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HORSE RACING / BILL CHRISTINE

The Story of 'Big Tony' and All of His Fixings

October 18, 2003|BILL CHRISTINE

When he was fixing races, Anthony "Big Tony" Ciulla thrived on headlines, going as far as to cooperate with Sports Illustrated for a cover story.

When Ciulla died, though, not many people knew. Maybe that's the way someone who was in the federal witness-protection program, who had spent his last 20 years living under another name, would have wanted it.

The Tony Capra who died June 6 in Revere, Mass., a Boston suburb, was convicted -- and admitted -- race-fixer Tony Ciulla. Ciulla's son Kevin said his father had suffered "a massive heart attack." Tony Ciulla was 60.

When I last talked to Ciulla, in 1998, he was living in the Santa Barbara area. He had lived in Southern California -- Newport Beach, Malibu -- since the 1980s. Then -- poof! -- he was gone.

An engaging interview, Ciulla admitted to fixing hundreds of races by bribing jockeys, sometimes for as much as $10,000 a race.

Ciulla became a government witness during a federal investigation into horse racing in the 1970s, and his testimony led to the conviction of several others. That's how he became Tony Capra.

A huge man -- 6 feet 3 and about 350 pounds -- Ciulla, in his fixing days, promised 100-pound jockeys money to join his schemes and was capable of physically intimidating them if they didn't.

One jockey hired by Ciulla failed to restrain his horse, winning the race instead of finishing off the board.

"I smacked him every which way but loose," Ciulla said in testimony to a grand jury in Detroit.

Ciulla's operation began at tracks in his native New England and expanded along the East Coast. He once bragged that he had fixed races in every racing state except California.

Some racing investigators insist that Ciulla never infested the big leagues of New York racing, but he told Sports Illustrated that the jockeys there were just as vulnerable as the ones at the bush tracks.

Long before the popularity of the pick-six bet, which can account for large payoffs, Ciulla said he was fixing exactas and trifectas. In an exacta, bettors try to pick the one-two order of finish. Trifectas require that bettors hit the finish in one-two-three order.

Ciulla would instruct compliant jockeys of heavy favorites to hold their horses, assuring that they wouldn't finish first, second or third, then bet on longshots, which could produce extravagant payoffs.

Once, having read a story in The Times about another race-fixer who had said it was difficult to rig races even if the jockeys cooperated, Ciulla called the newspaper and said, "I don't know what he's talking about. When I was in business, we hit 99% of the races we set up. We controlled the infrastructure. If this guy can't fix the races he's trying to, he's a dump truck."

Ciulla said that only a few jockeys ever turned him down. In Sports Illustrated, more than 20 years ago, he incriminated a number of jockeys, including Angel Cordero, Jorge Velazquez and Jacinto Vasquez, all of whom are in the Racing Hall of Fame. Vasquez later was suspended for a year over race-fixing but denied knowing Ciulla.

Ciulla said that one of his intermediaries in New York was the late Con Errico, who was then past 50 and virtually retired as a rider. Errico kept his riding license active because it gave him entree to the jockeys' rooms at the tracks. Errico eventually served more than four years for race-fixing.

Even in the witness-protection program, Ciulla maintained a high profile -- much to the annoyance of racing officials.

In 1983, Ciulla's wife, Helen, under the name of Capra, claimed a horse out of a race at Hollywood Park, renaming it Big Mary's Boy.

The California Horse Racing Board revoked Helen Capra's owner's license and she was never able to run the horse.

Ciulla called one of the state stewards at Del Mar and indignantly said, "You think I need to own a horse to fix a race?"

"Would I be stupid enough to try to fix a race with a horse my wife owned?" Ciulla said. "I changed the name of the horse for personal reasons. I named it after my mother and father. My mother really was 'Big Mary.' She weighed 400 pounds."

Alleging invasion of privacy, Ciulla filed a $30-million lawsuit against the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, which had investigated the Big Mary's Boy purchase. U.S. District Court in Los Angeles dismissed the suit.

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