Now listen verycarefully. This is the story of two racehorses from Uruguay, one the best inthat nation's history, the other a $600 castoff. It is the tale of aveterinarian who tends thoroughbreds as illustrious as Secretariat, of anelegant blonde shopping for a saddle horse in Montevideo, of a jockey not famedfor his virtue bringing home a 57-to-1 shot at Belmont Park, of workouts in thedark of night, of a dead horse in a town dump, of a $10,000 bet that went wrongand a $1,300 bet that went right. It is the case of a ringer at America's mostfamous racecourse and a $150,000 insurance fraud.
Nothing like thishas ever happened at any of New York's celebrated tracks—Aqueduct, Belmont Parkand Saratoga—which draw five million people a year and $1.1 billion in bets onAmerica's champions. Or has it? There have been shady cases "out oftown" at tracks like Florida Downs and Hazel Park and at those nasty placesup in New England that seem to court trouble. But the aristocraticEstablishment of the sport never suspected the same sort of shenanigans couldhappen on its own turf.
To set the scene:it is Sept. 23, 1977, the last race on a murky Friday afternoon at Belmont.Rain is falling as a field of 12 sweeps into the final turn. Lebón, the longshot at 57 to 1, is leading easily by two lengths, his neck arched with thepride of a chess knight. Through the stretch Lebón increases his lead and winsby four lengths without being menaced. When the lights flash on the infieldtote board, they show a $2 win bet on Lebón is worth $116, the biggest payoffin New York in months.
As always when along shot wins, bettors in the stands reexamine their Racing Forms to see whatthey missed in the horse's past performances. The Form shows Lebón is fromUruguay, that he has not won in 10 months, that he finished 11th of 12 starterstwo weeks before at Belmont in his first race in the U.S. A single mediocreworkout is listed. His earnings for 1976 total $711. His races in Uruguay weresprints on the dirt. His Belmont upset has been accomplished on grass over 1¼miles. Without inside information, a bet on Lebón at Belmont would have beenstupid.
But at thismoment Mark Gerard, a 43-year-old veterinarian, is stepping up to the $50cashier's window in the Belmont clubhouse. He is recognized as he puts down$1,300 worth of win tickets and $600 worth of show tickets on Lebón. In thepreceding half-hour Gerard had roamed back and forth from Window 226 in thegrandstand, where $50 tickets are sold. His conduct was noticed, but he was notrecognized. Gerard bought a handful of tickets on Lebón, went out to look atthe odds board, then returned for more. Now that his selection, No. 2, has comehome in front, Gerard gathers up $80,440 in cash.
The Sept. 23race—and its outcome—make more sense visualized another way, the way Belmontofficials see it now. Forget Lebón and substitute in his place a horse calledCinzano. He, too, was bred and raced in Uruguay, but his form is brilliant.Cinzano ran eight times at Maronas, the Belmont Park of Montevideo, and wonseven times. In his only defeat at that track he was bumped badly and injured,but still managed to finish second to Mogambo, one of the best runners in allof South America.
On his past formCinzano would have run away with that Sept. 23 race at Belmont. He would havebeen the favorite, not a 57-to-1 shot. Because Cinzano is not Mr. Ed, thetalking horse, it has taken more than a month to unravel the ringer case, whichis what New York stewards say it is. They say the animal racing on Sept. 23 wasnot Lebón, that it could have been—in fact, almost certainly was—Cinzano.
The tipoff thatsomething was amiss came with a phone call on Oct. 14 from a Uruguayannewspaperman to Bud Hyland, who serves as The Jockey Club steward in New York.Hyland was told Lebón could not have won the race, that the winner probably wasCinzano. The reporter gave no explanation as to how he knew this. There wererumors in New York last week that a blonde who allegedly plunged $10,000 on"Lebón" in his first U.S. start on Sept. 9, dropping the price on thehorse from 55 to 1 to 7 to 1 at post time, was not told the horse would win hissecond start, and in her anger at being stiffed, alerted the Uruguayannewspaperman to the scam.
In any case, ElPais, a newspaper in Montevideo, asked the Associated Press for the winner'scircle picture from the Sept. 23 race, and on the basis of that declared thatLebón was actually Cinzano.
By Oct. 25, theNew York State Racing and Wagering Board was sufficiently convinced ofhanky-panky to suspend the licenses of Gerard, who had imported Cinzano andLebón, and 32-year-old Jack Morgan, who owned and trained the horse running asLebón on Sept. 23.
How and when andwhy the horses were switched, if indeed they were, is still to be determined,though certain details are known. On the evening of June 3, 1977 Cinzano andLebón were loaded on a turboprop plane in Carrasco, Uruguay. The aircraft,which also carried six Argentinian horses, continued to Tocumen Airport inPanama City to pick up another horse named Boots Colonero, who was alsoconsigned to Gerard. In the case of Lebón and Cinzano, import papers show Dr.Gerard was acting as an agent in the purchase of the horses. Lebón was boughtfor $1,600 in Uruguay (after being sold at public auction shortly before for$600). Gerard sold him to Jack Morgan, who had served as one of his veterinaryassistants for several years, for just under $10,000. Similarly, the Uruguayanowner of Cinzano received $81,000 for his horse, and Gerard turned him over toTenafly, N.J. millionaire Joseph Taub for $150,000. Normally, an agent charges10% commission, but Gerard had marked up Morgan's purchase 600% and Taub's85%.
No identifyingphotographs accompanied the three horses on the flight, which arrived at 3:20p.m. June 4 at Kennedy Airport in New York. However, there were diagrams oftheir markings to help ascertain which animal was which. Lebón was listed as abay 5-year-old with a white star on his face and Cinzano a bay 4-year-old witha white star on his face and an easy-to-miss inch-long scar on his leftshoulder. Cinzano's star, as El Pais was to note, was longer, lower and moreirregular in shape than Lebón's.
The animals weremet by Gerard, Eugene Hammer of Cardinal Air Services, which was handling theshipment, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture vet. Blood samples were taken tomake sure the horses were not suffering from contagious diseases, and thehorses were placed in a Lufthansa holding pen as they waited to be shipped tothe USDA quarantine station in Clifton, N.J. Once there, the horses wereisolated from other shipments and placed in quarantine until their bloodsamples were passed by the USDA lab, a procedure that normally takes from 48 to72 hours.
There is oftenhaste in unloading flights, and with nine horses aboard, this one was nodifferent. Hammer says, "We move the animals quickly, and as the horses areled one by one down the ramp, vets say, O.K., this one's Jack Jones, and starttaking down markings. Then as another horse follows, they may realize thesecond horse is Jack Jones, not the first. With two bay horses with stars, itcould be that the names on their head collar plates were what caught the USDAvet's eye. That is a poor means of identification. En route, a groom may haveto remove head collars to calm the horses and when he puts them back on, he canplace them on the wrong horses."
Lebón and Cinzanowere cleared by USDA chemists, and on June 11 were vanned to Gerard'sMuttontown, L.I. home. The next evening Cinzano is said to have suffered afractured skull and broken ankle at Gerard's farm. Reportedly, Gerard learnedof the accident while dining with friends, including horseman Frank Wright.Gerard left the dinner party and asked Wright to bring one of the guests backto his home if he did not return shortly. Wright did as he was asked and saysthat on arriving at Gerard's home he learned that the animal had beendestroyed. He saw the body of a bay in the stable area.
At the time hewas shipped to the U.S., Cinzano was insured for $150,000. The policy waswritten by the General Adjustment Bureau of Jericho, N.Y. on a London firm, andit was to the GAB that Gerard would have had to report, while the animal wasstill alive, that Cinzano had massive injuries.
When GABrepresentatives were queried about their handling of the Cinzano case lastweek, they were cautious. "We have an obligation to our customers not todiscuss this matter," said Manager Pete Lombardo. "We're not talking.We didn't do anything wrong."
Before insurancecompanies pay off on a claim, two veterinarians, one acting on behalf of theowner, the second for the insurer, must 1) certify that the horse is actuallydead, 2) that the body resembles the insured horse and 3) that the cause ofdeath is plausible—and this normally requires an autopsy. Did GAB have thesignatures of two vets? "Right," said Lombardo. Could one vet call inanother, one he wanted to verify a death? "They're professional men,"said Lombardo. "They take the Hippocratic Oath, or something. We had noreason to be suspicious of Dr. Gerard. After all, he was the vet forSecretariat, wasn't he?"
Gerard signed aninsurance claim on behalf of Taub (who was paid off in August). The second vet,whose name is on the document, is a longtime Gerard friend, Dr. Hap Hemphill.Hemphill is not talking.
In recent yearsGerard has taken to wheeling and dealing in bloodstock, on the side, whileincreasing his veterinary practice. He has been importing thoroughbreds fromSouth America, and there are horsemen who believe he has raced some of theseunder other people's names while retaining ownership. Many states forbid vetsto own horses at tracks where they practice.
"I know DocGerard," says Jack Price, who owned and trained Carry Back. "I alwaysgot along with him fine. In reading about Lebón and Cinzano I get the feelingthat he must be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But I haven't been around him muchin recent years. Certain things about this case make no sense whatsoever. Whywould a vet with such a practice risk his career to pick up some money on a betif he ran a ringer? Hell, a guy with his practice can make $250,000 a year justgiving Butazolidin shots."
Gerard has drawnsuspicion for a number of reasons. An elegant blonde who identified herself asMrs. Gerard and who indeed resembled Alice Gerard (a tall, thin, stylishhorsewoman of around 40) visited Uruguay and told Roberto Forné, who ownedCinzano, that she was buying Lebón to ride, not to race. The Uruguayans weresuspicious about her shipping a cheap animal like Lebón such a long distance.It would seem a costly way to acquire a saddle horse. In the opinion of theSouth Americans, Lebón was finished as a racehorse, but his record (he won thefirst three starts of his career) might have appeared good enough to anAmerican unfamiliar with Uruguayan racing—a Jack Morgan.
During Septemberthe Gerards appeared daily at Barn 59 at Belmont, where Lebón was stabled. Atrainer whose horses are bedded down close by says, "I believed Gerardowned and was training the horse, though Morgan was the trainer of record.Since Saratoga I've been arriving at the track at 4:30 a.m.—the time mostpeople come to work—and finding the Gerards already cooling out their horses.They were working them in the pitch black and were secretive."
Morgan's role inthe affair is a mystery. He has admitted he won less than $2,000 on Lebón inthe Sept. 23 race, but said that he had never been suspicious that the animalGerard sent to him was a ringer. Indeed, Morgan said he would take alie-detector test. It could be that he was an innocent. But before"Lebón's" first start, Morgan allegedly approached a vet working foranother trainer and asked if he would check the horse's mouth to see if hecould ascertain the animal's age. The vet declined to inspect the horse,knowing Gerard was caring far him. One might have thought Morgan, who hadexperience as a vet's assistant, could check out the teeth himself. However,South American horses are born in the fall of the year, rather than in thespring—so Morgan might have been confused. Why he did not ask Gerard, who wason the scene daily, is another matter. Was he suspicious?
Racetrackers, anotoriously distrustful lot, are asking questions about other matters. Forinstance, was it significant that Larry Adams, a 41-year-old journeyman jockeywho has a reputation for riding long shots and who not long ago was reinstatedafter a lengthy suspension related to drugs, rode "Lebón"?
Then there is themystery blonde who is said to have bet the bundle on "Lebón's" firstBelmont start. Is she Christa Mancusa, a 5'2", 40-year-old, blue-eyedGerman who for years has raced horses in New York and Florida? Two of the menwhom Dr. Gerard hired to train animals for Mancusa never met the woman, thoughshe sent them monthly checks.
Who performed theautopsy on the bay horse said to be Cinzano and why was he removed from theMuttontown premises by Anthony Minieri of Dix Hills, N.Y. and—after Minieri hadpaid a $5 fee—thrown into the Huntington town dump? The dump register shows a7-year-old bay (not a 4-year-old, as Cinzano was), with head injuries, beingbrought in. Dump officials say 60,000 tons of garbage now rest on the head ofthe bay with the fractured skull.
To try to makesome sense of the swindle and find out if Cinzano is indeed the ringer, JosephMayer of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board, two New York vets, theregistrar of The Jockey Club and a detective traveled to Uruguay last weekendto take blood samples of the relatives of the horses involved and question theSouth American principals. But to make a case against Gerard, authorities willhave to produce evidence that he or agents acting with his consent knowinglyswitched horses or that he made false statements in order to collect theinsurance on Cinzano.
Another necessitywould seem to be to establish a foolproof method of registering horses enteringthe U.S. As things now stand, one could import a mule as a thoroughbred and itmight go unnoticed. Unfortunately, The Jockey Club believes honorable people dohonorable things and that most people in racing are honest. But the game haschanged—as the Cinzano/ Lebón affair has demonstrated all too well.