01/25/2010 12:00AM

Penn jockeys: Gill horses a safety risk


Michael Gill, who won the Eclipse Award for top owner in 2005 and led all North American owners in wins last year, once again is the subject of controversy in the wake of several of his horses breaking down at Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pa.

Citing safety concerns over the condition of Gill's horses, the jockeys at Penn considered refusing to ride Saturday night following the fifth race, when a Gill-owned horse named Laughing Moon broke down with a catastrophic injury shortly after finishing third. The rest of the program was run after a lengthy delay only when Justin M, owned by Gill, was scratched from the sixth race.

Veteran jockey Tommy Clifton said the 23 jockeys in action Saturday night voted unanimously not to continue riding unless Justin M was scratched.

"This has been a situation where things have just gotten worse and worse," Clifton said Monday. "We took this action strictly as a matter of safety."

At Penn, six Gill horses have suffered catastrophic breakdowns since Oct. 1, according to Daily Racing Form data, while another nine were pulled up, eased, or went lame in races during that period. One of the fatal breakdowns occurred Thursday and another on Jan. 13.

Gill, speaking Monday from his mortgage business in New Hampshire, maintains that his high volume of starters "unfortunately means that some horses will break down" but claimed that his overall breakdown rate is not higher than the norm.

Until the situation is more fully addressed, the six Gill horses entered at Penn for Wednesday (two) and Thursday (four) night have been scratched, according to Gill.

Calls to two Penn officials, Chris McErlean and Paul Jenkins, went unreturned Monday. Justin Fleming, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission, said Monday that no investigation into the matter has been undertaken by the commission, "although obviously we are in communication with the track, and at least for the time being the situation is being handled by them."

Herberto Rivera Jr., a regional director for the Jockeys' Guild on the Eastern Seaboard, said very few Penn jockeys are Guild members and that the organization has taken no stance on the matter.

Gill is outraged with the situation, saying he is being singled out in large part because of the way he dominates racing at Penn by racing and winning often and by being active at the claim box.

"It's an old song," said Gill, 54. "You don't make many friends when you operate like I do. You're taking a big piece of the pie that everyone is used to cutting up among themselves."

Gill won with 370 of 2,247 starters in 2009 and claims that, aside from Penn National, he had only one catastrophic breakdown during the entire year at other tracks where his stable is active, primarily Philadelphia Park, Laurel, Pimlico, Charles Town, Delaware Park, and Mountaineer Park.

Gill said he currently has about 120 active runners, with 49 stalls at Penn National and the rest at his private farm, Elk Creek Ranch, located in Oxford, Pa., just southwest of Philadelphia near the Maryland border.

Gill said the controversy has forced him to fire one of his two Penn trainers, Darrel Delahoussaye, "but not because of anything Darrel did. The track wanted me to give Darrel up to keep my stalls, so that's what I'm having to do."

Delahoussaye was the trainer of Laughing Moon. Gill said the Delahoussaye horses now will run in the name of his main trainer, Tony Adamo.

Gill said his horses have had no positive tests for illegal medications for years and that his participation as an owner has cost him "tens and tens of millions of dollars."

He added: "They can be strict as want to be, but I only wish they would be the same way with everybody."

Gill, who owned his first racehorse in 1979, became prominent in 2000 when he expanded his stable in a major way, eventually owning as many as 275 horses. Each year from 2003 to 2005 he led North America in wins and earnings, culminating in his 2005 Eclipse. He dramatically scaled back his Thoroughbred holdings in 2006 but has gradually rebuilt the stable over the last 18 months or so.

Gill has been a lightning rod for controversy during the last decade. Perhaps the most notorious incident came in 2003, when one of his horses, Casual Conflict, was discovered to have had his leg sawed off following his breakdown and death at Gulfstream Park in Florida. Gill and his trainer at the time, Mark Shuman, ultimately were exonerated of wrongdoing in that case.

In 2002, Gill was barred from racing at Delaware, after which he filed an antitrust suit that was settled out of court in 2004. In 2003, he briefly campaigned a stable in Southern California while claiming a slew of horses and shipping them out of state, much to the consternation of racing officials there. In the years before he was voted the Eclipse, he complained bitterly in public forums about not being seriously considered for the award despite the huge numbers his stable was recording. And in March 2006, he won a case before the New York Supreme Court, overturning two medication positives from races at Saratoga in 2004.