If only Michael Gill had kept his word in 2006 when he said he was getting out of horse racing after being leading owner in North America by money and races won for three consecutive years. A lot of people would be happier and a number of horses might still be alive.
Gill did get out of racing in 2006, the year after he was inexplicably voted an Eclipse Award as outstanding owner. Unfortunately, he got back in the game late in 2008, and he was back on top again as leading owner by both races and money won in 2009.
But wait, doesn't horse racing need more owners, not fewer of them? Not if they're like Mike Gill. Not in my book, at least. Gill claims relentlessly and runs an absurd number of horses: he had 2,235 starts in 2003, 2,885 in 2004, 1,870 in 2005, and 2,247 in 2009. His best year earnings-wise was $10,811,631, an average of $3,748 per start. Many people feel he is using the animals as nothing more than a commodity to get what he wants. His critics, and there are many, say the horses too often pay the ultimate price.
Nothing outstanding about that. For the life of me, I don't see how anyone ever could have voted to give him an Eclipse Award.
Jockeys at Penn National Race Course apparently took a vote of a different type on Saturday night, allegedly telling track management they would refuse to ride in any more races in which Mike Gill-owned horses were entered. The vote was taken following the fifth race, after third-place finisher Laughing Moon broke down past the wire, causing another horse to also go down. Laughing Moon's jockey Ricky Frazier escaped injury.
It was the second breakdown of a Gill-owned horse at Penn National in three nights, Melodeeman having suffered a similar catastrophic injury on Thursday night. Melodeeman was trained by Anthony Adamo and Laughing Moon by Darrel Delahoussaye—Gill's two trainers at Penn National.
There was a lengthy delay between Saturday night's fifth and sixth races as the jockeys stated their case. Eventually, a Gill horse, Justin M, was scratched from the sixth race, and the remainder of the card was completed without incident. Gill had no other horses entered following the sixth.
“Gill's horses are breaking down at a race that's just not normal,” said a Penn National horseman who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “and it's not the racetrack. The track is safe. The riders did a very honorable thing, finally saying 'enough is enough,' and did so at the risk of a backlash from management. The guys said we are not putting our lives in danger, or the horses in danger.”
According to Equibase charts, in just over three months, 14 other horses owned by Gill have either broken down, were pulled up, returned lame, or eased at Penn National. There were nine in October, three in November, one in December and two in January. (The count includes Saturday night's incident involving Laughing Moon, even though the Equibase chartcaller did not report the horse broke down past the wire.) Most of the horses are running in bottom level claiming races. At Penn National, however, thanks to slot machine revenue, $5,000 claimers can run for as much as $20,000, with $12,000 going to the winner. An owner can make money squeezing a win out of a horse he claimed for $5,000, even if that horse never runs another race.
Chris McErlean, vice president of racing for Penn National Gaming, said he was not at the track on Saturday but got a report on the incident. McErlean said it is his understanding that horses entered by Gill to race later in the week already have been scratched voluntarily by their trainers. “That wasn't necessarily at our direction,” McErlean said. “No formal actions have been taken.”
McErlean also said the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission is investigating. “They could be looking into Mr. Gill's horses in particular, but breakdowns in general,” he said. “They also could be looking at certain veterinarians.”
At the beginning of 2010, Penn National has started reviewing all breakdowns, McErlean said, conducting meetings that involve “the trainer and any other interested parties, the track, the racing commission, and our vet. Every horse that breaks down gets a necropsy done, starting at the beginning of this year. This was initiated by Penn National with the cooperation of the racing commission. Every horse that does break down or is involved in a death does get a necropsy done. We are doing this more for information gathering, to see if there is any connecting of the dots. People are concerned about this and we want some answers.”
Many of Gill's starters are not stabled at Penn National but ship in from his Elk Creek Ranch in Oxford, Pa. While those horses are on private property, neither the racing commission nor Penn National has access to them. When any horses ship in to race and go to the receiving barn, a state or association veterinarian conducts a pre-race inspection. Horses stabled at the track (and Gill is believed to have 40-50 stalls at Penn National) are not routinely given pre-race exams.
Controversy has followed Gill everywhere he's gone in racing. He's been denied stalls at some tracks, banned from the entry box at another, and has not been shy about filing lawsuits.
When he failed to win an Eclipse Award in 2003, Gill put out a statement comparing himself to Seabiscuit's owner, Charles Howard, in an underdog role against the establishment.
“I can't help but think that the vote was a vote against me, rather than a vote against the accomplishments,” Gill wrote. “And I don't understand that. We all cheered 'Seabiscuit' last year, a movie about hope and the underdog rising from obscurity to challenge racing's establishment and emerge victorious.”
Unfortunately, for Laughing Moon and numerous other horses that took their last breath while racing for Gill, there is no hope. The best hope is that he leaves the sport again—this time for good.
Efforts to reach Gill were unsuccessful.
Copyright © 2010, The Paulick Report
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