03/28/2014 2:32PM

Jay Hovdey: As PETA scandal builds, Van Clief gets a ride in wayback machine


Upon reading the rapidly spreading news of the PETA undercover video and its controversial behind-the-scenes look at the Steve Asmussen stable, D.G. Van Clief, Jr. experienced a vivid flashback to the morning after the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Championship held at Arlington Park.

“I had been asked to talk to a Chamber of Commerce group in Chicago that morning,” said Van Clief, who was then president of the Breeders’ Cup. “When I walked out of the room and turned my cellphone back on, it just lit up. We knew there was something funny with the pick six pool the night before, but we hadn’t drawn any conclusions.”

By the next day preliminary conclusions had been drawn, and they weren’t pretty. Someone had manipulated a Breeders’ Cup Ultra Pick 6 ticket that ended up as the lone winner of the pool, good for a $3.1 million payoff. Subsequent investigations by various law enforcement agencies discovered an Autotote employee behind the scheme. Five months later, Van Clief was able to announce that the holders of the 78 legitimate winning tickets would be receiving their rightful payoffs of about $40,000, with interest.

No less an authority as Andrew Beyer of the Washington Post called the Breeders’ Cup pick six fix “horse racing’s worst scandal.” This was a strong statement, especially with competition from the race-fixing scandals of the 1970s masterminded by gambler Tony Ciulla, or the Cinzano-Lebon horse switch pulled off by New York veterinarian Mark Gerard, or even the disqualification of Dancer’s Image from victory in the 1968 Kentucky Derby after the then-illegal medication butazolidin was allegedly found in his post-race test.

But the $3.1 million hit to the integrity of the wagering on racing’s biggest day was a staggering blow, and revealed gaping holes in betting protocols and security systems. Van Clief and his fellow executives scrambled to stem the tide of justifiably angry public reaction. “Within 30 minutes I remember I was standing in front of a CNN camera that morning, advising the steps we were already planning to take to assure our customers would still have integrity going forward,” Van Clief recalled. “What’s happened with the PETA video has that kind of feel.”

Van Clief was there at the beginning of the Breeders’ Cup in 1982 as executive director and served as president of Breeders’ Cup for 10 years, 1996-2006. When the Breeders’ Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing Associations merged their operations, Van Clief assumed the concurrent title of NTRA commissioner in 2004.

Now he is far from the thick of the battle. In April of 2006, at the age of 57, Van Clief stepped down from both positions and moved back to his family’s roots in Virginia, where the Van Clief name has been long a part of the Thoroughbred breeding and sales scene. Van Clief’s father, Daniel G. Van Clief Sr., did business as Nydrie Stud and was the proud breeder of Natalma, dam of Northern Dancer.

But after traveling, sleeping late, and wearing his bathrobe until lunch, the goal-oriented Van Clief got restless in his quiet corner of Virginia, and in 2013 he accepted an appointment to fill a vacancy on the Virginia Racing Commission.

“I always thought if I moved back to Virginia that it would be fun to get involved locally,” Van Clief said. “But as you know, on some occasions I don’t always duck fast enough. As a result I find myself on a commission in the middle of what might be one of the most combative periods in Virginia’s brief racing history.”

Squeezed by casino-fueled racing states, Virginia’s Thoroughbred sport begins and ends with Colonial Downs, located in New Kent County, and host of such popular events as the Virginia Derby and Colonial Turf Cup.

On Friday Van Clief was fresh from a racing commission meeting the day before – he is now vice-chairman – during which the issue of Colonial racing dates failed once again to be resolved. Track management prefers a shorter, boutique-sized meet while the Virginia horsemen’s group wants more racing days. To Van Clief, the frustrations have a familiar feel.

“Racing in Virginia suffers greatly from a lack of visibility and lack of brand strength,” Van Clief said. “We’d like to see Colonial Downs have more big days to try and get itself on the map in terms of building a product attractive to a broader audience. Of course, we’re in the same boat as a lot of jurisdictions.”

Van Clief was probably as close to a national commissioner as racing has ever had, or will have. It is the lack of a single, national voice for the Thoroughbred industry that frustrates many of its advocates in the face of the PETA video attacks.

“When the decision was made to break up the NTRA-Breeders’ Cup working alliance I think that was a mistake,” Van Clief said. “To my mind, there was a lot of potential there, and if we’d been successful we might have been better off today.

“It’s obviously not an industry that lends itself to consolidation,” Van Clief added. “Never has been and maybe it never will be. This PETA investigation certainly makes you think, though, that if we don’t get our own act together somebody’s going to do it for us.”