Think it's bad now? Remember Ciulla


At the midpoint of 2008: A bizarre conclusion to the Triple Crown series not yet fully digested and forever beyond explanation, Congress threatening to intervene in the straightening of racing's vague, meandering course, prominent figures again facing charges of medication violations, the lingering image of Eight Belles' death after the Kentucky Derby (and ensuing reaction from radical animal rights activists), calls for drug reform and uniform rules ringing from every direction.

The view of the racing business from any angle is bleak.

While the issues at hand are pressing and genuine, numbing crisis and bad publicity in racing are hardly unique to the early 21st Century.

Before the evolution of speed and pace figures, before the sheets and technology-assisted handicapping, speculation based almost entirely on the perception of larceny was the mainstay of the mainstream horseplayer: You against the ubiquitous 'they'. Every longshot was a put-over with form meticulously darkened until the money was down. 'They' had him. 'They' always had him.

Every now and again, the perception of larceny would be buttressed by the reality of larceny. The two are never far apart at the racetrack.

Remember the '70s? It was a decade during which Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed won the Triple Crown, Jimmy Carter was elected president and 'Fat Tony' Ciulla focused a chilling spotlight on the dark side of the racing game and a veterinarian from Long Island made a huge score with a ringer imported from Uruguay.

You want bad PR?

Facing a long prison term in payment for a long and troubling life of crime, the 6-foot-3, 350 pound Ciulla implicated dozens of jockeys, trainers and others while admitting to having fixed several hundred races at 39 tracks from New England to Florida and in the Midwest but primarily in New York and the Mid-Atlantic region between 1972 and '75.

The breadth and scope of his race-fixing activity almost unbelievable, Ciulla's undoing and perhaps the greatest embarrassment of corruption racing has ever suffered, began in 1971, when Bobby Byrne, who had been one of Fat Tony's runners, was caught climbing a fence at Suffolk Downs. Police found hypodermic needles and syringes in his possession. Byrne, who would later detail his own career as a race fixer before the Select Committee on Crime of House of Representatives, provided information on the Ciulla's crew of veterinarians, exercise riders and jockeys – all the skills required in the manipulation of horse races.

The information provided by Byrne resulted in Ciulla being convicted of drugging horse in Massachusetts and the bribery of racing officials in Rhode Island but he was soon back in action.

Ultimately, a jockey -- and jockeys were his main weapon -- would be Fat Tony's undoing.

If Peter Fantini, a New Jersey rider, had shown more finesse while holding a horse in the ninth race on July 4, 1975 at Atlantic City, Ciulla's sinister enterprise may have gone on much longer.

Karl Kaufmann of the New Jersey State Police Intelligence Bureau, told a reporter at the time: "No wonder there's nobody anywhere who'll argue that Ciulla isn't the No. 1 race fixer of all time. We'd never have got him if this Fantini hadn't jerked his reins so hard that he came out of the gate like it's the Lone Ranger's horse."

Called before the stewards at Atlantic City, Fantini was the first jockey to reveal that horses were being held on Ciulla's behalf. In almost serendipitous coincidence, Fantini's agent, Louis Menna, was being questioned by the police for passing bad checks and saw opportunity. In return for abandonment of the investigation, Menna and Fantini provide information about the man they knew only as Tony who operating from two suites at the Flamingo Motel in Atlantic City and fixed races almost at whim.

When Fantini arrived at Ciulla's motel on the night of July 16, 1975, the jockey wore a concealed device that transmitted their conversation to a car where police taped it. Game over. The stories, however, would mesmerize horseplayers for months.

As Ciulla sat in his cell in New Jersey awaiting trial on conspiracy charges, he considered the five more years looming in the Rhode Island case. At the same time, the FBI in Boston was developing a major case involving a conspiracy to fix races in at least six states. Next, members of the Pennsylvania state police began pointing accusing fingers at Ciulla. "I knew before I got out of jail I'd be as dead as Man o' War," Ciulla told Sports Illustrated.

The FBI made Ciulla an offer he ultimately could not refuse. He would testify in grand jury proceedings and trials in the six states and serve only a little more than 20 months of the four-to six-year Atlantic City sentence. Other charges would be dropped and he was given immunity from any further prosecution. Afterward, Ciulla would be placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program.

Ciulla, whose spectacular, at times almost unbelievable and always unapologetic testimony led to the conviction of 40 people, claimed he had such great access to jockeys in New York and other Eastern states because he paid off the late Con Errico, a retired rider, to be his intermediary. Errico, who ended up doing four years in prison, provided the necessary link.

Jose Amy testified in 1980 that he took several bribes from Errico to hold back horses in 1974 and 1975. Amy testified that he turned down Errico twice but then accepted after the former rider threatened him with Mafia-style retribution. Amy was banned from racing in 1981, ostensibly for life, but was eventually reinstated and rode briefly in New York a few years ago at age 50.

During his tour of the judiciary, Ciulla, now dead, implicated about half the jockeys now in the Hall of Fame and several high-profile trainers, none of whom were among the convicted, and detailed schemes worthy of Hollywood -- all with the pride only a true criminal could fully appreciate. Ultimately, it was generally accepted that not all the guilty were jailed.

Despite confirmation of every horseplayer's worse fears, stories of betting clerks in New York following the flow money, especially in the last race triple (trifecta) -- Ciulla's favorite target -- joining in the incidental spoils of crime, the mysterious death of jockey Mike Hole, officially a suicide, and lingering suspicion surrounding those prominent in testimony who avoided prison, racing survived.

On September 23, 1976, a horse believed to be Lebon was entered in a $16,000 claiming race at Belmont Park. The odds were 57- 1. A man, betting at several windows in the grandstand, wagered a total of $1,300 to win and $600 to show on Lebon. After the horse won by four lengths, the bettor collected $80,440 from a clubhouse cashier, who recognized him.

On October 12, Lebon ran in an allowance race at the Meadowlands and. at 15 to 1, finished fourth in a field of nine.

Within days, the New York racing board indefinitely suspended Dr. Mark Gerard, a well-known veterinarian whose patients included Riva Ridge and Secretariat. Gerard, who had imported Lebon from Uruguay, was also identified as the big bettor in Lebon's 57-to-1 win. The board put Lebon under 24-hour guard because Lebon wasn't Lebon.

The racing board issued the order after a tip from a Uruguayan journalist who said that the horse was Cinzano, a 4-year-old also imported by Gerard. Lebon was not much horse. In 1975, Cinzano was the best horse in Uruguay with six important stakes wins. Though the two horses looked alike, Uruguayans recognized Cinzano because of differences in the white stars on the horses' foreheads.

On June 11, less than three months before Gerard's betting coup and already insured, Cinzano and Lebon arrived at his on Long Island farm. Only a day later, Cinzano was reported to have fractured his skull and, according to Gerard, was put down and the carcass sold to a fat renderer. An insurance company paid off on a $150,000 policy. The dead horse, however, was Lebon and that the much more talented Cinzano raced under his name.

Again, thousands of bettors had been defrauded.

Again, racing survived.

There has not been a major race-fixing scandal in the United States since Ciulla. In an age of seamless news cycles, competing cable networks and the Internet, the industry would not likely survive a scandal of Ciullaesque proportion. Advances in identification have all but eliminated the possibility of another Lebon-Cinzano conspiracy.

In comparison to those days -- the same era now remembered for great horses, not great crimes -- the issues and embarrassments that currently plague the sport are mild.

Perhaps those involved in the repair and damage-control efforts should count their blessings.

Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at paulmoran47@hotmail.com.