Never Can Say Goodbye

By Larry Levin
What does a jockey have to do to be banned from Thoroughbred racing?

That question came to mind with the news that admitted race-fixer Jose Amy had returned to the winner's circle at Aqueduct. Amy was at the center of a major scandal involving New York races run in 1974 and 1975. In 1978, Sports Illustrated published a story naming a number of riders who allegedly pulled their mounts in order for an organized crime syndicate to cash exotic wagers omitting the eliminated horses. In March 1980, following a five-year FBI investigation, a federal grand jury indicted jockey Con Errico as the ringleader in New York. Amy became the key figure testifying against Errico.

At Errico's trial, Amy admitted he had taken bribes to pull his horses in seven races in 1974 and 1975. He said that he had discussed fixing races with 11 other named riders, including some of the most prominent members of New York's jockey colony. Amy also acknowledged he had perjured himself before the grand jury on four occasions "for the protection of my friends."

The jury convicted Errico, who received a 10-year prison sentence. On the strength of Amy's testimony, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board suspended his riding license.

The Board also took action against Jacinto Vasquez, one of the riders identified by Amy at Errico's trial. Jockey Eddie Maple testified that Vasquez had offered him a bribe. Trainer John Cotter testified that in 1974 jockey Michael Hole told him in the Saratoga walking ring that Hole had been offered $5,000 to hold Cotter's horse. Cotter asked Hole who offered him the bribe and Hole pointed directly at Vasquez. (Hole died in 1976 in what was reported to be a suicide.)

The Board suspended Vasquez for one year. Vasquez claimed that he was a scapegoat and fought the penalty for years before finally serving the time. None of this prevented Vasquez from being inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1998.

One would think that if anything merited a lifetime ban it would be race-fixing. In 1980, the year Errico received his 10-year sentence and Amy lost his New York license, The Blood-Horse noted editorially that the penalty for race-fixing everywhere was lifetime expulsion, except in Maryland. The Blood-Horse reviewed the 1975 Valentine's Day race-fixing scandal in Maryland, which resulted in imprisonment for jockeys Luigi Gino, Ben Feliciano, and Jesse Davidson as well as suspensions for other participants, and criticized the eventual reinstatement of the offending parties. In 1980, readmittance following race-fixing was so unusual that Maryland stood out as an oddity.

Not so a quarter of a century later. For years, Amy apologists criticized the New York racing authorities for being too harsh in rejecting Amy's repeated applications for a license. Amy's quest to return to the saddle in New York began shortly after his 1980 suspension when he sued the New York State Racing and Wagering Board. Amy claimed the Board could not give him a fair hearing because it was prejudiced against him, ignoring the fact that the Board was using Amy's own sworn testimony that he engaged in race-fixing. The court dismissed Amy's case, but he continued trying for more than 20 years until New York finally relented.

If fixing a race is not grounds for lifetime expulsion, then what is? Baseball regained the public's trust after the Black Sox scandal by issuing lifetime bans to eight Chicago White Sox players for throwing the 1919 World Series. The most prominent individual was Shoeless Joe Jackson, considered by his contemporaries to be one of the best players ever and still the holder of the third best lifetime batting average. More than 80 years later, baseball still refuses to honor Jackson with induction into the Hall of Fame, in contrast with racing's honoring of Jacinto Vasquez.

Owners and trainers must submit to background checks to be licensed, including in some cases giving fingerprint samples. They have to wonder who is being excluded from Thoroughbred racing.

If it isn't those who fix races, just who is unfit to receive a license?

LARRY LEVIN is a Thoroughbred owner and breeder in Lexington.