LAKE: DOWN BUT NOT OUT

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

Attorney Alan Pincus was sitting in a racebook recently and heard someone in front of him make several disparaging remarks about Mid-Atlantic-based Scott Lake, the leading North American trainer by wins in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2006 (and second in 2002 and 2005). “Lake is through,” Pincus heard the horseplayer say. “His juice is gone”…”He's bankrupt”…”It's a good end to a bad person.”


Pincus, who has known Lake for more than 25 years, wants people to understand the Scott Lake he knows doesn't resemble the individual he heard the horseplayer bad-mouthing. He submitted the following commentary to the Paulick Report in hopes of setting the record straight about his longtime friend. – Ray Paulick

By Alan Pincus

I first met Scott Lake when he was 19 years old. At the time he was a groom at Penn National racetrack in Harrisburg, Penn., which was very low-class racing in those pre-slots days. I had just moved to Harrisburg and, at the age of 34, went to college for the first time. One day I went to the cafeteria at the community college and saw a young kid reading the Daily Racing Form. Let's call this person “OUR FRIEND.” I struck up a conversation with him and we became great friends. He had the same love of racing that I had and was impressed that I had worked for Buddy Jacobson back in the 1960s and had seen Kelso and Dr. Fager close-up. He loved my many racetrack stories. And, yes, like many of us, he liked to gamble a little too much.


Later on, I had made a couple of scores and decided to do what all gamblers dream of–buy a horse. I couldn't afford the going day rate from established trainers so I asked OUR FRIEND if he knew anyone. He said his very close friend from high school was a groom at Penn National but was really good with horses. He introduced me to the groom who turned out to be Scott Lake and that is how I came to give Scott his first horse, a $3,200 claimer named Tumiga's Flame, who had a knee the size of a watermelon.


In those early days we had some success and some failures and it was Lake's learning period. We have a lot of funny stories and great memories from those days and the three of us were great friends. If it was the “Seinfeld” show, Lake would be Jerry, OUR FRIEND would be a better-looking George Costanza and I would be Kramer without the “kavorka.” I could see Lake's skills growing, such as his ability to see a horse jog and tell you everything you needed to know about the horse. Some trainers that I know could easily have adjusted to not being a trainer anymore. But for Lake there was no Plan B. If he could not be a trainer, he couldn't be happy. He was not an immediate superstar, but was doing well at Penn National.


In the early 2000s, Lake exploded to national prominence and everyone recalls his yearly battles with Steve Asmussen for leading trainer in the North America. I can still remember the elation we all felt when he narrowly edged out Asmussen for the title on Dec. 31, 2003.


By then, OUR FRIEND was Lake's accountant and took care of all of Lake's business and tax matters. I had gone on to get my law degree, and the three of us were still the best of friends. The most impressive thing about Scott was that success did not change him. He had always been a popular guy, he was glib and had a great personality. Scott Lake was impossible to dislike.


After he became successful, the hands of his many friends were always reaching out to him for help, and he never refused. It was incessant. I must admit my hand reached out a number of times and he was always there for me. I did his legal work for free and we pretended we were square even though I got far the better of it. But that's the kind of guy Lake is. He was even nicer after being a success than before.


OUR FRIEND was in tall cotton. He was in the center of one of the most successful stables in racing and was able to meet important people who previously would never give him the time of day. Through Lake's generosity, OUR FRIEND was able to be partners in several successful horses making good money. Dreams were coming true. I commented to Lake that OUR FRIEND was really doing well as he had several nice cars and was living the high life. Lake's answer was that if OUR FRIEND was stealing $10,000 or $20,000 it was alright. Lake had to manage 250 horses and he simply did not have the time to audit every dollar.


The trouble was that OUR FRIEND was stealing much more than $20,000. Through multiple schemes, he had made close to $2 million vanish, virtually everything Lake had worked for in his career. To make matters worse, OUR FRIEND had not filed the tax returns he had told Lake were filed nor made the payments that were due. So, when all the smoke cleared, Lake found he had lost almost $2 million he thought he had. In addition, he found himself owing nearly $2-million more in taxes.


Lake was told that he might save a million dollars by turning OUR FRIEND over to the authorities, but he refused to do so. I can't explain why he didn't turn OUR FRIEND in, but it says something about what a kind person Lake is.


I remain very close to Lake and I admire him as a trainer and as a person. I have stood by OUR FRIEND when all others have run from him. I need to live in a world where there are second, third and fourth chances, whether they are for Patrick Valenzuela, Garrett Gomez, OUR FRIEND or myself. OUR FRIEND lives with the knowledge that he has been cast out of Eden and he's unlikely to ever get back.


Lake was put in an untenable financial position. Most people don't realize the type of working capital that is necessary to run a stable of over 200 horses. Add to this his tax debts he had thought were already paid, and you have the formula for ruin. Then came the current financial crisis where many owners got out of the game and many others became very slow payers. Lake was forced into bankruptcy and needed to trim his stable down to under 100 horses.


This year, people will see him lower in the national standings than in recent years. Some might recall his bankruptcy and conclude that he is irresponsible or fading as a trainer. But his only sin is being a nice guy who trusted people. He remains the same talented trainer he has always been. He continues on, looking forward and conducting himself with dignity. He has made no effort to make his story public, and remains the same great guy I met when he was 19 years old. I'm proud to say I love the guy.


His is a cautionary tale that can happen to anybody. To anyone who should suffer a similar fate, my only wish is that they can handle it with the grace of Scott Lake.

Copyright © 2010, The Paulick Report

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