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Horse racing isn’t nearly as rigged as the outside world thinks. But there have been times…
This week marks the silver anniversary of the most notorious betting scandal ever to hit Maryland racing. Inside the jockeys room at Bowie Race Course, a group of riders got together and fixed the triple. It didn’t stay fixed.
Not even close. In fact, an investigation was launched just minutes after the horses hit the wire in the now-infamous ninth race on Valentine’s Day 1975. A mutuels teller at Bowie got suspicious about a bettor who used three colts—Mr. Ransom, Choice Rib, and Sealand—in what is known as a “triple box.” That’s an $18 wager in which the three selected horses have to finish first, second, and third, in any order. But the bettor wanted more than one ticket.
“Hit it 38 times,” the bettor told the teller. He handed over a pile of small bills, mostly $10s and $20s, totaling $684, and walked away with a stack of triple tickets.
Miracle of miracles, the ninth race was won by Mr. Ransom, a half-length in front of Choice Rib, with 47-1 longshot Sealand finishing nine lengths back in third. Had the ticket buyer gone to several windows and made smaller bets of the same numbers at each, nobody would have been the wiser. But because of the bettor’s one-stop-shopping routine, the teller was telling track security about a winning bettor and his odd wad of cash as the tote board flashed the 8-12-2 triple payout of $927.30 per ticket, or just over $35,000 for 38.
Triple bets and other types of so-called “exotic” wagering—anything other than win, place, and show bets—were relatively limited in racing in the analog age. Bowie offered only one triple per day in 1975, saving it until the last race of each card to keep patrons around. That scheduling helped foil the fixers. So did the IRS code, which stipulated that anybody cashing a ticket worth more than $900 had to sign federal tax forms before getting paid. Had the 8-12-2 triple paid just $28 less, ticketholders could have quickly cashed out and walked away with their filthy lucre. As it turned out, those who’d pooled the $684 didn’t have time to divvy out the 38 tickets and find folks to cash them before the tellers closed for the night.
By the following morning, the tellers all knew that anybody trying to redeem a triple ticket was to be brought to security. A track hanger-on already known to Bowie security as a “10-percenter,” the term used to describe lowlifes who cash big tickets for bettors wishing to remain anonymous in exchange for a percentage of the winnings, was the first to come forward. He cashed two tickets from the lot of 38, fueling security officials’ suspicions of an inside job. Then two women who were also often seen in the company of horsemen tried to turn in a ticket apiece, but they decided not to cash out when investigators approached. No other tickets ever showed up.
Before long, investigators determined that the original ticket buyer was Ernest Davidson, brother of jockey Jesse Davidson. The scheme, along with the lives of many participants in what is now known in racing circles as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” was well on its way to unraveling.
Track stewards claimed that the videotape of the race proved many of the riders on losing mounts had thrown the race. Jockey John Baboolal, aboard 9-1 shot Peace Frog, could be seen standing up and yanking on his mount’s reins as the gates opened up. Either one of those moves would have been enough to take Peace Frog, who finished ninth, right out of the race. The colt Raved sat in the middle of the 12-horse pack coming out of the turn. But as the lead horses headed for home, rider Luigi Gino instead headed toward the grandstand and took Raved to a sixth-place finish. Davidson and his mount, CeCe Belle, earned a comment of “showed nothing” from race callers for his eighth-place trip. Ben Feliciano kept March Court at or near the back for the whole 6 furlongs. But investigator’s biggest suspicions focused on Eric Walsh, who took Mike O. very wide early in the race and kept him there. Mike O., though the betting favorite, finished dead last, more than 27 lengths behind the winner.
The riders who finished in the money weren’t suspects.
“If you’re going to fix a race, you don’t worry about who’s going to win or finish second,” says Paul Berube, then the lead agent at Bowie (which closed in 1985) for the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau. “You ensure losers, just get some horses out of there any way you can, and then bet the rest in whatever way will produce the best profits.”
The FBI agreed to make a federal case out of it. On Feb. 20, deputies swarmed into Bowie with subpoenas for everybody but the horses. Jockeys threatened to boycott that day’s ninth-race triple to protest what they regarded as heavy-handed treatment from the investigators. But the inquiry into the Valentine’s Day shenanigans didn’t let up. In May, a grand jury handed down indictments against four of the riders—Gino, Davidson, Walsh, and Feliciano—for the crime of “fixing a sporting event.” Another jockey, Carlos Jiminez, was given immunity in exchange for testimony. Baboolal was named as an unindicted co-conspirator.
During the September trial, the defendants admitted that they’d bet on the triple. Gino was portrayed as the instigator and organizer, having taken a big hit earlier on Valentine’s Day in a poker game. Walsh confessed to telling his co-workers that they could count on Mike O. finishing out of the money, despite his odds. Davidson, Baboolal, Feliciano, and Jiminez also acknowledged throwing money into the pool.
Other than Jiminez, they all affirmed that they’d given honest rides. The secrecy surrounding the bets and ticket cashings, the defense story went, was necessary because jockeys aren’t allowed to bet on racing, let alone bet against their own mounts. But their betting against themselves, absent dirty riding, was an administrative infraction, not a federal felony.
“They wanted people to believe they were good handicappers, not [crooked] jockeys,” says Berube.
A lot of folks in racing bought into the defense’s version, at least as it pertained to Walsh. Two legendary figures in Maryland racing, King Leatherbury, Mike O.’s trainer, and Clem Florio, who covered racing for the Washington Post at the time, say they offered to testify on behalf of the jocks. Both Leatherbury and Florio knew about a misprint in the Daily Racing Form that made Mike O.’s most recent workout seem much faster than it really was.That’s the kind of typo that hard-core horseplayers, even jockeys who should know better, live to exploit.
“My horse was a bum,” says Leatherbury, who was one of the leading trainers in the country in the ’70s. “I knew it, and Eric knew it, but the public didn’t know it. If I’d been around when they were collecting dollars for a bet like that, I would have thrown some in the pot, too. But as a trainer, I wouldn’t defend a crooked rider. I wanted to tell the jury that Eric didn’t pull that horse. He finished last naturally.”
But the defense attorneys, a group that included a then-little-known workers’ compensation lawyer from Baltimore named Peter G. Angelos, never called Leatherbury or Florio to the stand.
The defendants were convicted of the fix.
“We couldn’t overcome the betting evidence, the fact that there was a large block of tickets purchased by a relative of one of the riders,” Angelos now says of the trial. “But that doesn’t mean they were guilty.”
Davidson, Feliciano, Gino, and Walsh were sentenced to six months in federal prison. Riding privileges for all were revoked indefinitely. Rather than go to jail, Walsh killed himself on May 1, 1976, denying his guilt to the end.
After doing their time, Davidson and Feliciano fought for nearly 10 years to be reinstated as riders. Davidson is now out of racing and living in Laurel. Feliciano works as a jockey agent, and his son is an up-and-coming trainer. Gino got a trainer’s license and still saddles horses in Maryland. All three of his daughters are married to jockeys.
Berube is now president of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau, and he occasionally crosses paths with this or that rider from the ninth race at Bowie on Feb. 14, 1975. There are no hard feelings on either side, he says.
There have been no race-fixing cases in Maryland in the last 25 years.—Dave McKenna