On June 12, 2018, at JACK Thistledown Racino at North Randall, Ohio, Emily Szczepanski put in a successful $7,500 claim for a 5-year-old Hard Spun mare named If You Believe who had won seven of her 31 career starts. The claim was made in the name of Wendy Montoney, an individual with no previous starts, according to Equibase.
Instead of taking If You Believe back to her assigned stalls following a seventh-place finish, Szczepanski – licensed as an owner, trainer and exercise rider with the Ohio State Racing Commission – led the horse to a different barn, that of Nabu Morales, one of Thistledown's leading trainers . Morales has saddled more than 630 winners from nearly 2,800 career starters, in contrast to Szczepanski, who at the time was credited with just 78 runners since 2015. Second in the Thistledown trainer standings in 2016 and '17, Morales is currently fourth among the track's leading trainers.
The same day If You Believe was claimed, according to the Ohio State Racing Commission, $5,000 was transferred to Szczepanski from the account of Morales' wife. That $5,000 was used by Szczepanski, officials say, to claim another horse, a gelding named Can't Remember on June 13 at Thistledown. Can't Remember, who finished sixth, also was led back to the Morales barn, according to officials, after being claimed in Szczepanski's name as owner and trainer.
Morales, at the time of both claims, was serving a 15-day suspension from June 3-17 for a clenbuterol positive (114 picograms per milliliter) in the horse On the Clock, winner of a May 25 race at Mahoning Valley in Ohio.
A second suspension, this one for 30 days for another clenbuterol positive (30 picograms per milliliter) in the horse Ekati's Ice, winner of a May 22 Thistledown race, was under appeal by Morales.
Ohio State Racing Commission investigator Mark Peters conducted an investigation into whether Morales was participating in horse racing while under a suspension, and whether Szczepanski was claiming horses on behalf of the suspended trainer. Stewards held hearings with both on Aug. 11.
In separate rulings, stewards concluded that both If You Believe and Can't Remember were “trained while using Mr. Morales' equipment and taken care of by his employees. … The stewards conclude that this was a case of hidden ownership on Can't Remember and program training on both horses.”
Morales, who in the interim had been fined $500 for a third 2018 medication violation (for the presence of more than one non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug), was suspended 30 days and fined $1,000 for violating several Ohio racing regulations in the alleged hidden ownership and program training scheme. Morales appealed the suspension and fine and has continued to train at Thistledown, whose meet runs through Oct. 20.
Szczepanski was also fined $1,000 but suspended for 60 days, from Aug. 29 through October 27. In the ruling, stewards said Szczepanski “made false statements” and “provided false and misleading documentation.” She has not started a horse since Aug. 28, the day before her suspension was to begin.
In 2017, Szczepanski received a 30-day suspension and $1,500 fine for a similar violation in West Virginia when she admitted to stewards that she was not the true trainer of the horse Quick Reward when he won a May 7 race in her name at Mountaineer Park.
If You Believe ran four times at Thistledown after the claim – all in the name of Szczepanski as trainer and Montoney as owner. Can't Remember has not run since the June 13 claim, but has been entered and scratched twice, most recently on Oct. 8 when Betty Ott was listed as owner and trainer. Can't Remember was scratched by the stewards.
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