They Shoot Up Horses, Don't They?

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

Shuman and Gill had somehow managed to alienate both groups. To the well-heeled crowd, the callow Shuman didn't appear to be in the same class with smooth, self-possessed trainers like Mott, multiple Derby winner Bob Baffert, or stakes leader Bobby Frankel. Those men all seemed to trail wisps of glamour and gravitas as they moved in and out of the paddock. Shuman, beefy, awkward, with an omnipresent baseball cap, was more like the guy who gives you an estimate on a new garage door. There was something charmlessly blue-collar about him, marching implacably from victory to victory. His assault on the Gulfstream record brought back memories of the unsung Roger Maris pursuing Babe Ruth's home-run mark in 1961.

"It's not like people want to cheer for the guy," Walder said. "He's trying to scare other trainers out of races. He's very arrogant. It's not like rooting for Sammy Sosa to hit 500 home runs."

As for Gill, he was just too hungry for the paddock crowd. A self-made former seminarian who started one of the biggest mortgage banking businesses in the country, Gill had a reputation as a free-spending, do-anything-for-a-win horseman. He had the money -- his company, New Hampshire-based Mortgage Specialists, is expected to gross $100 million this year -- and he was ready to spend it, sometimes almost buying out a field to ensure a victory. Earlier this month, when one of his horses won a stakes race in Maryland, he owned three of the seven entries.

"Whenever you enter a race," Mark Shuman told other trainers, "think of me"
Colby Katz
"Whenever you enter a race," Mark Shuman told other trainers, "think of me"
Cynthia Kollias-Baker, director of the Racing Laboratory
Colby Katz
Cynthia Kollias-Baker, director of the Racing Laboratory

During a brief stint as a trainer in New Hampshire in 1995, Gill was suspended after one of his horses tested positive for an illegal bronchial dilator. (A bum rap, Gill says; the drug had been administered by the prior trainer, whom Gill had just fired.) In recent years he has established himself as one of the top owners in the country. Last year his horses won 228 races, garnering a total of $5.6 million and placing Gill fourth on the U.S. horseracing money list.

It didn't help that Gill and Shuman were aggressively taking dozens of horses from other trainers' barns. Under the unforgiving rules of the so-called "claiming game," any horse entered in a claiming race -- a majority of Gulfstream competition -- is, for a brief fifteen minutes before the starting bell, up for grabs by any legitimate trainer who wants to pay the pre-established price. It's a kind of free-market system, ensuring that horses run against competitors at their own level. A trainer is free to match his prize speedster against the slow-footed crowd just to pick up a cheap win, but he does so at his own risk.

By shrewdly stepping in to claim some sleepers and unloading their own underperformers, Shuman and Gill swept up some of the track's best horse flesh. This violated the spirit of sunny collegiality that often settles on the small-townlike backstretch of a racetrack, where trainers quietly agree not to claim each other's horses. With Shuman and Gill in the mix, nobody could relax. Other trainers, some of whom lost $100,000 horses to Shuman and Gill, were in an uproar. It's all part of the game, says Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents 5000 owners and trainers in the state. "It's not a game for people in short pants," he says.

Two months into the season, Shuman, backed by Gill's cash, had built up his stable from 50 thoroughbreds to more than 100. By the end of the winter meet, Shuman had claimed 110 horses. "I've never seen anyone claim so aggressively before," Stirling says.

Nor were the bettors in the trenches -- the regulars at the betting windows -- happy with Shuman and Gill. Some of Shuman's rivals tell stories about the smart crowd, burnt once or twice too often, refusing to bet on races that included Shuman's horses. "A lot of gamblers are upset," trainer Walder says, recounting how a "no-prayer" Shuman horse had pulled an upset, wiping out a big Pick 6 wager (that is, betting six winners in a row) by some of his associates. "One guy pushed a TV off a table," Walder recounts.

For the small-time bettors, those guys clutching the three- and four-dollar tickets, the tale of The Leg was just more confirmation of the persistent suspicion that the whole sport is a ripoff designed to shear low-level gamblers like sheep. Keeping a lid on the endemic cynicism at the track has always been tough, Gulfstream president and general manager Scott Savin says. "We want the offenders punished severely," he says. "We have to see that people who aren't playing by the same rules as everyone else don't play the game."

Unpopular

In person, Shuman doesn't seem like a diabolical threat to racing. He's polite and soft-spoken, though sometimes you can see the humiliation glinting through his pained smile. After all the bad publicity, racetracks up and down the East Coast have denied Shuman stall privileges. No room at the inn, say Aqueduct and Belmont in New York, Monmouth in New Jersey, Philadelphia Park in Pennsylvania, and Calder. At Delaware Park, they won't even let Shuman or Gill on the grounds.

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