By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Fisher's close friend Rene Wagner, another South African trainer, has also battled track officials. When Fisher was ruled off, Wagner trained both of their horses. Like Fisher, she soon began to suspect that jockeys, horse owners, and Calder officials were conspiring to rig races.
In a complaint to the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering filed in April 2010, Wagner accused horse owner Allen Bruce Gottlieb of instructing jockey Carlos Camilo to zap horse Raisinaboveonly with a battery, or electric buzzer, hidden in his hand. The horse went wild and finished last. Wagner's complaint set off a bitter feud. Gottlieb sued her, calling Wagner and Fisher "scam artists." But Wagner won in court, claiming Gottlieb conspired with Calder officials to have her blacklisted. (Gottlieb declined to comment.) Wagner is now planning her own lawsuit against Calder.
The second suit comes from horse breeder Gina Silvestri. In 2006, she had more than a dozen stalls at Calder. When another owner died in November, she agreed to take on a horse named Greenwood Mystery. Silvestri's trouble began six months later, when someone else claimed ownership of the animal.
Sure enough, when Silvestri checked the horse's papers, she says she discovered the transfer had been signed in December — not by the dead owner, but by Calder racing secretary Michael Anifantis. When Silvestri and 15 witnesses turned up at a hearing to determine how a corpse could have given Silvestri a horse, the event was abruptly canceled. Steward Jeffrey Noe refused to take depositions. Three more hearings were scheduled and then canceled. In January 2008, Silvestri was banned from Calder for life. She sued the track in Broward County Court and sold all of her horses to pay nearly a half-million dollars in legal bills.
"Everybody is scared to death of Churchill Downs," she says. "But it's not fair that people are treated like this."
In court, the track's attorneys have sought to discredit Fisher, Wagner, and Silvestri. But some of the trio's allegations are supported by police reports and state regulators' investigations.
Fisher and Wagner's claim that Calder is awash in drugs is corroborated by repeated narcotics arrests at the racetrack. On July 12, 2009, for instance, a groom was arrested for selling cocaine and marijuana out of his room on the backside of Calder. Two months later, another horse handler was busted for selling and smoking crack. A year later, another dealer was caught with ten grams of pot and a digital scale. At least six arrests related to drugs have been made in the past five years.
Meanwhile, shady business abounds at the track. According to police reports, Calder employees accepted stolen checks and credit cards. One man lost $7,000 when his bank account was hacked by someone at the track.
There's at least one undeniable villain in the eyes of those who value clean contests at racetracks: the State of Florida. The Sunshine State not only has some of the most lax penalties in the nation, but state law also mandates testers to use outdated equipment that can't screen for a majority of modern cheating methods.
"Many drugs simply aren't detectable at all" in Florida, says Richard Sams, who used to run the University of Florida's Racing Laboratory, which tests all post-race samples in the state.
For horses and jockeys, the issue isn't just about fairness — it's life-or-death. Trainers who use powerful painkillers and stimulants to force horses to run through their injuries make accidents more likely. A recent investigation by the New York Times found that the rate of deadly breakdowns doubled when drug restrictions were loosened. Race horses die twice as often on the track in the United States as they do in England, where drugs aren't allowed.
"The only way to protect horses and jockeys is to get rid of the drugs," says Lyons, the equine-sports veterinarian. "The public is tired of seeing carnage on the racetrack."
There's a long history of politics undermining drug detection in Florida. Wayne Duer was in charge of drug-testing horses in the state from 1977 to 1986. In 1984, he and his fellow lab technicians discovered such rampant doping among quarter horses at Pompano Park that Florida banned quarter-horse racing for an entire year.
When racing restarted in 1986, Duer and his team resumed testing — at least until Bob Rosenberg, then the head of the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, sent his staff into the laboratory. "They took our samples — which constituted evidence that doping was going on again — and sent them to a lab in Colorado that couldn't even test for the drug that was being used," Duer says. He was fired, and it was back to business as usual at tracks around the state.
"It was all covered up," Duer says.
Politics again stymied efforts to clean up the sport in the 1990s. After the testing lab at UF began using newer techniques, the number of violators skyrocketed, as did fines and suspensions. Owners, trainers, and track officials, in turn, lobbied legislators to change state law to mandate the older, outdated methods. "It wasn't a budget issue," Sams says. "It was motivated by a desire to avoid longer detection periods."