03/28/2014 3:32PM

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.”

Richard More than 1 year ago
well now..... did I say to you all that its going to happen some one and I mean more than one will be going to the lock up ....to ley this continue is madness MR BIG STRONICH and BRACKPOOL are first at bat....the rest of the sheep , trainers and vets next...
Robin Dawson More than 1 year ago
20 comments after 4 days says it all. Nobody cares: those in the business are unfazed and think that they can continue on with this nonsense, and the general public are completely oblivious. Well, just in case the smug guys think this is normal, there a Tsunami (The Ferderal Government) coming down the road that is going to, fortunately, eliminate a great many people who right now think they are horsemen. There will be a lot of moaning, but the sport will emerge smaller, stronger and better for it.
OscarWasAPiker More than 1 year ago
According to Steve Byk, its all being blown out of proportion.
Lois More than 1 year ago
I have been a race fan since the 60's, and so agree with most of what's being written. We simply can't keep blaming PETA and the casinos for our problems. I have two words for the casino problem -- Delaware Park. What a great place to visit for all bettors, and northeast racing connections are flocking there for the purses. Why can't this be the model for others? As to our PETA problem, I have three words -- same on us! I support the TRF and Rerun regularly with money that I could be betting with because I feel some responsibility to these magnificent animals that give is all for us. Maybe breakdowns are part of the game, but overmedicating and abandonment after the sport are not. Van Clief and the rest need to wake up.
Pat More than 1 year ago
And that somebody is the Federal Government. And when they do, then we'll hear the wailing and nashing of teeth coming from the racing industry. The NTRA, BC, NYRA, CDI, Keeneland, Del Mar, Stronach, etc all have no one to blame but themselves and their unmitigated greed and unbelievable shortsightedness. The clock is ticking and it's ever close to the witching hour. Racing, as a collective, you had better wake up. Big Brother is breathing down your neck and you aren't going to like what he going to do to you.
Mark D More than 1 year ago
Maybe they should not have built Colonia Downs in the middle of nowhere. I can people that are so rich....be so stupid??
Gary Peacock More than 1 year ago
Part of its charm and allure. The Battlefields are also close by.
Gary Peacock More than 1 year ago
Perhaps if the monorail between Richmond and D.C. were still in operation. Or was that The Jetsons?
James Pugliese More than 1 year ago
As a horseplayer and lover of the game, I want the DRF to continue to write articles concerning this video.We need information concerning what is happening in the aftermath. I feel i need the DRF to report the ongoings of this very serious scandal,besides the other very usefull articles regarding track racing coverage.
rick smith More than 1 year ago
To Mr. Van Clief...... Thanks for closing down racing in Virginia for the last 2 months...you are doing a fantastic job...Lets here some of his quotes ".Racing in Virginia suffers greatly from a lack of visibility and lack of brand strength" ........Really so lets close the track and that way there will be more visibility. 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".....Really so lets close the track so that we can attract a bigger audience A Real double talker..... Please retire and do all the racing fans a favor.
mb More than 1 year ago
drf is the home of the clueless....
mb More than 1 year ago
in other steve crist news....he says the sun will come up in the am...and set in the pm....but don't put that on a caveman ticket
Larry Kaufman More than 1 year ago
why doesnt he just retire