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Top racehorse owner ousted from Pa. track

By Maryclaire Dale
Associated Press Writer / February 2, 2010

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OXFORD, Pa.—Pennsylvania horse racing authorities ousted the top-earning owner in the sport from one of its tracks amid a series of horse breakdowns and a boycott by jockeys worried about safety.

Embattled owner Michael Gill, who won 370 races last year and earned $6.7 million, and his lead trainer were ejected Tuesday from Penn National Race Course after most of the competing jockeys refused to ride against his mounts. The Pennsylvania Racing Commission investigated and announced its decision late Tuesday afternoon.

"What's gone on here is just dirty business and dirty politics," Gill, who owns a New Hampshire-based mortgage company, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

"It's something I've dealt with in racing before," said Gill, who has quarreled with other tracks and has left the racing industry at least once before. "It serves me right for coming back in and thinking things would be different."

Gill is being investigated by the state racing commission and Penn National after 10 of his horses broke down on the track over 13 months. Several jockeys racing behind his horses have been thrown from their rides, most recently on Jan. 23, when a horse named Laughing Moon went down just after a third-place finish.

Jockeys immediately huddled after the tragic finish -- which sent several jockeys tumbling off their mounts and at least one to the hospital -- and announced their protest.

Gill denied suggestions he uses Penn National as a dumping ground to eke out a few wins from cheap or late-career horses. He instead blamed Laughing Moon's demise on the track, which hosts racing four nights per week throughout the often-harsh central Pennsylvania winter.

Laughing Moon, he said, pulled a suspensory ligament in a leg when the horse hit an ice patch.

"Penn National has a history of that track being bad, and horses breaking down," Gill said.

He voluntarily withdrew his horses from Penn National last week, but planned to return with horses in four races Wednesday. But nearly all of the other jockeys in those races scratched, leaving Penn National with 36 horses listed without a rider.

"Clearly, the jockeys and equine athletes should not be put in a position of participating in events that involve their health, safety and welfare, and where their riding strategy is compromised, until the commission's investigation is complete," the Penn National jockeys wrote in a letter to the racing commission on Friday. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter.

About 30 jockeys are based at the track. Jockey Tom Clifton, who spilled trying to avoid Laughing Moon, dismissed the slipped-on-ice claim. He called Gill's criticism of the track surface "a red herring."

Gill noted that he's had few if any breakdowns at Philadelphia Park and at Charles Town Races and Mountaineer Park in West Virginia.

And, he said, the necropsies conducted on Laughing Moon and a horse named Melodeeman, which broke down days earlier at Penn National, turned up nothing suspicious. He insisted that he does not use any illegal drugs on his animals and said he takes good care of them at his training facility in southern Chester County.

"The autopsies of my horses -- they were clean, they were sound," Gill said, referring to the two deaths in January.

Penn National defended the condition of its track.

"I think the fact that the jockeys are pointing to Mr. Gill and not the track sort of speaks for itself," said Eric Schippers, vice president for public affairs at parent Penn National Gaming Inc.

Gill typically ran about five horses a night at Penn National, where he kept 49 stalls. He had about 1,000 starts last year over 200 racing days, track officials have said.

Gill parted company last week with one of his two lead trainers at Penn National, Darrell Delahoussaye. The other one, Tony Adamo, was on the job Tuesday, moving from the Grantville stables in the morning to Gill's large training facility in Oxford by afternoon. Adamo attributes the anti-Gill sentiment to envy. Gill has made millions in the sport at the expense of others, he said.

"For Mike to get out, it just bothers me, because there's nothing we do that's illegal," Adamo, 38, said at the Oxford facility, where the stalls were starting to empty out as Gill trimmed his operation. "We do everything by the book."

Gill, the 2005 Eclipse Award winner as the sport's top owner, has owned as many as 400 racehorses, but said he now has about 100. He plans to sell the rest off quickly, he said. But he predicts the breakdowns at Penn National will continue.

"The guys yelling the loudest will be buying the most," he said. "I'll sell them all. Then you watch these horses break down still."