The Great Horse Swap Scandal of 1977

March 21, 2022

Shenanigans have been around horse racing since the beginning of the Sport of Kings

Ringers in Horse Racing, can it happen today?

One of the most overused horse racing plot devices in the motion picture industry are ringers – two horses that look exactly alike but one is much faster than the other. During the course of the movie, the two horses are switched out, the “wrong” one wins and our heroes collect a big payday. Total fiction, right? It is nowadays thanks to DNA testing and microchipping, but back in the seventies the only ways to identify horses were by lip tattoos, Jockey Club registration papers, and horse identifiers. While this system worked most of the time, in September of 1977 one horse slipped through the cracks. This didn’t happen at some low-level leaky roof racetrack but rather Big Sandy herself – Belmont Park. Thus began one of the greatest scandals ever to hit U.S. racing. And it all started in Uruguay.

Dr. Mark Gerard was the veterinarian to such stars as Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Canonero II, Hoist the Flag and Kelso. In May of 1977, he purchased two racehorses in Uruguay. The first was a champion – Cinzano, winner of seven of eight races and voted Uruguay’s Best Three-Year-Old Colt of 1976. Dr. Gerard plucked down $81,000 for the now four-year-old colt. The second was a dud – Lebon, a five-year-old claimer who managed only one win in two years, bought for the budget price of $1600 to supposedly be a riding horse for his wife Alice. Both horses were unaltered bay males with a white star on their foreheads. Neither sported lip tattoos. The only identifiable differences between Cinzano and Lebon were the shapes of the horses’ white stars – Cinzano’s was longer and lower-placed – and a small, easily missed one inch scar on Cinzano’s left shoulder. The horses were flown together from Uruguay into Kennedy International airport where they spent a week in quarantine before being vanned to Dr. Gerard’s farm in Long Island. Cinzano had already been sold to the wealthy computer executive Joseph Taub for $150,000, netting the good doctor a $69,000 profit. Easy money. Or so it seemed.

The two horses had been at Dr. Gerard’s farm for only one day when disaster struck – Cinzano reared up and struck his head on the ceiling, fracturing his skull and leg. At the time Dr. Gerard was at a dinner party with none other than trainer Frank Wright, host of the WOR-TV racing show. As Dr. Gerard rushed out to tend to his stricken horse, he asked Wright to drive his friend back to his house. When Wright arrived at the farm later, he learned that the horse had been euthanized and saw its body lying outside of the stable. Too bad Wright didn’t ask questions or dig further – he could’ve had the scoop of the decade.

While Cinzano’s death was tragic, all was not lost. Taub had already insured Cinzano for $150,000 at the General Adjustment Bureau of Jericho New York and to collect it, he only needed two veterinarians to sign off on the claim. Heck, he had one right there – the famous Dr. Gerard himself. Apparently no one at GAB cared about a possible conflict of interest and not only allowed Dr. Gerard to sign off as one of the vets, they let him to choose his good friend, Dr. Hap Hemphill, to be the second. All the two veterinarians had to do was a sign a paper certifying that it was indeed Cinzano who was dead and that his cause of death was plausible. This requires a necropsy but one was never performed. In fact, Dr. Hemphill never even saw the body. Instead, Dr. Gerard cut off Cinzano’s broken leg and drove it to Dr. Hemphill’s office at Belmont Park where he inspected it and signed off on the claim. As for the former Uruguayan champion, his body was unceremoniously dumped at the Huntington Town Landfill. Later when GAB manager Pete Lombardo was asked about the unusual circumstances regarding the horse’s death and the quick insurance payout, he said, “We had no reason to be suspicious of Dr. Gerard. After all, he was the vet for Secretariat, wasn’t he?”

Meanwhile, the horse presumed to be Lebon was shipped to Belmont Park and put into training by Dr. Gerard himself with Alice as his exercise rider. Since the state of New York doesn’t allow veterinarians to own or train racehorses, Lebon was galloped at freakishly early morning hours under the cover of darkness. By the time everyone else arrived at the barn, the horse was already back in his stall. In August of 1977, the Jockey Club issued a certificate of foreign registration for Lebon. Although the size of his white star and the presence of a scar on his left shoulder had been called into question, photographs supplied by the esteemed Dr. Gerard quashed all doubts as to the horse’s identity. No one bothered to examine the horse’s teeth to determine if in fact he was four years old. Instead registration papers were drawn up to include the discrepancies in the horse’s markings. Now Lebon only needed one more thing before he could make his American debut – a trainer. Enter Jack Morgan, Dr. Gerard’s former assistant who’d taken out a trainer’s license that same year. Although Dr. Gerard drew up a bill of sale for $8500, Morgan never paid a cent for Lebon or even laid eyes on the horse until days before his first American race. On September 9, 1977, as expected Lebon finished second to last in a dirt $10,000 claimer. It would be his next start, a 1 ¼ mile turf contest at Belmont Park that would go down in infamy.

To even the most experienced bettor, Lebon was an easy toss-out. First there was the curious jockey switch from the Eclipse award-winning Tommy Wallis to Larry Adams, who had just returned from a lengthy suspension for drugs. Next, there was the distance – Lebon was a dirt sprinter, what was he doing in a 1 ¼ mile turf race? Dismissed at 57-1, Lebon cruised to an easy victory. Having bet $1200 to win and $600 to show on his Uruguay import, Dr. Gerard collected a cool $80,440. As usual whenever there’s a longshot winner, the crowd grumbled that “the fix was in.” This time they were right.

On October 12th Lebon followed up his shocking win with a fourth place finish in an allowance at Meadowlands Racetrack. Two days later, the New York Jockey Club received a phone call from Julian Perez, a Uruguayan racing editor. Upon learning of the lowly Lebon’s amazing victory, he immediately became suspicious and asked the Associated Press for a photo. Perez instantly recognized that the horse standing in the winner’s circle was none other the former champion himself – Cinzano. On October 25th, the NYRA seized Lebon and placed him under a twenty-four hour stall guard while the mystery of the horse’s true identity was sorted out. Through photographs and a dental examination, NYRA veterinarian Dr. Manuel Gilman confirmed that the horse in question was indeed Cinzano. Dr. Gerard and Jack Morgan were immediately suspended.

With super attorney F. Lee Bailey heading his defense, Dr. Gerard was acquitted of the more serious felony charges However, he was found guilty of two misdemeanors for “fraudulent entries and practices in contests of speed” and sentenced to a year in jail and a $1000 fine. Further investigation revealed that several horses that Dr. Gerard had imported from Argentina had also been switched but no charges were ever filed. Banned from all racetracks for life, Dr. Gerard moved to Florida where he ran a successful practice caring for polo ponies. He died on July 1, 2011 at the age of 76.

After testifying against his former boss, Jack Morgan was cleared of complicity in the scam but suspended by the NYRA for seventy days for ownership rules violation. He would later go on to train Shining Bid, two-time winner of the Grade Two True North Handicap.

After being barred from competing in betting races, Cinzano was sold to Randalph Rouse. The former champion once again tasted victory after victory, this time in non-betting point to point races. After being undefeated in ten starts, Cinzano lived out his days on Rouse’s farm until his death at the age of twenty-six in 1999.

Photo: Sports Illustrated Cover, Belmont Park Horse Scandal Edition

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