For sheer intrigue, it was hard to beat last week's Maryland Racing Commission hearing.
The commission probed a group of New Englanders, who could have been billed as "the gang that could bet right" but who the commission said were involved in a betting coup last year at Laurel Race Course.
For starters, it probably was the longest proceeding that the commission has held. The meeting, at Timonium Race Course, lasted 14 hours.
It resulted in the largest fine the panel has imposed -- $5,000 levied against Frank Lussier, an automobile dealer from Montpelier, Vt., who said he likes to bet the horses.
The other principal in the alleged scam was not present: a young and successful trainer named Michael Downing, who is headquartered at Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H.
Essentially, three Downing-trained horses debuted in Maryland without anyone here able to connect the 2-year-olds to the New England horseman. It was an unusual series of events that, linked with insider information, duped the bettors of Maryland.
The facts, as laid out in testimony, were these:
Last year, Lussier purchased three 2-year-olds out of the Ocala sales -- Perfect Reign, a King Pellinore filly; The Manager, a filly by London Bells; and High Passer, a Pass Catcher colt.
Lussier gave the horses to Downing to train on a 60-40 deal. Downing would get 60 percent of the horses' earnings, and Lussier 40 percent. Lussier would pay no bills. This is a fairly typical arrangement.
"I don't know much about horses," Lussier said. "But I do know how to make money. My contention was to buy some babies and then bet on them. I told Downing to call me 'when they're ready.' "
When all three horses eventually made their first starts at Laurel, they were listed as working out at Delaware Park. None of the horses, however, ever was stabled at Delaware, the Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau reported, and the clocker there said only that a guy named John had instructed him to send the works to The Daily Racing Form for publication.
Though clockers are supposed to witness and record all workout times they submit, they often accept information from trainers or others partly because of the difficulty in identifying a large pTC number of horses.
Perfect Reign made his debut at Laurel on Nov. 26. She went off at 15-1 odds in the third race for $12,000 maiden claimers and won by 3 3/4 lengths. She paid $32.
However, the horse didn't race in either Downing's or Lussier's name.
Lussier said Downing told him that Perfect Reign had leg problems and was good for only one or two races. Downing sold her for $5,000 to Woodard Tuttle, a trainer at Suffolk Downs who also works as a track repairman. Tuttle ran her at Laurel as the owner-trainer. Lussier said he OK'd the sale as long as Tuttle put the filly in a race where he could bet on her and recoup his investment.
Lussier said he bet $5,400 on Perfect Reign and won $15,000. But he added that he didn't think her leg problems looked so bad and wanted her back. He purchased her from Tuttle after the race for $6,000. Lussier said Perfect Reign subsequently finished third in an allowance race in New York, but fractured a sesamoid, and he is now breeding her.
Lussier's second first-time starter, The Manager, appeared in the Laurel entries on Dec. 29. Lussier was listed as the owner, but a groom who worked for Downing named Jody Agnes Marsh was listed as trainer. Downing had planned a vacation in Venezuela and sent Marsh to Laurel with the horse.
Marsh arrived two days before the race, completed the necessary paper work for the horse and saddled her. The Manager's odds dropped from 20-1 to 4-1 by post time. She won the fifth race for $12,000 maiden claimers by three lengths and paid $10.
Downing shortened his vacation in Venezuela by one day and arrived at Laurel to see the animal run. Marsh said Lussier told her in the winner's circle that she was no longer the horse's trainer and that The Manager would be returned to Downing's barn at Rockingham. Lussier told the commission he won a similar $15,000 bet on The Manager.
Two days later, Lussier's third 2-year-old, High Passer, started at Laurel in the fifth race on Dec. 31. But he did not run as Lussier's property.
Lussier said he sold the colt to Carlisle Wisecarver III, a Laurel exercise rider who once worked on the New England circuit, for $10,000, payable in $1,000 monthly installments. It was a verbal agreement.
After High Passer finished third as the 3-1 second choice against $12,000 maiden claimers, Wisecarver said the horse didn't cool out well, and he returned him to Lussier.
Lussier said he bet on High Passer, but didn't cash any tickets. Lussier still owns The Manager and High Passer, who both have won since.
The commission decided that Marsh, Tuttle and Wisecarver were not guilty of rule infractions. Essentially, they were dupes in the scam.