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TrackNotes: Corruption At Calder - And Why It Matters In Chicago

My intensifying moral and ethical dilemma between enjoying one of the world's greatest of sports and rejecting it outright as the multilayered cesspool it has become is well documented here.

It's such a tangled mess that it's difficult, if not impossible, to know where to start. And then comes along a blockbuster like the one from Michael E. Miller of Miami's New Times documenting the utter corruption at Calder Casino and Race Course in Miami Gardens, Florida, located between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, and you just want to give up.

Activities so heinous, not even Undercover Boss can handle the truth.

Keep in mind Calder is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., also the owner of our beloved Arlington Park.

Writes Miller:

"At tracks across the nation, a dark cloud of doping accusations hangs over the sport. Top trainers are routinely suspended for injecting animals with strange cocktails, including cobra venom and frog poison. The drugs mask the animals' injuries, which cause horses to break down and die on live television. Not even prestigious races such as the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby are free of suspicion.

"Calder shows exactly why. Records reveal dozens of cases of horse doping. Two ongoing lawsuits claim course officials conspired to steal horses, rig races, and ban anyone who raised objections. In May, three men connected to the track were sentenced to federal prison for running a $5 million scheme out of Calder for more than a decade."

Let's start with trainer the dark arts perfected by trainer Kirk Ziadie.

"Like other states, Florida permits trace amounts of medications in a horse's system, MIller writes. "Ziadie's thoroughbreds, though, began routinely exceeding those limits in 2004. That year, three of his animals tested positive for drugs: twice after winning and once after finishing second. Despite netting $27,130 from the three suspect results, Ziadie was fined only $1,100 and suspended for 15 days.

"A pattern quickly emerged. In 2005, two more of Ziadie's horses won, only to fail post-race tests. The trainer was fined just $550 and allowed to keep more than $20,000 in purse money. Then, in 2006, seven of his horses flunked tests, most of them for high levels of a powerful anti-inflammatory called phenylbutazone, commonly known as 'bute.' One horse, a filly named Rgirldoesn'tbluff, won a race worth $24,000 before testing positive for excessive bute. Ziadie was fined $1,000."

More chilling are the tales told in anonymous letters received by the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering in July 2009.

"[Zaidie] come[s] late at night when no one is there to give his 'vitamins," one letter began. "He carries a black briefcase and sometimes he takes the needles out of it to inject the horses."

Florida state racing authorities opened an investigation; the informant pleaded for anonymity, writing that "[Zaidie] is crazy and capable of killing me or paying someone else to do it for him."

Miller reports what happened next:

"Incredibly, state regulators closed their case against Ziadie a few months later when the informant abruptly disappeared. Even more outrageous: Despite 38 drug violations in less than five years, Ziadie never returned a cent of the more than $10 million his horses won. State law allows the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to reclaim winnings after tainted races, but the agency simply never asked. Instead, it fined Ziadie a total of $13,100 - less than the prize for a single race

Ziadie claimed other trainers jealous of his success were merely ganging up on him: "Look at Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant," Ziadie told Miller. "Any time you do anything in life and you are successful, they are always going to try to bring you down."

Besides Calder being a sister track to Arlington under Churchill Downs, Inc., this putrid story has another Chicago connection: Ziadie's main owner is none other than Chicago's own Frank Calabrese.

Frank is basically persona non grata in these parts. Never mind any potential skulduggery. But he skewed the competitive and wagering nature of races here by perfecting the practice of taking a $35,000-level horse and dropping him into a $10,000 claiming race, all in the selfish pursuit of wins and the meet title. He did it for years in Chicago.

Miller also reports that the late Bob Umphrey, one-time racing secretary at Calder, is alleged to have secretly owned horses and bet on races. The racing secretary is the official who writes the races: determines the competitive levels of horses he has on the grounds and how often they've run and creates race conditions for those horses to fill each card.

And guess what?

"'For big races with lots of money in them, the officials actually set up the race ahead of time,' claims Gabriel Myatt, a former jockey and security guard at Calder. 'They pick the horses, then they set up the odds and tell the jockeys: You are fourth, you are fifth, and so on. If you're a jockey and you listen, you might make some extra money. If you don't listen to them, you don't get paid and you get blackballed.'"

Add in the alleged use of electric buzzers to stimulate horses during races, a $5 million side scheme for payments and kickbacks for goods and services that weren't delivered, and outright horse thievery, and you've got one peachy situation down there at Calder.

* * *

What does this all mean as we await the year's biggest card, Arlington Million Day, at Chicago's racing palace on August 18?

Well, Calder is in the Arlington family. If the corporation takes the profits as one entity and the family shows a disturbing lack of institutional control that serves to defraud the public, you must be appalled. You disassociate.

I haven't played Calder since my OTB closed and I didn't play it much then. It was truly a dart-throwing proposition, but there were often big scores. When you had a bunch of $6,500 claimers who basically took turns beating up on each other, it was always, Which one feels better today? You know what that means. Odds were tilted toward the dirty trainers.

In my evolution in the game and in the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you I have had fun playing a little Saratoga and other major individual stakes races this summer. We recently had the Haskell Invitational and Whitney Stakes, and the Travers Stakes is in two weeks.

I rationalize by figuring these are the biggest races of the summer and the purse money is too large to fool around with. Delusional? Yes, but less so.

As for the game itself, you wonder if this story will go viral. In the old, old days, individual tracks could get away with anything. Who would know? But doesn't racing understand the Internet and simulcast age. I'd love to see this story get some mainstream coverage.

As hurtful as it would be, maybe it would be the rock bottom racing needs to admit it has a problem and do something about it.

But then, there will be Nittany Lions on the gridiron this fall; Barry Bonds' records still stand; and the Obamas and Emanuels of the world still roam.

So I guess I'll just look up the local chapter of CorruptionAnon, the organization for those who have to live amongst the moral turpitude.

Barn Dance
In what is a savvy publicity stunt that will be swallowed by many, the New York Racing Association will institute added measures to "assure" barn security in the days leading up to the Travers.

The rules will be a little less disruptive than those enforced when I'll Have Another's cheat trainer Doug O'Neill gave NYRA the heebie jeebies before the Belmont and those horses were put on double not-so-secret probation and moved to a separate barn about 100 hours before the race. And O'Neill was singled out to provide detailed medical and treatment records for IHA. Not only will all the Travers horses have to do that, but the data will also be posted on the New York State Racing and Wagering Board website. The horses will not be given blogs.

But don't get all snuggy secure that the lords of racing are doing it right.

As recaps in its press release rewrite, there's this in the it's-sick-not-funny department:

"Besides the disappearance of a separate stakes barn, the new rules, compared to the Belmont security protocols, also do not limit the types of people who can enter a barn area and do not require logs of people who might enter a barn area of a horse running in the Travers. The Belmont rule also required veterinarians to be escorted onto the grounds."

Tune in to see if the NBC announcers call this spade a spade.


Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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