When Indiana businessman Mark Shireman decided to get into racehorse ownership, he wanted to have some fun with his newfound hobby.
So far, however, it has been anything but that for Shireman. Along with his wife, Kathy, Shireman owns Superstardom, a daughter of Smarty Jones they purchased privately for $12,500 after the filly did not meet its reserve price at a Florida sale in January 2011.
Not only has the enjoyment he was expecting from horse ownership eluded him, Shireman has been getting a real-life course in "Horse Ownership 101."
"It’s not a lot of fun yet," Shireman said Aug. 15 when he appeared before a committee of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. "I thought this was a hobby and would be a little fun. I love to be back in the barn and see the horses harness up and march out to the track."
In 11 starts for the Shiremans, Superstardom has one win and two seconds to her credit. But Superstardom and her connections are better known for an incident that occurred following her third-place finish at Keeneland April 26.
Following that race, Superstardom tested positive for the prohibited medication clenbuterol, leading to sanctions against Larry Lay, the trainer who saddled the filly that day. It was soon revealed that Lay had not actually been training the filly prior to the race, but was listed as trainer on the program, meaning he was a "paper trainer" or "program trainer."
A subsequent investigation by the KHRC determined that John Neal, an outrider at Keeneland, had been training Superstardom but could not officially be licensed as a trainer due to his status as a licensed racing official. Outriders are the men and women on horseback who are at the track in the mornings and during the races to help police activities on the track, such as chasing down loose horses and issuing warnings when exercise riders run afoul of morning training rules.
The investigation also determined that Carol Renn, a racing official who as horse identifier is in charge of making sure the proper horses are the ones running in each race, should have reported to stewards that Neal, not Lay, was the trainer. Renn, a lifelong friend of Mark Shireman who helped him select Superstardom when she was purchased, is involved in a relationship with Neal.
Renn has served a seven-day suspension for her actions and Neal was initially given a 30-day suspension.
The Aug. 15 hearing by the KHRC license review committee at which Shireman testified was held to consider Neal’s request for a license. The committee ruled that Neal cannot apply for a Kentucky license at least until Jan. 1, 2014, effectively suspending him for 16 months. Lay has been suspended 30 days for the positive drug test.
During the hearing, in which Neal, Renn, and Lay were also questioned, Shireman recalled the sequence of events that led to Superstardom being entered at Keeneland and the subsequent embroglio.
The filly, which had previously been racing in Indiana with trainer Bruce Balmer, was sent to Kentucky for a career as a broodmare. She went to Neal, who, like many outriders, also have their own horse operations in which they help break and prepare horses for racing or to recover from injuries.
Housed in a barn at Keeneland where Neal keeps his stable pony, Superstardom began to show signs she was not ready to be retired and the outrider sent her to the track for a handful of workouts. On some occasions, Shireman came to Kentucky to observe the workouts.
With the Keeneland meet winding down, Neal saw that a race on the April 26 card was coming up light and that it would be a good spot in which to enter Superstardom. He then recruited Lay to saddle the horse and have it entered in Lay's name.
"We weren’t planning on racing," Shireman said. "That just sort of happened."
Shireman did not compensate Renn for her assistance in helping him pick out Superstardom at the sale and the horse identifier was not involved in any of the decision-making about the filly because Renn worked for Keeneland. The owner said he reimbursed Neal only for his $5,500 expenses associated with keeping the filly and that the outrider was not paid a training fee for Superstardom.
Noting that "I am not a gambler," Shireman said he placed a $2 win wager on Superstardom in her Keeneland race.
During the Aug. 15 hearing, all of the parties involved said they realized it was improper for Lay to be listed as trainer of Superstardom, when in fact Neal was doing the training. And none could explain the positive test for clenbuterol, which a racing regulator said was nearly five times the allowable level under Kentucky rules.
"I do not know where it came from," Neal said of the drug. "I am responsible. She was under my care. The filly was under my care and she was in my barn."
"I entered that horse and that was wrong and I am so sorry about that," Lay said, adding that he allowed the horse to be entered in his name as a favor to Neal.
Lay said he was surprised to later learn that the filly had worked under his name. After the drug positive, Lay said he tried to get Neal to accompany him to meet with the stewards to alert them that Neal was actually training the filly.
"I told John Neal we needed to go to racing commission. I said let's go to the stewards. I just wanted somebody to say Larry had nothing to do with this horse," Lay said.
Lay said Neal responded that the trainer should serve his suspension.
Shireman, who acknowledged "I am green" when it comes to horse ownership, said he realized Neal could not be listed on the program as trainer.
"I assumed that," the owner said when asked if he knew a licensed trainer had to saddle the horse. "I knew John was not a licensed trainer."
Renn told the license review committee that she did not believe she should have received any sanctions for her role in the incident. Renn, who has been horse identifier for two Ellis Park meets and one each at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, said her duties include checking the lip tattoos and registration papers on horses before they compete, and handling some other paperwork associated with the purses.
"I was never told that is what I was supposed to do," Renn said when asked if part of her responsibilities also included making sure horses run in the name of the proper trainer. "I didn’t realize that the identifier had to identify trainers."
Renn said she "did not think it was any big deal" that Lay was listed on paper as trainer of a horse actually trained by Neal and that she did not believe she needed to report it to the stewards. "Maybe I should, but I had seen it before," she said.
"I’m sure it happens everywhere," Renn went on of horses being entered under a different trainer'+s name. "I’ve heard of my friends who have sent a horse to another track, it runs in another trainer’s name, and then it comes back. I’m sure it happens everywhere."
Renn said in the future she would report any possible "paper trainer" incidents to stewards.
Lay said he had not been paid for saddling Superstardom, who was disqualified and placed last in the seven-horse field as a result of the positive drug test. Lay said he was still considering whether to accept Shireman's offer to pay the trainer up to $3,000 to help recoup some of his lost income while he serves the 30-day suspension.
"He told me on the phone it was customary that owners help trainers out when something like this happens," Shireman said of his willingness to help Lay financially. "He was suspended and not able to work. I said I want to be a good guy. I wanted to be a team player. Before this time, this horse has never had an issue (with medication positives)."
In retrospect, Shireman said, "I would have been just as happy to load up (Superstardom) and go to Indiana" rather than racing the filly. "It didn’t matter."
KHRC license review committee chairman and horse owner Burr Travis said the investigation into the Superstardom "paper trainer" incident was continuing and that additional sanctions could be possible.