By Ray Paulick
“I've been doing this since 1979, and I just can't get a fair shake.” So says Michael Gill, North America's leading owner by money and races won on four different occasions who finds himself in a familiar position–at the center of controversy, after Penn National jockeys voted Saturday night not to ride in races if Gill's horses are entered.
The jockeys took the initiative following the fifth race at Penn National, when a Gill-trained horse, Laughing Moon, blew a suspensory and fell after the finish, causing another horse to go down. Gill had a runner entered in the sixth race, but that horse was scratched. Gill-owned horses entered later this week also have been scratched, and Penn National officials said Monday they temporarily have banned his horses from the entry box, according to bloodhorse.com. Jockeys complained that an unusually high number of horses owned by Gill have either broken down or suffered injuries in Penn National races in the last few months, putting riders at risk. One of Gill's horses broke down on Thursday night, and Laughing Moon became the 15th runner since October to break down, pull up during the race, be eased, or return lame following the finish.
Penn National officials said seven of Gill's horses broke down in 2009, a figure that Gill disputes. But even if that number is correct, he said, he believes his percentage of breakdowns is in line or lower than that of other stables that compete at the Pennsylvania track.
I was unable to reach Gill over the weekend prior to publication of Monday's Paulick Report article on the Penn National incident, but I contacted him Monday at his Mortgage Specialists office in New Hampshire. Needless to say, he wasn't happy with the actions of the jockeys or with the unwelcome publicity, and in a 30-minute, emotional interview touched on a wide range of subjects. Among the revelations from the 54-year-old Gill were:
– He has fired Darrel Delahoussaye, the trainer of Laughing Moon. “They (Penn National) put a gun to my head, and someone had to take the bullet,” he said. “I feel bad about this. But if I lose the (49) stalls at Penn National, I'm out of business.”
– Some time last year, Gill hired former Oaklawn Park and Louisiana Downs leading trainer Cole Norman. Norman was released from prison in January 2009 after serving time for negligent homicide, for his role in a fatal car crash in which he was under the influence of prescription pain killers. Norman works at Gill's Elk Creek Ranch in Oxford, Pa., which is used as a training center for horses that race at Penn National, Philadelphia Park, Laurel, Mountaineer Park and Charles Town. “He's a good trainer,” said Gill.
– Though he said he has lost tens of millions of dollars over the years, Gill claims he didn't “put one penny of my money into the business last year. I can go to the IRS and say this is a business, it isn't a hobby.” Gill said he is in a five-year audit with the Internal Revenue Service over whether or not his racing stable is a legitimate business.
– Apart from the horses that broke down at Penn National in 2009, Gill claims he had only one other horse break down in a race. “I ran 2,247 horses last year,” he said. “If a guy had 100 starts and one horse breaks down, is that unacceptable? We're running in the middle of winter on muddy tracks.
– Gill denies “running sore horses,” and said he didn't have a single bad test in 2009. “And was anything found in any of my horses after they broke down? Nothing.” I asked Gill about widespread rumors that shock-wave therapy is used at Elk Creek Ranch on horses close to a race. “I never use shock-wave therapy. Never have had a machine. Never, ever used it once, and believe me, plenty of guys have tried to sell me the machines. I don't believe in them.” He also said he would “open the farm to anyone to inspect it. They can go over every horse I have.”
– He attributes much of the stable's success to the fact he gives all of his horses medication for Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, or EPM, a neurological disease. “A good 80% of horses have EPM,” he said. He also has throat surgeries, or myectomies, performed on many of the horses he claims because “with EPM, one side of the flap (in the epiglottis) is gone, and the other half doubles in size. Then it closes up. The surgery helps them breathe.”
– His stable, at one time consisting of 450 horses in 2009, was reduced to 220 and he is in the process of reducing it to 120. “I'm still downsizing,” he said. Furthermore, Gill claims that “all of the horses go to retirement programs.” He wasn't specific as to where they go. “I give good homes to them,” he said. “I've given away 20 horses in the last 30 days for $1.”
– Gill didn't say he planned to take legal action against Penn National, the jockey colony or the Jockeys' Guild, but said “Do you know when people organize against one person, that's a significant lawsuit. Does anybody understand that? I'm tired of suing racetracks—and winning, by the way, every effing time.” He said the jockeys took the action–reported to be a unanimous vote—because “it's a very closed community at Penn National; a lot of good old boys. I went in there and won all these races, and I'm winning with only two jockeys.”
– Though he lives and works far away in New Hampshire, Gill said he keeps tabs on the stable both at the training farm and the track. “There's not a race that goes off that I don't see,” he said. “I have cameras in the barn that go right to my office. I turn around and see every race. I do what I can to be able to run both businesses.”
Why, I asked Gill, is he still in the business, if he thinks he is so mistreated and so misunderstood? “I love the competition. I love the animal. I am a competitor. I am that $5,000 broke down racehorse. I'm a raw competitor with bad knees and sore neck. What better place to compete than in horse racing, and I don't even gamble on these horses.”
Gill continues to be denied stalls at many tracks, and doesn't understand why he isn't appreciated for his involvement in the game and for “showing the industry that you can make money doing this. Of course, if people find out they don't have to buy a $1-million yearling to make money, do you think they'll spend money at those sales?”
I suggested to him that people spending that kind of money are looking to win big races during the Triple Crown or at the Breeders' Cup, not $5,000 claiming races in the dead of winter. “That's the lottery mentality,” he said.
He turned the tables and asked me a question: “Why don't you like me?” I said I thought he was arrogant and used his horses as a means to an end. “You're mistaking arrogance with competitiveness,” he said. It was clearly an argument I wasn't going to win.
“Look,” he said. “I came from a seminary, had no money, didn't go to college. I worked harder than everybody else to get what I have. I started my mortgage company in a one-bedroom apartment, and my living room was my office. I loved horse racing and turned around and invested my money. I go to work every day and haven't had a vacation for as long as I remember.
“I just don't understand: What have I done that's so wrong?”
Copyright © 2010, The Paulick Report
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