Marble Cliff, the stakes winner-turned-maiden after his Ohio registration was revoked in July, could end up becoming a poster child for serious changes in breed-registration regulations in the Buckeye State—and perhaps beyond.
An Ohio State Racing Commission investigation that determined nine horses were foaled in Kentucky, not Ohio as stated on official registration forms, has been the topic of two hearings, the most recent Sept. 24 in Columbus. Over the past two months, an advisory committee created by OSRC chairman William Koester has examined the state’s regulations and is kicking around suggestions on ways to tighten them.
“As a result of the discussions, we’ve determined changes need to be made in the rules and state law as well,” said John Izzo, OSRC deputy executive director.
“We’re looking at very serious changes,” Koester said.
Among the changes being considered are residency requirements for mares, submission of veterinarian and board bills as part of the paper trail, and even requiring breeders to obtain a one-time license. If breeders are licensed, they would have to answer to the racing commission, which conceivably could fine, suspend, or ban rule-breakers.
“We’re trying to operate under the assumption Ohio racing is going to get better,” said Koester, who took over as commission chairman earlier this year. “We’re not here to put the lights out.”
Ohio, where racing is struggling and foal crops are shrinking, is not an island. The investigation and related testimony revealed a registration process that in many cases amounts to an honor system lacking in regulation, and Ohio probably isn’t alone, according to breeders, horsemen, and officials.
The three-hour hearing Sept. 24 featured plenty of questions and answers, as well as some conflicting testimony. It came roughly a month after Marble Cliff’s state of registration was officially changed from Ohio to Kentucky by The Jockey Club, and seemed to center on fact-finding.
On hand to testify were the official breeders of Marble Cliff: David and Diane Shashura, and Joe Sugar. Charlie Ruma, majority owner of Beulah Park in Ohio, co-owns Marble Cliff’s dam, Leza, with Sugar and the Shashuras, but wasn’t named as a co-breeder when the horse was registered. Ruma testified at an Aug. 21 hearing but not Sept. 24.
Koester, who led the questioning, methodically clicked through the nine horses in question, asking at times how they could be Ohio-registered when the dam was in Kentucky or the vet who treated the foal was in Kentucky and not licensed in Ohio, according to bills submitted as evidence. Diane Shashura, who completed the registration paperwork, repeatedly said mistakes were made.
“It was a mistake,” she told the commission. “Based on what was said before, it was a mistake in judgment.”
The Shashuras, who voluntarily attended the hearing, had already paid back the breeders’ awards earned by two of the horses that have raced, including Marble Cliff (by Jump Start). Their attorney, Carl Stich, noted that a July 22 letter to David Shashura from the OSRC indicated the matter had been “resolved” and “closed.”
Stich argued the letter serves as a government contract and is enforceable. He asked the OSRC not to take further action against the Shashuras.
“They have come here and have gotten beaten up pretty badly,” Stich said. “We would ask that you not try to get another pound of flesh from them.”
Racing commissioner Tom Zaino acknowledged the OSRC has the ability to further pursue the case, but in his opinion regarding the letter sent to the Shashuras, he said, “When the government does something, you should be able to rely on it.”
Tim Hill, the attorney for Sugar, made the case that Sugar, a minority owner of Beulah Park who has bred horses in partnership with the Shashuras for years, was not aware Marble Cliff or other horses weren’t Ohio foaled until he received an Aug. 1 letter from the OSRC stating the gelding’s Ohio registration had been revoked.
That letter was sent about two weeks after the OSRC received a letter from David Shashura that applications for the nine horses would be withdrawn because of “mistakes made in the application” for Ohio-foaled status.
Marble Cliff was sold for $40,000 at Keeneland in 2006. He was purchased by Ruma and Sugar in what amounted to them buying out the Shashuras.
Marble Cliff was listed on the catalog page as Ohio-eligible. Sugar testified he relied on the information on the catalog page and said he wouldn’t have participated in the false certification of a horse.
“Joe Sugar has told you he had no knowledge prior to receiving the letter that Marble Cliff was foaled outside Ohio,” Hill told the racing commission. “Mr. Sugar had no reason to doubt Mr. Shashura. I would recommend the commission take no further action and exonerate him.”
Testimony from David Shashura conflicted with that of Sugar, however. Under questioning from the commission, Shashura said he knew Marble Cliff was foaled in Kentucky well before the investigation that began this summer. “I’ve known from the day the horse was foaled,” he said.
When asked if he had told Sugar Marble Cliff wasn’t an Ohio foal, Shashura said: “Yes. I’ve told him on several occasions.”
Commissioner Ted Brown asked Shashura if he believed Sugar wanted the horse to be an Ohio-bred. “Yes,” Shashura replied.
During the Aug. 21 hearing, held at River Downs near Cincinnati, a transcript reflects that Ruma used the word “fraud” in discussing the foal registrations. The Shashuras weren’t present at the hearing, but David Shashura said he read the transcript.
“I was not happy to see I was thrown under the bus repeatedly,” Shashura said. “Throwing the word fraud around is something Mr. Ruma, Mr. Sugar, and I will have to settle at another time.”
Diane Shashura, again under questioning by commissioners, said she heard third-hand that other prominent breeders have registered horses foaled in other states as Ohio-foaled. The OSRC at the hearing gave no indication it plans to look into those allegations.
Marble Cliff, in training with William “Doug” Cowans, won four of five races, including the $100,000 Cleveland Gold Cup, and earned more than $109,000, all of which came in Ohio-registered races. The purse earnings were returned by Ruma and Sugar, who race under Foxwood Stable, and the gelding disqualified from all money finishes.
Ruma, a member of the advisory committee examining the registration process in Ohio, in August jokingly called Marble Cliff "the best maiden in America." The gelding, sidetracked by an infection in late July, could resurface at Churchill Downs in November.
The 3-year-old filly Houston Heist (by Cat Thief) was disqualified from her Ohio-registered races but kept her maiden victory, which came in open company at River Downs. Sugar is a principal in Shazam Stables, which owns Houston Heist.
The Jockey Club thus far has declined to comment on the Ohio breed registration cases. The organization, in its registry, has rules for “deceptive practices” but there is no indication there is a process for verifying where a horse is foaled.
The registry’s general rules state that certificates of foal registration “are issued on the basis of information submitted to The Jockey Club by the applicant and are subject to revocation and cancellation if further information is received by The Jockey Club indicating improper or erroneous issuance.”
Koester said OSRC research shows some states such as Pennsylvania have a stricter registration process than other states. In her testimony, Diane Shashura said the process in some states is more extensive than that of Ohio, but less extensive in others.
Other members of the Ohio advisory committee are Elisabeth Alexander, Gayle Babst, Dr. James Gabel, Tim Hamm, and George Smith. Hamm is president of the Ohio Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners, while Babst is the organization's executive director.
The registration issue has taken on more importance in recent years as states with alternative gaming bolster state-bred programs with tens of millions of dollars in purse money. The lures are inflated purses and easy pickings from a competition standpoint.