Ralph C. Wilson Jr., multimillionaire businessman and owner of a thoroughbred racing stable and pro football's Buffalo Bills, picked uneasily at his lunch one day last week in a Manhattan hotel. "This is the most distressing week I've ever had," he said. "I never believed a thing like this could happen. I would give away everything I have to charity and go to work for $50 a week to clear my name in this thing. I can't live under this cloak of suspicion."
The cloak over Wilson was his 30-day suspension by the New York State Racing Commission for his dealings with Long Island's new Great Gatsby, Ralph Libutti, alias Bob Presti, alias several other names, a soi-disant horse broker deemed by racing authorities an undesirable who recently surrendered to the FBI on a charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for issuing a check without sufficient funds. Also suspended for 30 days for fraudulent dealings with Presti (to use the name he now employs) are two well-known trainers, John Campo and George Poole. The commission also charged Poole, who trains for C.V. Whitney, with placing bets for Presti. Another owner, Frank J. Caldwell, was told to show cause why his license should not be revoked. Along with Wilson and Presti, Caldwell owned a piece of the horse Jim French, a prerace favorite for this year's Kentucky Derby.
Many horsemen regard the 30-day suspensions as outrageously lenient, and no one agreed more than Wilson, who said that if the charges against him were true "They should throw me out of racing for life." Admitting to what he called "two careless mistakes," Wilson maintained he was innocent of attempted fraud, and he spent most of last week secreted at the Regency Hotel. Occasionally he left the hotel to undergo questioning by NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Curiously, the NFL was originally loath to investigate Wilson's dealings with Presti, who is known to have a number of mob associates. Twice in early September agents of the Thoroughbred Racine Protective Bureau asked the NFL to contact them about the case, but no one from Rozelle's office ever did. Only last week, after Wilson's suspension, did the NFL show signs of interest, and at week's end Rozelle absolved Wilson of any "conduct detrimental to football" following a voluntary, two-hour polygraph test.
The Presti case goes far beyond Ralph Wilson, whose proclaimed naiveté is somewhat difficult for many to accept. It is not only unsettling for football, it could develop into a scandal that would force the overhaul of the New York State Racing Commission, a body widely regarded as timid and inept.
Innumerable horsemen have been involved with the mysterious Presti, a lavish host who, in the words of one trainer, "splashed vintage wine around like it was Coca-Cola," either in his $100,000 house in Muttontown or in the Villa Pierre restaurant in Glen Cove. Names keep popping up, and racetrackers are running scared. Jack Price, who owns the Dorchester Equine Preparatory School in Ocala, Fla., hemmed and hawed when asked about Presti and said he would have to check his records. Later Price's secretary said those records disclosed no mention of Presti. It was not until an old friend of Price's called him that he admitted he had been caring for three of Presti's horses—horses purchased by Campo for Caldwell at the exclusive Keeneland summer sales.
Presti himself is anything but a fugitive in hiding. In the course of a series of telephone calls to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, he vowed, "I'm going to blow the lid off racing, and that includes 16 members of the Jockey Club. [Racing] is as phony as a Walt Disney production." Denying membership in the Mafia ("Don't make me look like no banana," he warned), Presti made light of his arrest by the FBI. The charge, he claimed, is "phony," and he said he was released in his own recognizance. And he dismissed several past arrests in New Jersey and California as "ridiculous, ludicrous," slating he had never been convicted or spent a day in jail. Referring to a 1954 case in Union City, N.J., where he was pinched for conspiracy to commit robbery, Presti said, "All it was was a card game that resulted in fisticuffs. This guy said I was trying to rob him. He lived next door. Would I rob a guy who lives next door?"
For "business reasons" and "because I look like a Presti," he uses this name in racing, where he has been a dealer in horses for the past three years. "I don't like racing," Presti said. "Racing is a sucker's game. You can only make money buying and selling." He is not licensed by the racing commission to own racehorses, and sees no reason to obtain such a license. (According to the TRPB, Presti, as Nicholas Spadea, another alias, was refused an owner's license in 1968 and has been barred from state tracks since then.) Oddly enough, Presti probably would not have come to public attention had it not been for the success of Jim French, which he bought from Wilson last year.
Wilson and Presti began dealing in the spring of 1970. "I had never met this man," Wilson said. "He called me and mentioned some important names in racing." Presti purchased several horses from Wilson, who made out bills of sale to Toni Menzella, Presti's niece, and George Poole, the trainer. "A horse could run only if somebody had a license," Wilson said, "and I figured the commission or racing authorities would check it out." Wilson was wrong, and as a result of these sales the commission charged him with assisting Presti, "an unlicensed person, in concealing his ownership." In Wilson's sale—and partial repurchase of Jim French after the horse began winning—the commission accused him of concealing a partnership with Presti and Caldwell. "I admit to a careless mistake," Wilson said. "I should have filed a partnership agreement. Not having had partners in horses, I didn't know about this." Wilson said the commission was incorrect in stating he dealt with Caldwell in the sale and partial repurchase of Jim French. "I dealt only with Presti," said Wilson.
Wilson had been Presti's dinner guest in Muttontown and at the Villa Pierre, but claimed he was no social friend. Once Wilson spent the night at Presti's because "he lived way out on Long Island." "Once, huh?" Presti scoffed. "He spent the night here three times, but I guess three times would make us friends. I was very close to Ralph Wilson. Every day for a year he called me three times a day, sometimes at 2 a.m."
Other guests of Presti included Poole ("greatest guy I've ever met at a racetrack," said Presti); Campo ("he broke bread with my family and was better than a friend," but Campo denied even knowing Presti to the TRPB); Frank Wright, who formerly trained for Wilson ("a very dear friend"), and Dr. Mark (Mike) Gerard, a veterinarian ("he stayed at my house for a whole week—would you call that friends?"). Dr. Gerard termed himself only an acquaintance, adding. "A lot of people were friendly [with Presti], including Jockey Club members."
At home in Muttontown, Presti was a most entertaining host. A guest recalled that Presti began an evening's chitchat by offhandedly recounting how he had once hidden $25,000 in cash in the oven unbeknownst to his wife, who then proceeded to bake a cake while the 25 grand went up in smoke. Asked about the incident, Presti denied it. He explained that people might have confused it with the week he went around with $25,000 in a briefcase "in case I had to make bond money." But Presti is known for carrying tidy sums about with him. On other occasions, Presti would rail against trainers and vets who were trying to get from him under-the-table commissions on horse deals. For the most part, however, dinners at Muttontown and the Villa Pierre were festive. At the latter, a Miss Donna Hillman looked after the favors for guests. Presti said Miss Hillman had served as his secretary. She is now a licensed apprentice jockey.
Not everyone remains friends. Presti allowed that he no longer speaks to Campo, who acted as one of his secret agents in claiming and buying horses, because Campo believed a "kid named Carmine" who told Campo "I had a $5,000 contract out to kill Campo." More in sorrow than anger, Presti added, "The fact that Campo believed Carmine made him very small to me. Now if anyone knocks Campo off, I did it." Last Wednesday afternoon, apparently unconcerned about either getting bumped off or the rules of his suspension, Campo was seen at his barn at Belmont Park.
As Presti saw it, his downfall was caused because he is not "high society—we're not Paul Mellon." He claimed he was only doing what comes naturally in racing. "Sixty percent of the stake horses running are pieced off and got unlicensed partners in them," he said. "For monetary reasons. Not that they couldn't get a license if they wanted to. Take a guy like Bill Levin [owner of Bold Reason]. He spent $2 million on horses and put them under the name of Sarah Hall. But he never had a big horse like I did [Jim French], that attracted attention. Then he found her fooling around and he put the horses in his own name just like that. Nobody questioned how he got the horses. The TRPB couldn't track an elephant in the snow." Presti says he now owns two horses, a 2-year-old filly appropriately named Heist and a younger full brother to Jim French.
As Presti sees it, the TRPB has harassed him. He said that five minutes before Angel Cordero was to ride Jim French in the Belmont, TRPB agents made Cordero strip while they searched him for electric batteries and buzzers. "They even followed him to the bathroom," Presti went on, "and we lose by one-fifth of a second because Cordero is so upset he's watching Canonero and doesn't realize that Canonero is dead. When the race is over, Cordero holds up his arms as if to show the TRPB, 'See. I haven't got any batteries!' "
Improbable as it may seem, Presti plans to call a press conference and announce a $2 million "suitcase," his word for lawsuit, against the NYRA and the TRPB for defamation of character. Not so improbable is the prospect of a thorough investigation of the Presti matter by the racing commission. Unfortunately for the betting public, concerned horsemen and the sport itself, the politically appointed commission has not in recent years been close enough to racing to know what is going on.