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With Gill, always two sides
Michael Gill has stomped, claimed, maddened, and torched his way through another Thoroughbred racing season. And now that the smoke has cleared, the raw statistics will knock you over.
Gill has almost 400 horses in training who combined to make 2,885 starts in 2004, winning an amazing 487 races and more than $10.8 million in purses.
And yet it is not enough. Gill failed to break the single-season record for wins by an owner - Gill refers to it as "the world record" - narrowly missing the mark of 494 set by Dan Lasater, then a steakhouse franchiser, in 1974.
And it might not be enough for Gill to win the award he covets nearly as much as Lasater's record: the Eclipse for outstanding owner, which will be announced Monday night in California. In the 2003 voting, Juddmonte Farms beat him, 102-51, and for all Gill accomplished in 2004, it is clear that some people still do not support him because of his aggressive claiming tactics.
The question is, what makes an Eclipse-award winning owner? Is it behemoth statistics and a winning horse around every corner? Or is it some less quantifiable commitment to quality racing, a more genteel sort of success than Gill's?
Gill has won only three graded stakes since 2000 and only one in 2004.
"I thought if I won the world record, it would have been hard for them not to give it to me," Gill said in a recent interview. "On paper, it looks like I should win it, but I haven't made a ton of friends in this industry, either."
For Gill, close doesn't count. Having failed to set a record in 2004, he will pursue it relentlessly this year.
"I'm a competitor," he said. "I am the toughest son of a bitch you've ever met in your life. If you want to beat me at something, you'll have to kill me."
No stranger to controversy
Gill, 48, is from New Hampshire and still lives there part time. Lacking a college education, he clawed his way to success in his early 20's. He attests to having gone broke twice after becoming a millionaire, but his run of luck has held in recent years through his multi-city home mortgage business, Mortgage Specialists.
The company made headlines in New Hampshire last summer, when the city of Haverhill tried to force him to remove an 11-foot, $300,000 digital sign in front of one of his businesses. Gill refused and threatened to sue.
In fact, Gill is often threatening to sue someone for something, sometimes involving a medication positive for one of his horses. Last month, Gill filed suit against the New York State Racing and Wagering Board for a pair of drug positives his horses received last summer at Saratoga, where Gill won the owners title despite having to ship horses from his Pennsylvania farm and training center because he was not given any stall space.
Gill purchased the Elk Creek training center near Oxford, Pa., because he has found it difficult to house his horses at racetracks. Starting in 2000, when Gill first ramped up his operation, his tactics of claiming horses in unprecedented numbers ran afoul of the racing establishment. Delaware Park denied him stalls, then access to the track. Gill sued. In Florida during the winter of 2003, when Gill and his unheralded trainer Mark Shuman shattered the Gulfstream Park record for wins, rival trainers Allen Iwinski and Peter Walder spoke out vehemently against Gill's claiming strategy. There was also the gruesome case of the missing leg. A veterinarian employed by Shuman and Gill removed the limb of one of their horses who had broken down during a Gulfstream race and had been euthanized.
No trace of illegal medication was found in the severed leg, which was found in the vet's freezer. Gill, naturally, considered suing the track and the state for their handling of the investigation.
In 2003, Gill raided Southern California, claiming scores of horses but quickly pulling up stakes early in 2004, dispersing his claims to other parts of the country. Horse-starved tracks in California, wary all along of Gill, were furious.
New York continues to deny Gill stall space. He was also turned down at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where he currently leases a barn on the grounds that is owned by horseman Louie Roussel. Gill houses more Louisiana horses in leased stalls at Evangeline Downs. Lone Star Park allocated stalls to Gill last fall, as has Oaklawn Park, which launched its meet Friday.
And still, the ceaseless claims keep coming. At Fair Grounds, from Nov. 25 through Jan. 9, Gill claimed 32 horses for $749,500. Meanwhile, only seven horses had been claimed from Gill's stable.
"He'll claim some other horses you might not lose," said Steve Asmussen, from whom Gill has claimed four at the Fair Grounds meet. "He'll take an older horse or a one-dimensional horse that other people wouldn't."
And Gill is the one picking out all the horses.
"My biggest thing is I don't like to be told what to do," Gill said.
Some say that is why his roster of trainers includes so many unheralded names. Besides Shuman and Gamaliel Vazquez, whose father worked for Gill in New England in the mid-1990's, Gill employs Tony Adamo, Tim Hooper, and Ken Cox.
It is Shuman who mans the 144-stall Elk Creek facility, shipping horses to tracks in West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. Plucked from obscurity and originally set up by Gill in Maryland, Shuman has stuck with Gill for three years. Sometimes, it seems longer.
"I've had over 140 horses running seven days a week," Shuman said. "There's not much time to breathe."
Shuman, 34, comes from a racing family but had scant experience as a head trainer when he went to Gulfstream in 2003. With a barn full of runners and free reign to claim, Shuman dominated the meet - and made plenty of enemies. Part of the problem was his startling success, but part of it was also the brash behavior of himself and his owner.
"Sticking my neck out has got me in trouble before," Shuman said. "But me, compared to [Gill], it's not even close."
Besides the two positive tests at Saratoga, both for the tranquilizer fluphenazine, Shuman was hit with a positive last summer at Delaware Park for diclofenac, a painkiller and anti-inflammatory. A year ago at Aqueduct, a Shuman-trained horse tested positive for celecoxib, another anti-inflammatory prohibited on race day.
"We get a simple medication positive, and the whole country wants to know about it," Shuman said. "It wears on you."
Shuman blames the inconsistencies in medication policies from state to state. There are two vets working the huge string at Gill's farm, and sometimes keeping track of which horse received what injection spirals out of control.
"Something's okay here, it's not okay somewhere else," he said. "We definitely get more horses tested than anybody else. There needs to be a standard for the whole country. People want to blow it out of proportion. Sometimes, you get to the point when you say, 'I'll take that black hat and wear it proudly.' "
Demands loyalty from his trainers
Shuman said he'd stick with Gill indefinitely, a sentiment echoed by Vazquez in New Orleans.
"He's never done me wrong once," Vazquez said. "For him, I'd go anywhere."
And this is exactly what Gill wants to hear. "I don't like divided loyalties," said Gill. "You're either on the team or you're not."
But Team Gill is not without problems. Shuman and Vazquez concede that Gill pits his trainers against one another, sowing dissension to test loyalties. It was a technique that the trainer Jerry Robb did not care for. After a three-year stint, the two parted company last summer.
"He loves trouble," Robb said of Gill.
Unlike most of Gill's other trainers, Robb, a 53-year-old based in Maryland, was established when Gill hired him. This, Robb believes, set the two at odds.
"From Day 1, he tried to outdo me," said Robb, who has rebuilt his stable to 25 horses now. "Whatever I said, he'd want to do just the opposite.
"He doesn't want people to work for him. He wants pigeons."
Gill concedes he's "not the easiest man to work for" and likes the idea of infusing his operation with fresh blood.
"Older guys are set doing the same things they've done for 40 years," Gill said. "As things evolve, they can get left behind."
But Robb, who himself received a 45-day medication positive in New York during his tenure with Gill, also had this to say about his former boss: "He's no cheater."
Stable loses money
Gill concedes that horseracing, unlike his other business, has been a losing proposition.
"I'm not breaking even right now, not yet," Gill said. "It's a building process."
According to Robb, break-even for Gill required earning $1 million in purses every month, a figure Gill doesn't dispute. "It was costing him about $15,000 a win to try and break that record," Robb said.
Which begs the question: Can Gill get what he wants this time and break Lasater's record in 2005?
He has spent large sums buying 2-year-olds, especially in 2003, when he purchased 32 horses at one Florida 2-year-old auction alone. But the bread and butter of his operation is claiming, and it is not easy to make good claims, especially using Gill's voluminous approach. His widespread operation and the need to ship to so many venues has some built-in inefficiencies.
At times, one wonders if Gill has a master plan. The record-setting team that he is chasing did.
"Our theory was to win a race a day, claim a horse a day, and lose a horse a day," said Dave Vance, who trained for Lasater in 1974. "We broke even all five years I was with him."
Gill scours past performances from across the country, gives his trainers lists of horses to look at, but Lasater essentially put up the money, sat back, and waited for results.
"All he did was pay the bills and tell me to win more races," Vance said.
Lasater, who years ago served jail time for a drug-related offense, has long been out of racing. Vance has stayed on and runs a mid-sized public stable now more slanted to developing young horses. He said he doesn't closely follow the Gill operation, but offered this cautionary wisdom about the claiming game: "Mr. Lasater watched the bottom line real close. If you don't look out for your money, and you get spread out too thin - you'd better watch it."
In his effort to break Lasater's record, there is a chance that Gill could attack one bridge too far, push too hard, and lose ground while neglecting the intricacies that make an operation tick.
And there is also a chance that Gill will smash through and reach his goal by sheer force of will.
"I will break it, and when I do, then I will step back and take a look at what I have," said Gill. "This is the sickness that I have, to be the best. It's a sickness I choose to have."
2004: Leading owners
|Gumpster Stable LLC||114|
By graded stakes wins
|Juddmonte Farms Inc.||13|
|Ken and Sarah Ramsey||11|
|Bob and Beverly Lewis||8|
|Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey||5,855,964|
Top seasons, owner