Thoroughbred owner Michael Gill, ejected from Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course Feb. 2 by order of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission, said he has no intention of backing away from an announcement he’s leaving the business because it’s the only way to prove he’s not the problem.
Gill, the 2009 leading owner by races won and earnings with more than 2,200 starts, is being boycotted by members of the Penn National riding colony. The action began Jan. 23 after one of Gill’s horses fell at the wire, and other horses and riders had to avoid the fallen horse.
Gill has been permitted to enter horses at Penn National. He was able to find jockeys to ride them, but other jockeys wouldn’t ride the other horses entered in the races.
Gill said he received a call Feb. 2 from the PHRC asking him if he planned to scratch his horses entered for Feb. 3. He said he intended to race, and one hour later received the ejection notice from PHRC acting executive secretary Michael Dillon.
The notice states the ejection is based on information received from Penn National jockeys and the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association “regarding an ongoing controversy which will jeopardize the orderly conduct of the race meet at Penn National.” Gill has been asked to attend a Feb. 23 meeting with the PHRC and other officials.
Gill remains licensed and can continue to race at Philadelphia Park Casino & Racetrack.
“Every owner is going to be under a blanket,” Gill said of the ejection notice. “They can simply say, ‘You’re no good for racing, so you’re out.’ ”
Earlier Feb. 2, Gill said he had no choice but to announce he’s leaving the business, even though he is able to race at other tracks.
“The only way to show racing fans I’m 100% honest in what’s happening is for me to have to show all these horses I have will sell and go to other people that will race them,” Gill said. “The only way for the truth to come out is to show you Penn National will continue to have multiple breakdowns.”
Two Gill horses that recently broke down—Laughing Moon Jan. 23 and Melodeeman—were the focal point of a Jan. 30 meeting attended by Gill and officials with Penn National and the PHRC. The track and the PHRC have declined to comment on details of the meeting pending the results of an investigation.
Gill did comment on the meeting, saying he was told the necropsies of the two horses showed they had no pre-existing conditions that would have lead to the breakdowns.
“What I got was very obvious—I’ve been to enough meetings to know what an agenda is,” Gill said. “The agenda is about protecting the reputation of the racing surface at Penn National. They’re afraid breakdowns at Penn National are going to go public. Why else wouldn’t you go to the public (about the necropsy results) unless it supports your agenda?”
Eric Schippers, vice president of public affairs for Penn National owner Penn National Gaming Inc., said Feb. 3 the necropsy results are “one piece of the overall review by the racing commission and by (Penn National). Our review is ongoing, and will be part of the commission’s final report.”
Gill said his trainer, Anthony Adamo, entered nine horses for the Feb. 4 program at Penn National. One horse got in on a nine-race card with seven maiden races; Gill said he doesn’t have many maidens.
“They’re starving me out without proving I did anything wrong,” the owner said.
Schippers said he hadn’t heard that allegation and therefore couldn’t comment, but he did say Gill is able to race at Penn National pending the outcome of the PHRC probe. Schippers said he didn’t know when the investigation would be completed.
“I’m hoping it’s soon, maybe in time for the races (Feb. 3),” he said. “We’re not interested in running a race with one horse.”
That became a moot point when Gill received his ejection notice.
There have been no public complaints recently about the racing surface at Penn National, but it has been sore point in the past. Last year, the Pennsylvania HBPA presented the PHRC with a report that contained photos of the surface in poor condition, particularly when wet.
The track was resurfaced last year, and it wasn’t the first time. In 2008, a spate of breakdowns in August—the number of horses injured was disputed—led Penn National to shut down for six weeks to add material and repair parts of the underlying limestone base.
Problems resurfaced in 2009, but repair work apparently was successful. When asked Feb. 3 about the current state of the racing surface, Pennsylvania HBPA executive director Todd Mostoller called it “far superior” to what it was a year ago.
“The HBPA was a huge advocate (to correct) the problems of a year ago,” Mostoller said. “It’s night and day compared to what it was last year.”
Schippers said the racing surface issue is a “total red herring. We spent $600,000 resurfacing the track last fall, and it’s a safe track.”
Gill suggested a lack of pre-race exams at Penn National could be a factor as well. The PHRC, reorganized last year, is dealing with state budget cuts; it used to pay for necropsies for all horses that died at the track, but in the absence of funding, Penn National now pays the cost.
Dillon couldn’t be immediately reached for comment on commission protocol or the results of the Jan. 30 meeting with Gill.
National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance officials have said that if any racetrack applies for accreditation and fails to do pre-race exams, the application is a “non-starter.” Alliance executive director Mike Ziegler said Penn National and the state’s other two tracks haven’t applied for accreditation.
“None of them have applied, but I hope they do,” Ziegler said.
Schippers said applying for alliance accreditation is “part of an ongoing discussion.”
A few weeks before the Gill situation escalated, a review committee on safety was formed at Penn National. Members include a member of track management, a steward, the association veterinarian and state vet, and a representative of the Pennsylvania HBPA.
Mostoller said the committee, among other things, is looking into what may have contributed to breakdowns at Penn National.
“It’s something we put in place to get as much information as we can,” Mostoller said.
As for the Gill investigation, Mostoller said: “The commission is investigating and we will avail ourselves of the results of the investigation. Safety is of paramount importance to rider and horse. We don’t have any jurisdiction in the case; those are not HBPA stalls, and they’re not on HBPA property.”
Gill left the business in 2005 after winning an Eclipse Award as leading owner. He later purchased a training center in Oxford, Pa., and gradually built up his business again.
A recent walkthrough of the training center by officials found nothing wrong and the horses properly cared for, according to published reports.
Gill continues to race at Philadelphia Park, where the jockeys haven’t boycotted his entries. He noted that on a recent race day, two of four horses he raced were claimed, which leads him to question those who claim his horses are ready to collapse.
“I had a passion for this business, but how do you beat them?” Gill said. “They’re going to starve me out. And what would happen if another horse breaks down? I’m right back here again.
“I own a farm and am a taxpayer in Pennsylvania. I own the largest training center in the state. Where do I not qualify (to race)? I saw the future, and it doesn’t include me.”