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    Ten Notorious Scandals in the World of Horse Racing
Ten Notorious Scandals in the World of Horse Racing
Horse Racing. Source: Midjorney

Ten Notorious Scandals in the World of Horse Racing

Horse racing, often referred to as the "Sport of Kings," has a long and storied history filled with controversy. From race manipulation and jockey coercion to the dubious switching of horses, the sport has seen it all. 

Additionally, concerns have frequently arisen about the treatment of racehorses, particularly the use of performance-enhancing and pain-masking drugs. Here are ten horse racing scandals from recent decades that grabbed headlines:

1968: Kentucky Derby Winner Disqualified for Drug Use

On May 4, 1968, Dancer's Image thrillingly surged from last place to win the Kentucky Derby. However, the horse tested positive for phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug not permitted on race day. Although the drug could be used for pain relief outside of racing days, its presence led to Dancer's Image's disqualification. Owner Peter Fuller fought the ruling in court for years, spending more than the race's $122,000 prize money, but ultimately failed. Fuller suspected foul play, believing his support for civil rights—evident in his donation to Coretta Scott King following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination—had led to threats and potential tampering with his horse.

Kentucky Derby. Source: Washington Post
Kentucky Derby. Source: Washington Post

1970s: Anthony Ciulla's Race-Fixing Scheme

During the early 1970s, Anthony "Big Tony'' Ciulla orchestrated a large-scale race-fixing operation by bribing jockeys across hundreds of races. His strategy often involved instructing jockeys to hold back their horses, ensuring less favoured horses won and produced substantial payouts. In 1975, a race at Atlantic City exposed Ciulla’s scheme when a jockey's suspicious behaviour led to his admission of Ciulla's involvement. In exchange for a reduced sentence, Ciulla cooperated with the FBI's investigation into the racing industry, providing evidence against jockeys and trainers before entering the Witness Protection Program.

1974: Millionaire’s Attempted Horse Swap

In 1974, Irish millionaire Tony Murphy tried to pull off a horse-switching scam. He trained a relatively unknown horse named Gay Future in the UK but planned to swap it with a more capable horse resembling Gay Future on race day. To avoid raising suspicion, Murphy entered two other horses in the race but withdrew them, leaving Gay Future and another competitor. Before the race, Gay Future's legs were soaped to simulate sweat, making it appear less likely to win. Despite Gay Future's victory, the scheme unravelled when a journalist discovered the other horses hadn’t even travelled to their race venues. Murphy and his trainer, Antony Collins, were convicted of attempted fraud but avoided prison.

1977: Veterinarian Fakes Horse's Death

Veterinarian Dr Mark Gerard, who had once cared for Triple Crown winner Secretariat, orchestrated a horse-switching plot in 1977. Gerard imported two horses from Uruguay, Cinzano and Lebon, and claimed Cinzano, the more successful of the two, had died. When "Lebon" unexpectedly won a race at Belmont Park, Gerard collected $80,000. However, a Uruguayan journalist noticed the real Lebon’s distinguishing marks and reported the switch. Gerard was convicted and imprisoned for the deception.

1983: Racehorse Shergar Kidnapped

Shergar, a celebrated racehorse known for winning the Epsom Derby by a record margin, was abducted on February 8, 1983. Masked gunmen forced Shergar’s groom to load the horse into a vehicle and drove away. Despite a ransom demand of $3 million, Shergar’s owners chose not to pay, fearing future abductions. Various theories about the kidnappers emerged, with the most accepted being that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) took Shergar in a failed attempt to raise funds. Shergar’s fate remains a mystery, as his remains were never found.

Shergar. Source: The Irish Independent
Shergar. Source: The Irish Independent

1984: Fine Cotton Scandal in Australia

Fine Cotton, an underperforming Australian racehorse, was the subject of a dramatic substitution plot by bloodstock agent John Gillespie. When an injury prevented the planned substitution horse, Dashing Solitaire, from racing, Gillespie turned to Bold Personality, a horse with different markings and colours. They attempted to disguise Bold Personality using hair dye and spray paint. After winning the race, the deception was quickly exposed due to the obvious paint drips, leading to prison sentences for Gillespie and his associates.

2002: Fraternity Brothers Rig the Breeders' Cup

On October 26, 2002, Derrick Davis's suspiciously successful Pick Six bets at the Breeders' Cup raised eyebrows. His bets, which netted over $3 million, were placed using inside information from Chris Harn, a senior programmer at Autotote and Davis's fraternity brother. Harn had manipulated the betting system after the initial races to ensure Davis’s tickets won. Harn and another fraternity brother, Glen DaSilva, were also implicated. All three were sentenced to prison, with terms ranging from one year to 37 months.

2019: Horse Deaths at Santa Anita Park

During the 2018-2019 racing season at Santa Anita Park in California, 30 horses died, sparking public outrage and scrutiny over racehorse treatment. The deaths, 23 of which occurred by the end of March 2019, led to temporary track closures and a phased ban on Lasix, a drug used to prevent bleeding and weight loss in horses. Despite investigations revealing poor record-keeping and pressures on trainers, no illegal drugs or procedures were blamed for the fatalities.

2020: Mass Indictment for Horse Doping

In March 2020, U.S. federal prosecutors indicted 27 individuals, including trainers, veterinarians, and drug suppliers, for doping horses to enhance their performance. The charges described the use of illicit substances, nicknamed “red acid,” “bleeder,” and “frozen pain,” to push horses beyond their natural limits, jeopardising their health. Among those charged were prominent trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro. Servis had trained Maximum Security, a controversial Kentucky Derby participant in 2019, while Navarro trained XY Jet, a winner at the Dubai Golden Shaheen in 2019.

2021: Kentucky Derby Winner Medina Spirit Fails Drug Test

Medina Spirit, who won the Kentucky Derby on May 1, 2021, tested positive for betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory exceeding Kentucky’s permissible levels. This brought scrutiny to Medina Spirit’s trainer, Bob Baffert, whose horses had failed 30 drug tests over 40 years, including five within the past year. The incident underscored the need for the Horse racing Integrity and Safety Act, set to enforce national drug standards and testing from July 1, 2022.

Medina Spirit. Source: New York Post
Medina Spirit. Source: New York Post

These incidents highlight the ongoing challenges and controversies within horse racing, shedding light on the sport's darker side despite its noble reputation.

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