Updated on 09/17/2011 10:14AM

Fair play must be standard


NEW YORK - It is not easy to root for Michael Gill, the nation's leading owner with an astounding 121 victories already this year. He is a predatory businessman with a seemingly endless bankroll, claiming horses in droves and running them back for less than they're worth to rack up victories. He is a sometimes abrasive individual with seemingly little regard for the genteel veneer of the sport. He and his trainers have been fined or suspended at various times for medication violations, including a three-year ban in 1995 for a clenbuterol positive, and some of the veterinarians he employs have been involved in grisly incidents that appall horse lovers.

Gill is also a citizen of a country where people supposedly cannot be denied their livelihood if they play by the rules. In the absence of any evidence that he is currently engaged in wrongdoing, it is a lot easier to root for Gill than for the racetracks that are trying to drive him out of the business.

Delaware Park, which already had denied Gill stalls for its upcoming meeting, this week notified him that his horses will not even be allowed to enter its races. Track officials gave no explanation or justification for this ruling but merely cited the Delaware statutes they believe give them sweeping discretionary powers of exclusion. Gill, who says he has also been denied stalls at Aqueduct, Calder, and Monmouth, plans to file a lawsuit against Delaware Park, perhaps the first of many legal actions.

Maybe Gill is winning so many races because he has found a nefarious elixir. Plenty of horseplayers think so, and cite spectacular and sudden improvements in his horses' performance as proof that he is up to no good. Gill says he is doing nothing more than being an opportunist and spending the necessary money to give legal and therapeutic treatment to the horses he claims.

If racing were to bar every owner and trainer who wins a disproportionate share of races and whose horses sometimes show overnight improvement, there wouldn't be much of a game left. Until the sport can demonstrate that Gill is doing anything illegal, it cannot simply banish him for winning too many claiming races. If that precedent were upheld, what would stop any track from ejecting its leading trainers for dominating a local circuit, or from refusing entries from Bob Baffert or Bobby Frankel because they ship in and win too many graded stakes?

Gill has been subjected to unprecedented scrutiny, and racing has had at least 121 chances this year to test his winning horses for evidence of subterfuge. Gill has said he will quit the game if anyone proves he is drugging his horses. In the meantime, the sport is going to end up with black eyes and expensive legal judgments if it continues trying to deny him his civil rights and due process.

Gill is not alone in believing he is being persecuted for successfully exploiting the current state of the claiming game and that tracks are acting to protect their local outfits from someone who is simply playing the game better than they are. Thanks to the infusion of slot-machine monies at racinos such as Delaware Park, claimers in many jurisdictions are racing for purses more than twice as high as their price tags. How is Gill's scheme to dominate the market really any different from the business plans of some of the sport's leading owners and trainers who do the same thing with expensive yearlings or Kentucky Derby candidates?

If racing thinks Gill is acting against the sport's best interests, it should institute new rules that would apply consistently rather than only to him. Tracks could limit the number of horses an individual owner could claim each month or prohibit severe dropdowns in claiming price.

Instead of addressing these issues, racing is waging a crusade against an individual with no regard for fairness or justice. You can't convict someone just because you're suspicious of him and by saying your police lack the competence to produce any evidence. "We all know he's doing something" is acceptable chatter among horseplayers, but if racing officials want to bar Gill for breaking drug rules, they have to prove it.

More than 50 years ago, racing tried to run off Julie Fink, who won bunches of races and bets as a licensed owner from 1944 to 1949, then was denied a license on hearsay suspicions of fixing races and involvement with illegal gambling. The late Pat Lynch, who covered the story for the old New York World Telegram, challenged the ruling powers to produce a shred of evidence against Fink. As Lynch recalled in Carole Case's book "The Right Blood," he got a call one day from Ashley Trimble Cole, chairman of the New York Racing Commission. Cole told Lynch he didn't have any evidence he could share but that he simply believed Fink was an evildoer.

"I'm sorry," Cole said, "you'll just have to take my word for it."

"I'm equally sorry," Lynch replied. "The last time this happened, people were being thrown in the Bastille by French aristocrats."