By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
He walks into the tomb-like building and hands his parole card to a U.S. Marshal. "It's time to pay the pied piper," he says, but not before one last warning: "Calder is one of the dirtiest racetracks around. There are a lot of secrets still buried there."
That claim is backed up by an unlikely source: Steve Cross. A few weeks before beginning his own prison sentence, Cross gruffly answered one question before hanging up on New Times. "What really goes on behind the scenes at Calder?" he asked, repeating a reporter's question. "Everything."
At Calder, crime goes well beyond fraud cases and drug violations for trainers like Kirk Ziadie. Records show cops responded to the track and its attached casino nearly 500 times in the past five years. More than 600 pages of state and city records suggest that guns, drugs, and counterfeit cash are common at the track.
These crimes bolster claims contained in two lawsuits pending against Calder in South Florida courts that claim Calder officials ignored rampant wrongdoing at the racetrack and banned horse trainers who complained. The suits allege:
• the track banned a horse owner named Dennis Fisher after he complained about race fixing and drug abuse at the track;
• track officials helped a horse owner claim animals belonging to trainer Rene Wagner after she ratted on abuses, including the use of electric "buzzers" to spur horses during races;
• and a breeder named Gina Silvestri lost horses after a track secretary illegally transferred their ownership.
Calder officials declined to comment specifically about any of those cases because both remain open. Fisher says the cases, taken together, demonstrate that track leaders try to throw whistleblowers out rather than take allegations seriously.
"Calder higherups believe that they are holier than thou, but I caught them breaking every rule in the book," he says.
Fisher, a bear of a man with a belly that barely fits under his shirt, was a successful horse owner and trainer for two decades in his native South Africa, he says, before he was forced to leave after speaking out about corruption and racism in that nation's racing industry.
After moving to Miami and setting up his operation in 1997, Fisher won 14 races worth $116,000 around the country over the next 13 years. But he never won at Calder, which he found suspicious.
Fisher says Calder officials constantly tried to influence races. Some, like former racing secretary Bob Umphrey, secretly owned horses and wanted them to win, Fisher claims in court records. (Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former Calder official told New Times that Umphrey indeed owned horses and bet on races — in violation of track rules. Umphrey died in 2005. Marshall says that to his knowledge, no course official has ever improperly influenced a race.)
Fisher insists the formula was simple. With its private security force, Calder could rule off or ban anyone at any moment. Meanwhile, drug use was rampant among jockeys and employees on the backside. But officials looked the other way if employees followed orders, he says. Other track insiders echo that accusation.
"For big races with lots of money in them, the officials actually set up the race ahead of time," claims Gabriel Myatt, a former jockey and security guard at Calder. "They pick the horses, then they set up the odds and tell the jockeys: 'You are fourth, you are fifth,' and so on. If you're a jockey and you listen, you might make some extra money. If you don't listen to them, you don't get paid and you get blackballed."
Marshall says he's never heard an official complaint from Myatt, who worked at the track from April 2006 to May 2007. "We take these kinds of allegations very, very seriously," he says.
Fisher also claims that his complaints led to mysterious retaliation. In 2005, his horses at Calder began to go crazy. After finding them banging their heads against the wall or scratching their hooves raw, he suspected they were being drugged. He once found filly urine spread in his barn to make his male horses go wild, he says. Another time, he arrived early in the morning to find Majestic JCE — one of his most prized horses — with fractured legs after escaping from his stall the night before. He had to put the stallion down.
In December 2005, Fisher went to the FBI. He told agent Cynthia Levinson that Calder officials were fixing races, allowing drug use, and securing false social security numbers for undocumented immigrants to work at the track. (Miami-based FBI spokesman Mike Leverock declined to comment about Fisher's claims.)
Days later, Fisher met with Calder officials. He claims they demanded he drop his complaints. Fisher refused and was banned from the course. He sued several months later.
Calder conspired to defame Fisher because of his knowledge of foul play, corruption, and race fixing, he claimed in his suit. Track officials then "banished" him as "retaliation for speaking out." The case remains open.
Marshall declined to talk about Fisher's accusations. "He hasn't presented these complaints directly to me or come to me with these allegations," he says.