They Shoot Up Horses, Don't They?

Owner Michael Gill and trainer Mark Shuman, exonerated by lab test, hit back

Even before the start of the Gulfstream Park season in January, horse trainer Mark Shuman and his boss, New Hampshire mortgage banker Michael Gill, were talking large about their prospects. They had sauntered into Hallandale Beach like a couple of pistoleros, muscling their way into the pastoral confines of the horse track's backstretch, stepping on toes, verbally jostling the gentlemen of the barns. They had a stable full of speedy horses itching for action, they said, and they were comin' at the competition. Watch out.

They had it all worked out. The burly, smooth-faced Shuman, 32, with only two years behind him as an accredited trainer with his own roster of clients, would win more races than anyone else at Gulfstream. Shuman and Gill's horses would suck up the purses like anteaters consuming a line of bugs. They would be -- no question about it -- in contention for the Eclipse Award, the Oscar of horseracing, as the year's best trainer and best owner. They'd make the others look like, in Gill's description, "knuckleheads."

"Whenever you enter a race," Shuman told other trainers ominously, "think of me."

Ken Dewar
Michael Gill and Mark Shuman: the bad boys of racing?
BILL DENVER
Michael Gill and Mark Shuman: the bad boys of racing?

Brash words from a relative newcomer, track cynics said. Let's see what he has to say in April, at the end of the meet. But Shuman, the cynics quickly learned, had an uncanny talent for entering his charges in races where they'd have an edge, thus picking up cheap wins. And with horses like Boston Brat, a huge, hard-driving stallion who quickly set a couple of track records, Shuman seemed to have the equine firepower to match his boasts.

The upstart trainer, who hadn't even been listed at the start of the meet in Gulfstream's media guide, began winning big-time. It was phenomenal. By mid-February, less than halfway through the season, he had matched the track record, set in 1996 by Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, of 39 wins.

It should have been a golden time for the young trainer: all those horses hitting their stride in the stretch, all those triumphant treks to the winner's circle, the high-fives from happy bettors, the acclaim of the crowds milling in front of Gulfstream's vast, airy grandstand.

But the air of optimism around the Shuman barn soon degenerated into a poisonous cloud of suspicion. The "negativity," as Shuman pointedly refers to the mood during his final months at Gulfstream, started with rumors around the barns that the trainer was administering some kind of illegal substance to his horses. "I mean, he's just not that good," trainer Peter Walder said in April. How could this upstart travel in the same company as Mott without using illicit performance enhancers?

Shuman often won with horses that had arrived at his barn as dull, middle-of-the-pack nags. Maybe, went the theory, he was using some new substance that the chemists hadn't yet developed a test for. Maybe there was some secret "rocket fuel" propelling Shuman's horses across the finish line.

Then came the incident of The Leg, an occurrence so bizarre that, like some weird seismic event, it seemed to challenge the essential integrity of the game, and rattle the entire racing industry even as top trainers were gearing up for the Triple Crown season.

The Leg

On February 3 Casual Conflict, a gutsy nine-year-old Shuman-trained gelding, broke down while leading in the backstretch when the cannon bone in one of his slender front calves splintered like a Popsicle stick. Casual Conflict writhed agonizingly in the dirt, his leg almost torn away from his body. A track veterinarian arrived in an ambulance, set up a makeshift screen around the horse, and gave him a lethal injection of phenobarbitol. Casual Conflict had apparently suffered one of those catastrophic injuries that occasionally occur when high-strung racehorses stretch beyond their physical capabilities.

Shortly after Casual Conflict was euthanized, though, the track vet returned to examine the horse's body and found that the injured leg had been mysteriously amputated. Somebody had carried it off. It was ludicrous. What was going on? Maybe the strange disappearance was an attempt to destroy damning evidence, track officials reasoned. They quickly tracked down Philip Aleong, a veterinarian employed by Shuman. He showed them the missing limb, which was wrapped in cloth in the back of his truck.

It was the "smoking gun" that all of Shuman's critics had been waiting for. The subsequent investigation, which included shipping the leg off for examination, and conducting a battery of tests at the Racing Laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville, raised the specter of widespread doping in the Shuman barn. For a month and a half, as Shuman's horses kept sweeping up the purses, there was a harsh, persistent buzz about Shuman, Gill, and the doper's needle.

Horseracing is at an odd juncture of two widely divergent cultures. There's the aristocracy of the tracks, the pastel-clad rich folks with names like Phipps and Chandler, who stand in the paddock before the big races going misty-eyed at the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" or "East Side, West Side," basking in the power of huge restless animals that brim with kinetic energy. And there are the rumpled masses, the rail birds, clutching dog-eared copies of the Daily Racing Form, peering with haunted eyes down the track at an approaching commotion of galloping hooves.

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