For a brief moment on Friday, Meadowlands Racetrack owner Jeff Gural seemed to dabble in apocalyptic waters regarding the unveiling of a comprehensive list of harness racing horsemen who have done business with just-convicted veterinarian Dr. Seth Fishman.
“I have no idea how many of them bought illegal substances, but I just hope there are enough left over so I can still hold races at the Meadowlands,” Gural told NJ Online Gambling. “I’m not going to allow horsemen who cheat to race.”
But more seriously, Gural said that, at least at this point, “I have no opinion” on whether prominent standardbred owners and trainers on the list might have run afoul of the racing industry’s rules.
“I never really think like that,” Gural said of doomsday hypotheticals.
Gural said that many horsemen, after their horse ran a subpar race, would go to Fishman to see if he could diagnose the cause of the issue. “A lot of trainers did that legitimately,” Gural said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a majority of those names” were doing uncontroversial business with Fishman, Gural added. “My hope is that in each case we can find out what they were buying, and go from there.”
Progress — and problems
Gural said that the numerous convictions over the past two years following a wide-ranging federal sting operation into doping of racehorses have encouraged him.
“We’ve made good progress — I think we’ll be able to clean it up and get drugs out of the sport,” Gural said.
However, Gural added that doesn’t mean he believes that the dozens of indictments will leave unscrupulous horsemen “scared straight” and certain to change their ways.
Gural said he recalls the words of Travis Tygart, who has been the chief executive officer at the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) since 2007 and thus a kindred spirit. “Travis told me that in his experience, people who are dishonest don’t know how to be honest,” Gural said. “They don’t know how to operate without using drugs [on their horses], so they keep going until they get caught.”
Still, Gural called the federal investigators’ acquisition of an expansive list of horsemen who did business with Fishman “a big deal” because it serves as a starting point for further inquiry into the sport’s darker side.
Another (horse) shoe to drop?
There is one other veterinarian who was indicted in 2020 — and who has pleaded not guilty — who could wind up providing as many clues depending on the result of his court case, Gural said. That would be Louis Grasso.
As it happens, Grasso — charged with supplying misbranded performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to trainers across the U.S. from 2017-2020 — just received an adverse ruling from a judge on Wednesday.
Attorneys for Grasso and four other defendants sought dismissal of the charges based on the assertion that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act that governs such conduct “was intended to protect the consuming public, therefore only consumers or consumer protection agencies may be the target of the intent to defraud or mislead.” But U.S. District Court Judge Kevin Castel rejected the claim, citing the ruling of fellow judge Mary Kay Vyskocil in the trial and conviction of former Monmouth Park trainer Jorge Navarro.
However, Castel did grant the defendants’ request to have prosecutors provide a “bill of particulars” within 14 days detailing exactly which governing bodies and horse racing regulatory bodies are alleged to have been defrauded.
Gural noted that while almost all of the names on the much-discussed list of Fishman clients are in the standardbred industry, he doesn’t believe that those running the thoroughbred side of horse racing can rest easy.
That’s because the internationally successful Godolphin racing stable, owned by ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, came up on wiretap recordings played during the Fishman trial.
Gural on why he granted one particular trainer a break
The message from Gural has been the same for years: If he believes he has sufficient reason to suspect a horseman of doping, he will ban them from the Meadowlands and also his upstate New York Vernon Downs and Tioga Downs racetracks.
But last weekend, he allowed Deirdre Hall — who recently testified to have engaged in improper dealings with Fishman during that trial — to race her two horses at the Meadowlands. That produced backlash, Gural said, as the U.S. Trotting Association suspended her following the testimony.
“I’m shocked at the reaction of people who haven’t lifted a finger to help me [eliminate doping],” said Gural, who personally has bankrolled much of the investigative activity. “She did the right thing [in testifying]. They needed her, because people have to understand that you have to convince a jury and to do that you need a real person to explain what happened. That’s why they chose her.”
Why Meadowlands handle is down
Gural blamed “a variety of things” for why betting handle at the Meadowlands so far in 2022 is down about 20% off robust 2021 marks.
There was no racing in Canada early last year due to the country’s COVID-19 policy, Gural said, and five of last year’s top drivers elected not to drive at the Meadowlands this winter.
Also, an experiment with shortening the time between races — which some racing bettors had sought — may be flattening handle. As a result, Gural said, “we’re going to space the races out more” in the near future.