They Shoot Up Horses, Don't They?

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

But Shuman got his record-smashing season, finishing with 87 wins, 50 more than his closest competitor -- though it turned out to be a bittersweet accomplishment. "All the negativity -- it took 100 percent of the enjoyment out of it," Shuman says.

Shuman and Gill have won some grudging support from fellow racing professionals. "It's not easy to root for Michael Gill," racing writer Steven Crist wrote last month in the Daily Racing Form. "[But] he is a citizen of a country where people supposedly cannot be denied their livelihood if they play by the rules. In the absence of any evidence that he is currently engaged in wrongdoing, it is a lot easier to root for Gill than for the racetracks that are trying to drive him out of the business."

Managers at Maryland's Pimlico and Laurel Park say Gill is welcome there. "He's done nothing wrong here," said Georganne Hale, Maryland Jockey Club racing secretary. "The man runs a lot of horses every day. He definitely helps us fill races."

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

Still Gill is threatening to quit racing. He and Shuman have opened a barn and training facility in eastern Pennsylvania, a short haul from tracks in New Jersey and Maryland. But Gill says his heart's not in it anymore. "If this is the best it gets," he says, "how good is it going to be down the road?"

It's the last week of the Gulfstream season, and Shuman has a rare slow day. The only Shuman horse racing is a $25,000 claimer named Sweet Promises, a handsome, almost black three-year-old with a history of early speed. Shuman has run him four times. But so far, the results have been nothing but sweet promises, with the horse always fading in the stretch. If ever a nag needed some rocket fuel, it would seem to be this one.

Still Shuman, the baseball cap pulled low on his forehead, primps and probes his charge in the paddock stall. As his grooms stand by, he pulls away some shin pads and carefully cinches the saddle, then douses the horse's mouth with a wet sponge. The last time Sweet Promises ran, he led into the stretch in a 5.5-furlong race, so Shuman has fit him into a 5-furlong contest.

Shuman runs his hand down one foreleg; it comes away oily. "What's this?" he says, frowning. "¿Qué es esto? ¿Por qué oil?" Neither of the two grooms responds. Shuman takes a rag and wipes down the leg. "Baby oil," he says. "They use it to make the coat shine. There's just too much of it."

The jockey will be Elvis Trujillo, a cocky-looking veteran from Panama. He and Shuman walk together to the paddock's grassy area. There's obviously a communication problem.

"He's going to be out in front," Shuman says.

Trujillo looks at him blankly.

"Muy, muy rapido. Let him go," Shuman says.

Trujillo seems to understand. Shuman boosts Trujillo onto Sweet Promises's back and heads for his personal box in the clubhouse. After three and a half months of racing, Shuman is a recognizable figure in the Gulfstream crowd. People point him out as he passes. He's talking philosophy. "A lot of trainers train way too hard," he says. "They think they should run their horses real fast every morning. There's no money in the morning. We usually cut back on the training."

So what's the secret to those big performance improvements? Shuman laughs. "Those are the ones that stick out," he says. "But we've claimed some horses that couldn't walk home. We've claimed some that never raced again."

Around the clubhouse boxes, where owners and trainers have reserved seats, people approach Shuman, grinning and glad-handing. "Yeah," says one man, squeezing Shuman's hand, "they were trying to say you cheated. I said, 'If he's a cheater, then I'm the Queen of England.'"

Shuman grins back at him. Later, he'll scoff. "There are so many two-faced people around the track," he says, "coming up and acting friendly, then talking about me behind my back."

The race starts, and Shuman squirms in his seat. "The day I stop being nervous about a race, I'll quit," he says. Sweet Promises is indeed muy rapido, stretching out to four lengths in front of the pack. But as he comes around the turn heading toward the finish line, the horse seems suddenly to be laboring in mud. The pack catches up, and Sweet Promises finishes third.

There will be no roof-raising miracles emanating from the Shuman barn, no rocket-fueled victories, just the hollow reward of a barely-in-the-money finish. A few minutes after the race, Shuman's cell phone rings. Another trainer has claimed Sweet Promises.

It was the best thing that had happened all day. Shuman shrugs. "Good riddance," he says.

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