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Breeders' Cup Scheme Joins Annals of Infamy

Horse racing has long inspired con artistry, the latest scandal being merely a high-tech variation.

November 21, 2002|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

The Breeders' Cup Three didn't bribe jockeys, a la Tony Ciulla and Richie Sklar. They didn't run a ringer like Mark Gerard. They didn't kite checks like Eugene Zeek. They didn't ride out of the fog like Sylvester Carmouche Jr. And they certainly didn't paint -- yes, paint -- horses like Paddie Barrie.

Although the Breeders' Cup Three have been charged with blazing an infamous trail last month, hatching a $3-million payoff after submitting a doctored ticket following the running of the first four races in the pick six, their high-tech coup was really only a computerized refinement of what has been pecking away at racing's soul since the Romans, circling Circus Maximus with their chariots.

One of the Breeders' Cup suspects, the fired tote-company programmer Chris Harn of Newark, Del., pleaded guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court in New York to single charges of wire-fraud conspiracy and money-laundering conspiracy. At a hearing, Harn implicated Derrick Davis and Glen DaSilva, who were charged earlier in the case.

Racing's sporadic flimflams are inevitably greeted in two ways by racing's pooh-bahs: indignation, followed by knee-jerk reform. At Agua Caliente in Tijuana, in the days before tote machines, bets made out by hand were time-stamped to ostensibly preserve their integrity. But it was no secret that a few insiders could still time-stamp a partially completed ticket, then fill in the numbers of the winning horses afterward. So in Northern California, with much fanfare in 1934, Bay Meadows introduced a new totalisator system. "Totalisators have been in use in America less than four years," the track said, "and the one at Bay Meadows will be the first one on the West Coast. It is a marvel of electric mechanism, with almost human intelligence, and it will leave no room for doubt."

The Daily Racing Form headline: "Human Equation Removed." Almost 70 years later, at the Autotote nerve center in Newark, Del., a reported 18 employees knew the password that would let them tap into the computer system, and on Oct. 26 it took only one -- the 29-year-old Harn -- to re-create a ticket and perpetrate what has been called racing's most damaging scam. Because of the money they allegedly hoped to collect, the Breeders' Cup Three are making all the rogues that went before them look like pikers.

By comparison, Mark Gerard risked his reputation as a distinguished veterinarian for a pittance. Some scams play on sympathetic heartstrings -- a trainer at Santa Anita who hates computers even had a kind word for the Breeders' Cup trio -- but there was nothing likable about Gerard, who signed off on a $137,000 insurance claim although he knew Lloyd's of London was erroneously paying on the death of a sore-backed bleeder instead of a Uruguayan champion.

Gerard, who had treated stars such as Secretariat and Canonero II in building up a $200,000-a-year practice, then ran the good horse, the estimable Cinzano, in the name of the pitiable no-account, Lebon, on a fall 1977 day at Belmont Park, and cashed a $78,000 bet when the ringer rolled in at 57-1.

Two things unraveled Gerard's hefty payday. The race was the last of the day, and the vet figured he could go to the mutuel windows, quickly collect his haul and walk away unnoticed. But the cashier, short of the full $78,000, sent a part-time runner down the line for more cash. The runner happened to gallop horses in the mornings at Belmont, and recognized Gerard upon his return. "Hi, Doc," he said casually. "Nice hit."

A little later, a winner's circle picture of "Lebon," the rank longshot, was published in South American newspapers. Cinzano and Lebon were both bays, but Cinzano, unlike Lebon, had a white star on his forehead, which was clearly visible in the photograph. A call from South America to U.S. racing authorities led to an investigation and the prosecution of Gerard. Represented by F. Lee Bailey, Gerard was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. One of the appeals court judges, while rejecting Gerard's request for leniency, said that the case "might have been authored jointly by Alfred Hitchcock and Damon Runyon."

Paddie Barrie was as Runyonesque as they come. A man of many aliases, the English-born Barrie came to the U.S. illegally from Canada, to become known as the "Racetrack Rembrandt." If you needed a bay to masquerade as a chestnut, Barrie was your man. He did such good work -- using the best of henna dyes -- that trainers didn't have to worry about the color running in the rain.

One of Barrie's favorite chattels was Aknahton, a horse that frequently ran in any name but his own. In 1931, Barrie painted Aknahton to look like a horse named Shem and ran him at Havre de Grace in Maryland. Instead of going off as a longshot, the horse won at 5-1 and Barrie and his confederates made a nice score. By the time the authorities picked up the scent, Barrie, Aknahton and the others were off for another try.

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