Those awaiting owner Michael Gill to unload his sizable racing stable--as he claimed he would do amid a storm of controversy earlier this year--can stop. The nation's leading owner isn't going anywhere."I'm coming back bigger and badder," Gill promised Sept. 3, four months after indicating he would disperse his stable of over 250 horses. "If they think what we're doing now is something, wait until they see these babies."Gill was by far the leading buyer at this year's select 2-year-old sales, purchasing 40 horses for $4.6 million. His plans to leave the sport, which were made after several tracks denied him stalls and Delaware Park banned his horses from entering races, were scrapped after watching those juveniles develop over the summer. "I love horse racing and a lot of these young horses are really getting good," Gill said. "It's like the old trainer said, 'nobody commits suicide with a good 2-year-old in the barn.' Maybe that has something to do with me staying in."Gill, currently the leading owner at Monmouth Park, has shown he is not going away by filling up the claim box at Calder Race Course in recent weeks. He said the expansion of his Pennsylvania farm to 140-stalls and the support of tracks in Maryland has allowed him to continue his stable."I don't need the stalls. I'm a little more independent now," said Gill, whose next objective is a full-throttle assault on Fair Grounds, which begins its meet Nov. 27.
"Fair Grounds has invited us, so we're also planning to go down there with 80 or 90."Gill first hinted at leaving the sport in late April after he filed two lawsuits--one against Gulfstream Park and another against Delaware Park. Gill sparked controversy among horsemen at Gulfstream when he and trainer Mark Shuman shattered the meet's records in their respective categories through aggressive claiming tactics. The pair would claim a horse and run it back at a lower price, which usually resulted in the pair adding another winner's circle photo to their collection. The practice did not sit well with other horsemen, who argued they could not compete with someone so willing to trade monetary losses for wins. Rumors of backstretch chicanery also began to swirl around the stable.It reached a public forum when Gulfstream launched an investigation against Gill, Shuman, and veterinarian Phillip Aleong. The track banned Aleong from the grounds for amputating the leg of a Gill horse after it broke down in a race, but Shuman and Gill were cleared of wrongdoing when subsequent drug tests showed nothing. Gill sued Gulfstream for not announcing the results in a timely manner, which he claims led other tracks to turn away his business. Gill later sued Delaware Park for its decision to deny Gill's horses from entering races. He said depositions have begun in both suits. Shuman, who will not accompany the stable to Fair Grounds this winter (a trainer has not yet been selected) but will stay in the Mid-Atlantic, said Gill nearly quit the sport because of concern for his family. But the thought of letting his many detractors get their way swayed his decision."This hasn't been just hard on him, but his entire family," Shuman said. "But he finally called me up one day and said 'Mark, I'm not a quitter and I'm not going to let these people make me quit." Several offers were made to purchase Gill's entire stable and farm in Pennsylvania, including one for $17 million, but they were all turned down. Gill said he was low-balled by potential buyers because they knew he was looking to get out."I had a couple of interested parties, even a 30-day option at one point, but everybody knew the circumstances," Gill said. "They were offering only 30 or 40 cents on the dollar and I'm not having them steal anything."
Gill maintains the sparring he has done this year with tracks and horsemen has been a game of high-stakes poker and this summer he used the game's most characteristic strategy."When they raised (by denying stalls), I called them by buying my own training track," Gill said. "When Delaware raised again, it looked like I was going to fold. But there is another aspect of poker--it's called bluffing, and everyone missed it."