Five months ago, Jonathan Pippin was living large. A small-time Ohio grifter who had convinced a handful of Twitter followers to invest in horses he didn't own, Pippin had been working for months at hooking a bigger fish, one of the largest in all of horse racing. And so that's how he found himself as a guest in the Southern California home of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and wife Jill on one of the most important racing weekends of the Santa Anita Park winter meeting, Big ‘Cap day on March 8.
How Pippin traveled from a world of bottom-level claimers at Thistledown and Mountaineer Park to the Santa Anita Handicap winner's circle alongside Game On Dude and American racing's most famous trainer is a tale of deceit, opportunism and unmitigated gall. It's a bewildering story of social media gone wrong, fake email accounts, online bullying, secretly recorded tapes and voice changing machines. Those who crossed Pippin's path of deceit included a handful of eager young horseplayers wanting to own a piece of a racehorse, Bob and Jill Baffert, prominent horse owner Maggi Moss, New York Times turf writer Joe Drape, racing publicist Kelly Wietsma, California Horse Racing Board Equine Medical Director Dr. Rick Arthur, and this writer, among others.
Modern-Day Flim-Flam Man
It's hard to tell fact from fiction when it comes to the 27-year-old Pippin, a 21st Century flim-flam man who uses false or embellished stories about him on the Internet to enhance his reputation, telling people to “Google horse racing and Jonathan Pippin.” (He has also been known to go by the name of Jon Hughes, JO Michael, Jon Michael, Jonathan Pittman or Jon Pittman.)
One article, published prior to the 2010 Kentucky Derby on the gambling911.com website, said Pippin was co-owner with Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman of Baffert-trained two-time champion Lookin At Lucky. Pippin had zero ownership interest in Lookin At Lucky, but that piece of misinformation was published on a number of other websites, including an examiner.com Kentucky Derby preview.
Pippin used those articles to convince people he was a horseracing bigshot who rubbed elbows with Baffert, a man he had yet to meet.
A high school football player at Berne Union in Sugar Grove, Ohio, who set team records for punt and kickoff returns in 2004, Pippin befriended some Cleveland Browns players several years ago, bragging to them of his expertise in the sport of kings and getting them to invest in a racing partnership. Pippin Jordan Hodges Racing (named after himself, Reggie Hodges and Jordan Norwood) was featured in several online articles, including a November 2011 story that appeared in Yardbarker.com.
“(Hodges) Googled me to make sure I wasn't lying to him about being (involved with race horses), and once he did that, I didn't do any sell job,” Pippin was quoted as saying.
On May 2, 2012, an article in Pippin's hometown paper, the Logan (Ohio) Daily, under the headline “A Local Connection to the Run for the Roses,” said Pippin was “affiliated, through WinStar Farms, with (Kentucky Derby starter) Gemologist.”
Pippin had nothing to do with WinStar or Gemologist.
The reported size of the partnership's stable grew almost as quickly as Pinocchio's nose.
The November 2011 story in Yardbarker said Pippin Jordan Hodges Racing had 48 horses in training, including 14 2-year-olds. By the following spring when Pippin talked to Logan Daily editor Craig Dunn for the Gemologist story, the stable reportedly owned 100 horses.
In truth, Pippin Jordan Hodges had 68 starts during its two-year existence in 2011-12, winning 17 low-level claiming races and earning $170,634 in purses at Thistledown, Presque Isle Downs and Mountaineer Park. Its pro football investors took a bath.
‘How Can You Believe a Liar?'
When the stable dissolved, trainer Jeffrey Radosevich said Pippin owed him $18,000 in unpaid bills. Radosevich said Pippin wrote a check from the Pippin Jordan Hodges Racing account, but it bounced because of non-sufficient funds.
“He owed me a lot of money,” Radosevich said. “He owes a lot of people money.”
Reggie Hodges and Jordan Norwood declined to comment on their experiences with Pippin for this article.
Pippin purchased three yearlings at the 2011 Keeneland September Sale for a total of $12,500. Ownership in one of the horses, an $8,500 Jump Start gelding named Go Duke Go, was transferred to Radosevich's J.R. Racing LLC prior to the horse making his first start in May 2013.
“I signed that horse over to pay the bills I owed,” Pippin told the Paulick Report recently.
That didn't keep Pippin from selling shares in the horse.
In early 2013, Pippin was active on Twitter through an account known as @BacksideTips, engaging horseplayers and posting selections and success stories on winning bets. He approached some of his Twitter followers about putting money up to join a partnership that would claim a horse or two. He offered ownership interests in Go Duke Go to several of them.
A number of people took the hook, sending Pippin amounts ranging from $250 to $5,000. None of those who spoke with the Paulick Report were sent receipts, bills of sale, contracts or invoices for training costs or other expenses. One was promised half interest in a horse that was never claimed, others were to receive 5 percent shares toward another claim (one that was never made), or as much as 15 percent ownership of Go Duke Go.
“My ignorance of ownership led to this,” said one of the investors who asked not to be named. “I was just naïve. Jonathan has a personality much like any con artist. He was schmoozing, working it the whole time. All the while, my gut was like, ‘Geez, what have I got myself into.' He lied like nobody's business.”
Dusty Owens followed Pippin on Twitter and said he looked to him as something of a horseracing mentor, based on his purported experience as part-owner of Lookin At Lucky. He paid $250 for a 5 percent share in a claiming partnership, then put up another $250 after Pippin promised him 2 percent of Go Duke Go and 5 percent of a third horse named Heaven Dew. To top if off, Owens said Pippin told him he wouldn't be responsible for any training costs on Go Duke Go.
“I thought that if it's too good to be true, it's too good to be true,” Owens said. “But Jon said, ‘Don't worry about it. I'm trying to get you interested in the ownership side.' I looked him up online and it seemed like he did things right.”
Owens and others who thought they owned a piece of Go Duke Go were thrilled when the gelding won his fifth start, a maiden special weight race with a $21,000 winner's share at Presque Isle Downs on Aug. 11, 2013. He'd been knocking at the door before that, with two seconds and a third. But the best was yet to come.
After earning minor awards in allowance company at Thistledown and Mountaineer Park in September, Go Duke Go won back-to-back allowance races at Mountaineer, earning more than $27,000.
The partners started asking Pippin questions about how much they would be getting from the nearly $70,000 Go Duke Go had earned.
“Jon tells me, ‘Fees (training and veterinary costs) are high,'” Owens said. “I reminded him of the deal he gave me that I wasn't going to be responsible for any expenses in that horse. He says ‘I'll put a check in the mail tomorrow,' and of course the check didn't come.”
Owens pushed further, calling stewards at Thistledown and Presque Isle Downs, who told him Go Duke Go was solely owned by trainer Radosevich's J.R. Racing. “Then I got some mind-blowing information from a steward at Mountaineer,” Owens said. “He told me, ‘I've got a bill of sale from Radosevich to Pippin dated October 2013.'”
That was after the second of the two allowance wins and before Go Duke Go was entered to run in the Sophomore Sprint Championship Stakes, in which he finished third, earning $8,500. After two starts in Pippin's name, ownership in Go Duke Go reverted back to J.R. Racing.
Owens called Pippin and the two had what Owens said was a heated argument. “He says, ‘You screwed me bad. The horse had been running under hidden ownership and (stewards) are going to have a hearing for me,'” Owens recalled Pippin telling him. “He sends me text messages stating he's going to send me back my original buy-in just to get rid of me. I said, ‘You owe me 2 percent of all of Go Duke Go's winnings and I'm curious about the other two horses that I'm supposed to be part of.”
Owens started talking with others who had sent Pippin money and heard similar tales. No one had gotten an accounting for what Pippin had done with their investments, whether they owned shares of Go Duke Go or other horses Pippin said he was going to claim on their behalf. It wasn't until some of them threatened to go to the stewards or law enforcement that he returned money to any of them. Some, like Owens, eventually got a full refund. No one shared in Go Duke Go's earnings, which now stand at just over $90,000.
“He didn't own Go Duke Go,” Radosevich said of Pippin. “J.R. Racing owns that horse. There is no Jonathan Pippin on that horse or any other horse in my barn.”
Yet Pippin, when asked about Go Duke Go's ownership, said J.R. Racing “is mine and Jeff's. We have horses together. It's what we run our horses under.”
“He ain't worth a shit,” Radosevich said, when asked about Pippin. “I could have taken him to civil court but I'm a nice guy. I ate money saving his ass. How can you believe a liar?”
Fake Emails, Lies and Videotape
Meanwhile, Pippin was moving on to bigger names in racing. He read on social media that Maggi Moss needed help in retiring a horse she formerly owned named Fuhrever Dancing. Moss was concerned the horse had fallen into a bad situation at Mountaineer Park.
“Out of the blue, I got messages from this guy (Pippin's Twitter account @BacksideTips),” Moss said. “He told me he could get it done. He said he went to Mountaineer and talked to the guy and got him to sell the horse to me.”
Moss, an attorney who describes herself as a tough, former prosecutor, talked with Pippin about horses and animal welfare issues. “Pippin absolutely was convincing, really good, in winning my trust in the Herculean efforts he said he did to help me retire this horse when no one else could,” she said.
Not long after, Pippin asked Moss if she had any horses for sale. She had a couple, Tricolette and Ide Love Lucy, she told him, and they agreed on a price. The horses were moved, but she was still waiting to be paid when Tricolette showed up in the entries at Turfway Park under Pippin's name as owner. Moss called Pippin, threatening to turn him in to the stewards unless he paid up. He quickly wired funds, but how the foal papers were transferred to Pippin's name remains a mystery. Moss never signed them and suspects Pippin forged her signature. After a copy of Tricolette's papers were provided to Maggi Moss, she pointed out it looked nothing like her signature and, in fact, her first name appeared to be misspelled as “Magie.”
Pippin's most outrageous scam was reserved for Bob and Jill Baffert. The couple felt stung when Bob Baffert was subjected to intense media scrutiny in the spring of 2013 after reports surfaced of seven horses from his barn dying sudden deaths over a 16-month period from November 2011 to March 2013. Baffert hired Englander Knabe & Allen, a Los Angeles crisis management firm, to help him get through the media storm.
In the meantime, Pippin aggressively defended Baffert through his @BacksideTips account on Twitter and befriended Jill Baffert through social media. To gain her confidence, he texted screenshots from his phone of fake emails, hoping to convince her a clandestine conspiracy existed among reporters covering the sudden deaths, and the CHRB's equine medical director, Dr. Rick Arthur, who was conducting an investigation of Baffert's stable.
Pippin created email accounts in other people's names (including this writer), then fabricated messages suggesting a coordinated effort to destroy Baffert's reputation. Pippin used screenshots of the fake emails, which kept the names of the sender and recipient visible, but did not show the actual email addresses.
One of the fake emails Pippin provided to the Bafferts was dated June 21, 2013, on a fictional Ray Paulick account and addressed to Jonathan Pippin. It said: “Jon, I received your email and I think we need to stay on the story and tarnish (Bob Baffert) and his family. If the CHRB won't release any details I will come up with things. I have two current trainers on the So Cal circuit that can't stand BB. They are willing to talk to any media and try and get Bob banned from competition. He is a disease within the racing industry. – Ray”
The screenshot of Pippin's fake email was provided to the Paulick Report by Bob Baffert Aug. 3, 2014 after Baffert was asked about his relationship to Pippin. “You can add this to your story,” Baffert said in a text message.
Told the email was a fake written by Pippin on a fictitious account, Baffert responded via text message: “Either you're not telling the truth about the email or you had contact with him and didn't know it.”
Baffert has not responded to subsequent calls, text messages, or emails about his relationship with Pippin. Calls, phone messages and emails to Jill Baffert were not returned. Steve Schwartz, an attorney for the Bafferts, would not comment beyond saying it is a “confidential” matter.
(For the record, my only direct contact with Jonathan Pippin, prior to recent discussions for the purposes of this story, was a January 2012 phone call from Pippin in which he was seeking publicity for his partnership with NFL players.)
The fake emails helped Pippin gain the confidence of Jill Baffert, who actively defended her husband on Twitter in the wake of the sudden death investigation. Pippin, through his @BacksideTips account, joined in the defense, aggressively attacking people who questioned why so many horses in one barn had dropped dead.
Early this year, an anonymous Twitter account, @DannyStars2012, did more than defend Baffert. It began putting personal information on Twitter about people who were perceived as critics of the trainer – including where they lived or worked and knowledge of their children's activities. Some said they received threatening phone calls.
One of those was horse racing publicist Kelly Wietsma, whose clients include leading trainer Todd Pletcher. Wietsma was mystified as to why she was being stalked by the @DannyStars2012 Twitter account. “Scared the crap out of me because I couldn't believe someone was able to find my phone number and track me down,” Wietsma said. “I never did call the police but was ready to do so if I heard from him again.”
The online attacks came to a crescendo in February and March, around the time Pippin was invited by the Bafferts to fly out to California and be their guest on Big ‘Cap weekend.
Shortly after Pippin's visit, the horse racing world was rocked by the secretly recorded videotapes of the Steve Asmussen stable by an operative working for PETA. Rumors surfaced almost immediately that the Baffert stable had been “bugged,” too.
In late March, New York Times turf writer Joe Drape received an anonymous email from someone claiming to have hours of secretly taped conversations from the Baffert stable. Drape gave out his telephone number to the anonymous contact and told him to call.
The individual contacted Drape through a blocked telephone number and used voice-changing equipment to disguise his identity while discussing the tape. A snippet of the audio tape was played. Drape said the voice on the tape appeared to be Baffert's but that there was nothing suggesting untoward activities going on in the barn.
A few days later, audio from the tape was put online, and a new, anonymous Twitter account posted a link to it with the message that it was part of a secret recording of the Baffert stable.
Baffert got wind of the tape and determined that Pippin must have been the responsible party. He beefed up barn security, hired private investigator Chris Mandala and retained attorney Schwartz to write a cease and desist letter to Pippin, after Pippin had returned to Ohio from Southern California.
The letter was served to Pippin the first week of April. Within days, Bob Baffert dropped his @MidnightLute Twitter account, Jill Baffert dropped her @JillBaffert account, and Jonathan Pippin dropped his @BacksideTips account. @DannyStars2012 disappeared at the same time, too. And Joe Drape got an email from the person claiming to have the audiotape, saying it was time to “cool it.”
Earlier, Pippin had told an acquaintance the Bafferts paid him “a large amount of money to keep an eye on Twitter” for them. When asked by the Paulick Report if he received any money from Bob or Jill Baffert, Pippin said it was something he couldn't discuss because of the agreement he had signed with the Bafferts in April. Bob Baffert declined to answer questions about any alleged payments but privately told friends Pippin had “scammed” his wife for months. Asked about his relationship with Pippin Aug. 3 at the races at Del Mar, Baffert growled, “I'm not going to talk about that f—ing guy.”
‘I Was an Idiot'
In three separate conversations with the Paulick Report, Pippin admitted he set up fake email accounts and made a videotape recording of Baffert with his phone during his March visit to the stable at Santa Anita, then posted a short audio clip on the Internet. But Pippin insisted he had done nothing wrong in his racing partnerships.
When asked why he sold shares in horses he did not own, Pippin repeatedly said, “Everybody was paid back.” Everybody? “Well, there's one guy who is getting his money back this week,” he admitted.
Pippin said he “did not own any part” of Lookin At Lucky, despite telling countless people he was a co-owner. How did that misinformation show up online? “I don't know. That was four years ago,” he said.
What about Gemologist and the story in a small-town Ohio paper saying he was “part of the ownership group”? “I never said I owned Gemologist,” Pippin said. “I said I liked him.”
As for his relationship with the Bafferts, Pippin said the cease and desist letter that he signed in April meant he agreed never to contact the Bafferts or talk about them to anyone. “I'm going to respect the letter,” he said.
Pippin did say the letter required him to “delete any voice mails or texts from Jill or Bob.” He said he turned all of those communications over to his attorney.
However, after Pippin learned that Baffert had supplied one of the fake emails to the Paulick Report, Pippin left the following voice message suggesting Baffert may have violated the terms of the cease-and-desist agreement that Pippin signed: “If you'd like to write a story about everything and the whole reason about me and Bob Baffert, I have voice mails from Bob and Jill, emails and text messages. A lot of things. If they are going to throw me under the bus, I talked to my lawyer and said if they're sharing things, I'm allowed to share things legally.”
Pippin, in a subsequent conversation, declined to provide any of the communications he claimed to have in his possession.
Why, Pippin was asked, did he create email accounts in the names of other people, fabricate messages and send them to the Bafferts as if they were written by reporters covering the Baffert sudden deaths or a CHRB regulator investigating the case?
“It was stupid of me,” Pippin said. “I was an idiot. People were trying to find out what was going on with the sudden deaths. There was so much stuff, people were talking.”
And, finally, why did he record a seemingly innocuous conversation with Bob Baffert and post it on the Internet, then try to get a prominent horse racing writer interested in the tape?
“There was no point,” he said. “It's why I got in trouble.”
Pippin said the whole affair has left him a broken man.
“I was a jackass,” Pippin said. “I lost my fiancée of seven years over this. I had to move back in with my family.”
To date, no action has been taken against Pippin in any of the four states where he is licensed: Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
His former trainer, Radosevich, said he continues to see Pippin at the track every day. Others have spotted Pippin recently at the Presque Isle Down gambling tables.
Why does he continue to go to the track when he said he is in debt and broke?
“That's all there is for me,” he said. “It's all I know.”
(Editor's Note: Following publication of this article, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has put a “stop” on Jonathan Pippin's owners license and will require that he appear before the License Review Committee if he seeks to renew that license.)
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