07/14/2005 11:00PM

Trainers voice support for dismissed Lakow

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ELMONT, N.Y. - One day after Charles Hayward, the president and CEO of the New York Racing Association, fired racing secretary and handicapper Mike Lakow, trainers at Belmont Park spoke out on Lakow's behalf and sought an explanation for his unexpected termination.

On Thursday, Lakow, 48, along with Dr. Celeste Kunz, the chief examining veterinarian, and Ralph Chetcuti, 54, the vice president of human resources and labor relations, were dismissed and escorted from the grounds by security personnel. Hayward also announced the retirement of NYRA steward Dave Hicks, 76.

Trainer Bobby Frankel called Hayward on Friday morning and asked him to meet with horsemen to talk about Lakow's firing. A group of about 40 horsemen gathered at 10 a.m. in the Belmont Cafe on the first floor of the clubhouse.

In remarks similar to those made to reporters on Thursday, Hayward declined go into specifics about Lakow's termination when questioned by several trainers.

When Frankel asked why Lakow was fired, Hayward responded, "Some of the changes were made because things were at risk from a racing perspective. I'm not saying Mike did anything wrong. I'm not going to denigrate Mike in front of people. I don't think it is appropriate. We had a difference of opinion on how we would proceed [in the racing office]."

Hayward declined to elaborate on the differences.

At the start of the nearly 30-minute meeting, Hayward said he wanted horsemen to have a frame of reference about the current state of affairs at NYRA and referred to NYRA's deferred prosecution for tax fraud charges, which required the franchise for the last 18 months to be monitored by the law firm of Getnick and Getnick. The monitoring is scheduled to end on July 24. Hayward also mentioned $30 million in losses suffered by NYRA during the last two years.

"Some things have to change; I'm not laying it on Mike," Hayward said.

The overwhelming consensus among horsemen was that Lakow, who became racing secretary at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga in 1995, after joining NYRA in 1991, was honest, fair, and a workaholic.

"He was honest and did what was right," Frankel said. "He gave 15 years of his life here and to just rid of him like that . . . "

Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin told Hayward, "You better get three people to replace Mike."

P.J. Campo, 30, has replaced Lakow. Campo, a son of former trainer John Campo, who won the 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with Pleasant Colony, was Lakow's assistant.

On Friday, from his Garden City, N.Y., residence, Lakow said, "We were not having a great meet, but we had a lot of good meets before this. I guess they are taking a different path, and I wish them luck. P.J. has incredible talent, and I think he will do a good job."

The shake-up in the racing office comes at a critical time with racing set to start at NYRA's marquee Saratoga meet on July 27. According to Campo, Lakow was working on the first condition book of the six-week meet when he was told of his dismissal. Campo said Lakow's goal was to release the book on Sunday, and that has now become his goal.

"It's a tough position to fall into this time of year," Campo said, "but Mike was a great teacher, and I learned a lot from him."

Kunz, 47, said, "I was surprised that I was that important to be grouped with the other people that were let go."

Kunz, who joined NYRA in 1994, played a key role in the management of NYRA's race-day security barns that debuted earlier this year and was instrumental in isolating a suspected case of strangles in the spring.

- additional reporting by Mike Farrell