riders were willing to give up their livelihood," said Abbott, the former Pennsylvania Racing Commissioner Chairman. "You've got five or ten guys that might get one ride a night or a week. They'll ride almost anything. It shows how seriously they took the situation."
The owner of a mortgage brokerage company in New Hampshire for 20 years, Gill had 49 stalls at Penn National. Typically he raced four to five horses each racing card. Last year at Penn National he had about 1,000 starts over 200 racing days. Overall, Gill won with 370 of 2,247 starters in 2009, earning $6.7 million in purses racing at Penn National, Philadelphia Park, Charles Town, Mountaineer and New York.
"To me, all this means is they found nothing on me and anyone could be thrown out for whatever they consider to be 'the best interest of racing'", Gill told the DRF. "If they had even the littlest thing to hang on me, believe me, they would have."
Gill still has a valid owner's license and the Racing Commission has not charged him with any known rule violations. The owner says he takes good care of the approximately 100 animals stabled at his Chester county training facility.
The practice of staging and reviewing a necropsy (autopsy) exam on horses that suffer fatal injuries at Penn National was instituted by the track at the start of the year in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission. Gill has said that necropsies of Laughing Moon and Melodeeman showed no illegal drugs or pre-race problems, saying, "my horses were clean and sound."
Penn National races four nights a week during the winter. Gill reported that Laughing Moon pulled a suspensory ligament when the horse hit an ice patch.
"The problem is with their racetrack there at Penn, and they're trying to shift the blame to me," he said. "Racing in the mountains of Pennsylvania in the dead of winter? Of course you're going to have problems keeping your track safe."
Penn National officials refuted that charge.
"I think the fact the jockeys are pointing to Mr. Gill and not the track sort of speaks for itself," noted Eric Schippers, a vice president of public affairs at the track's parent company, Penn National Gaming.
The man at the center of the storm once labeled himself as "a hard-working stiff from Windham, New Hampshire that has a big ego and a big mouth." Controversy has followed Gill nearly everywhere he's gone in racing and a batch of Gill lawsuits followed allegations and his banishment from racetracks.
Gill, 54, entered the sport with a small racing stable in New England in the mid-1980s. A decade later he fired his trainer Edward Vazquez, Sr. and took command. Shortly afterward one of his runners tested positive for the drug clenbuterol and investigators searching his barn at Rockingham Park uncovered injectable drugs and syringes. Gill claimed they belonged to his former trainer. State's racing officials refused to buy it and barred him for 80 days. When he failed to pay the $1,000 fine the suspension was extended to three years.
With hefty profits from his business, Mortgage Specialists, Gill expanded his stable in dramatic fashion in 1999, though this time only as an owner. He acquired horses at all levels, but mostly lower-level claimers, and he claimed relentlessly. He set up large stables primarily at Delaware Park and at Maryland tracks. Over the years he has run a staggering number of horses: he had 2,235 starts in 2003, 2,885 in 2004, 1,870 in 2005, and 2,247 in 2009. His best year earnings-wise was $10,811,631, an average of $3,748 per start.
"The people that we're claiming from who happen to have been in that community for the past 20-30 years are unhappy," Gill told Horse.com "It's not new. We're claiming an inordinate amount of horses and taking too much money off the table. I take grief because I own a lot of claiming horses, but how many people spend millions of dollars on horses that never even make it to the racetrack."
Gill's band of horses shattered records at Gulfstream Park in Florida over the winter and early spring in 2003, and at mid-Atlantic tracks through the rest of year which resulted in Gill being named the leading owner in the country in victories and money earned for several years.
Elk Creek Ranch
Back in 2002 he was the leading owner at Delaware Park. Then the following year the track refused to allot him stalls or allow his horses to race, and he was barred from Delaware Park grounds. Gill sued the track and eventually an out-of court settlement was reached. Many other mid-Atlantic tracks followed, telling Gill to take his massive stable elsewhere.
Many of the tracks wanted to distance themselves from the ongoing negative attention that had shadowed Gill. In addition, Gill's ongoing practice of claiming scores of racehorses established his stable as a very powerful force that could threaten the livelihood of many small trainers. It also produced too many races with small fields and prohibitive favorites, and that makes bettors cringe.
When Gill purchased Elk Creek Ranch in Chester County his checkered past left him with few other options. Gradually he built up his business again, owning as many as 400 horses. He took home the Eclipse Award for top North America owner in 2005. It was for his success in the 2005 racing year, the third consecutive year Gill led all North American owners by races and money won.
Gill had bristled when the Eclipse Award in 2003 was bestowed on another owner. In a news release he drew a comparison of himself to Seabiscuit's owner, Charles Howard-- an underdog role against the establishment.
"I can't help but think that the vote was a vote against me, rather than a vote against the accomplishments," Gill wrote. "And I don't understand that. We all cheered ‘Seabiscuit' last year, a movie about hope and the underdog rising from obscurity to challenge racing's establishment and emerge victorious."
In 2008 Gill started to rebuild his stable and last year he won with 370 of 2,247 starters. Many in racing have questioned Gill's business strategy.
"He won over $6 million last year, but he's constantly claiming horses so it's costing him a lot of money to run them," noted Abbottt. "To me with that business model it was inevitable he would fail. Do I think he's totally done with racing? Yes. Hey, it's driven out better men then him."
The Penn National banishment doesn't stop Gill from racing his horses at Philadelphia Park where there have been no official complaints about the owner and no jockey boycotts. While he says he will continue to race at the Bensalem, Pa. track (he has no stables there) Gill reiterated that he intends to sell off all of his 100 or so thoroughbreds and other racing-related holdings because of the latest dispute.
What happens to Gill's racehorses? Christy Sheidy of Another Chance 4 Horses in Bernville, PA, said a list of 12 to 14 Gill horses in possible danger of being sent to slaughter, developed by trainers who worked for Gill, has been circulated among regional horse rescues. Other than three horses that were apparently inadvertently sent to the New Holland auction rather than to a farm that was their intended destination, Sheidy said more than a month of tracking has turned up none of them. Of the three horses sent to New Holland, two were bought by Another Chance 4 Horses, which has them listed on their web site. The third was purchased by Penn National trainer Murry Rojas, she said.
As for Gill, he said anyone interested in his horses should contact his trainer, Tony Amado at Elk Creek Ranch. The embattled owner also stated he is done with racing. He says he doesn't have the heart for a prolonged fight with Penn National management and jockeys, saying he is "just worn down." No doubt the same feeling that many of his racehorses have known.
Terry Conway writes monthly on horseracing, to contact Terry email firstname.lastname@example.org