08/07/2008 11:00PM

Bell riding under 'a cloud'


SHAKOPEE, Minn. - The sixth time hasn't been much fun, but then, neither was the fifth. For Derek Bell, who is well on his way to a sixth Canterbury Park jockey title, riding racehorses has been bittersweet for more than a year now.

Bell is among a handful of jockeys caught in a proprietary-rights controversy that permits him to ride at some tracks but not at others. On Dec. 19, 2006, Bell was one of seven jockeys ordered to leave Tampa Bay Downs because of what later was revealed to be an investigation into suspicious betting patterns and possible fixed races at the now defunct Great Lakes Downs in Michigan the previous summer.

None of the jockeys - including Bell and Terry Houghton, a perennial leading rider in Michigan and elsewhere - has been charged with a crime. The president of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, Frank Fabian, said last week that the case is ongoing and being handled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Bell, Houghton, and the others can ride only in certain jurisdictions. Among them, their licenses have been revoked or applications denied at Tampa, Arlington Park, Oaklawn Park, and in Kentucky.

"I've had to sell my home and my boat in Florida," said a wistful Bell, who retains a residence in his hometown, Anderson, Ind.

Houghton filed a lawsuit against Arlington in May 2007, but to no avail and still is not allowed to ride there.

As private property owners, racetracks have wide latitude in the area of proprietary rights and are able to enforce bans on riders, trainers, and even customers. In fact, courts have ruled that racetracks have even broader powers to ban individuals than most private property owners because of the need to ensure the integrity of races.

However, there is no reciprocity nor unanimity among states and racetracks in cases such as the one that began with the Tampa banishments, again illustrating an inherent problem in an industry that often is factionalized and inconsistent in addressing issues from drugs to racetrack surfaces to betting platforms.

In the meantime, Bell is flourishing on the track at Canterbury. As of Thursday, he held a sizable lead atop the standings with 68 wins and appears on his way to being the track's leading rider for the sixth time since 2000. He narrowly beat out Paul Nolan last year when competing for the first time with what he describes as "a cloud" hanging over him.

Bell, 38, said he testified before a grand jury in Detroit in early May. "I told them what I told the TRPB in Tampa, which was basically nothing," he said. Bell said the first thing the district attorney told him during his 20-minute grand-jury testimony was, "'Look, we know you didn't have any part of this,' and then he went on and acted like I knew some bookie in Detroit or something."

Fabian said that the TRPB continues to cooperate with the FBI. "But unfortunately I cannot comment further on the matter," he said. "Clearly the investigation hasn't concluded, but until such time it's resolved, it's fair to say the TRPB is assisting them when we are asked, but it's pretty much in their hands."

The others banned by Tampa in December 2006 were Jorge Bracho, Luis Castillo, Jose J. Delgado, Joe Judice, and Ricardo Valdes.

Bracho has been riding lately at a variety of East Coast tracks while Delgado has been active this summer at Monmouth. Judice has not ridden in more than a year, and Castillo and Valdes have not ridden since Tampa barred them.

Canterbury president Randy Sampson said that although certain tracks continue to bar Bell, Sampson remains comfortable with his decision to allow Bell to ride.

"We interviewed Derek and had him sign some affidavits to put some qualifications on his riding here," Sampson said. "If he was a guy we didn't know at all, maybe we would have considered falling in line with the tracks that have banned him, but that's not the case. We've never had any sort of problems or issues with him. We were comfortable with him riding at Canterbury, that he wasn't going to compromise our confidence or integrity.

"This is the second year he's been allowed to ride under the cloud of investigation. He knows he's under scrutiny, but he's done a great job in both the jocks' room and on the track."

In Michigan, Houghton was allowed to begin riding at the new Pinnacle Downs near Detroit when the inaugural meet began July 18. According to a statement from the Michigan Office of Racing Commissioner, which regulates the sport in the state, "Over the past year and a half, the ORC has pursued an extensive investigation regarding allegations of race fixing involving Terry Houghton and a number of other jockeys. At this point in time, the ORC has not found sufficient evidence to show Mr. Houghton should not be granted a license."

Bell said that he intends to ride at Remington Park in Oklahoma when the Canterbury meet ends Sept. 1 but that he has few options during the winter. Tampa president Peter Berube said last week that none of the banned riders could return until the investigation is completed.

From Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., track president Bob Elliston said he knew few details of the jockeys' case, but the fact they are under investigation is enough for him to bar them.

"Our sense is that, until that matter is resolved one way or the other, we are inclined not to allow those guys to ride," Elliston said. "As soon as the professionals we rely on for information, the TRPB, tells us what the resolution is, I will personally call and invite Terry Houghton and any of the others and invite them back to the track, if that's what the situation dictates."

Bell's wife recently returned from Minnesota to the family's home in Anderson, where their only child, a 6-year-old daughter, soon will begin school. Bell doesn't know where he will work after competing this fall at Remington; last winter he galloped horses in Ocala, Fla. The tracks that will and won't allow him to ride are a hodgepodge. For example, while Arlington has barred him, Hawthorne, also in the Chicago area, will allow him and Houghton to ride there.

"Obviously this is very frustrating, especially since we've never been told what's going on," said Bell. "It's going on two years, and I still don't know why I'm out at certain tracks."