Allan Levey, the chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission, said yesterday that he feels it would be "very difficult" for any owner or trainer to duplicate the betting scam that brought about four federal indictments this week against a group of New England horsemen who appeared at Laurel Park four years ago with three "phantom horses."
The group cashed bets on two of the three winning first-time starters at Laurel and in casinos at Las Vegas after falsifying workouts on the animals and making them appear to be long shots.
But in Las Vegas, Brian Callaghan, executive director of the Pari-Mutuel Association, which represents about 40 Nevada racebooks, said conditions still exist that make the same kind of scam possible "although the probability is less likely now" in the era of commingled betting pools throughout the country.
Although the correct animals showed up at Laurel, the owner, Frank Lussier, and his trainer, Michael Downing, allegedly disguised their connection to the horses, listing other stable personnel as their owner and trainer. Workouts on the horses, who purportedly had been stabled at Delaware Park, appeared in the Daily Racing Form, although it later was proven that the horses were never at the track.
Lussier and Downing then allegedly made bets on the horses at the Las Vegas outlets, which before the era of commingled pools, paid off on the odds at Laurel. But, as one racing official said, the group made "one really dumb move." They also bet on the horses at Laurel, which instead of driving the horses' odds up, actually drove them down.
"If they wanted to be smart about it," the official said, "they would have bet on the other horses in the race, and driven the odds up on their horses."
Now every bet placed either in Maryland or at simulcast outlets throughout the country, including many Las Vegas casinos, shows up on the odds board at all of the locations before each race and one common price is paid.
But, Callaghan said, "there are still a number of casinos [about 30 in Nevada] that don't belong to the Pari-Mutuel Association. A lot of them still take house bets, which typically pay off on the racetrack odds of the horses.
"But," Callaghan added, "those houses notice pretty early on any unusual betting patterns. They know their clientele pretty well and do what we call 'booking to faces.' They are good at risk management and will notice something that could hurt the house."
Although the Maryland commission imposed the maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine on the allegedly fraudulent owner, the Lussier case did not result in stiffer workout or hidden ownership rules.
In Maryland, a first-time starter only has to have one published workout within 30 days of a race.
"I'd like to see more workouts, but we don't have the manpower to do it," Levey said. Filling the Maryland live card each day, especially during a horse shortage, relies on a number of animals shipping in from various training centers or tracks either in or out of state "and we can't control what happens at all of these places."
If someone wants to disguise a first-time starter's ability, it is still easy enough to do.
In Maryland, the rule of thumb is to watch the odds board on first-time starters and see if a horse is drawing an inordinate amount of play.
L The simulcast era, too, has brought the racing world closer.
Levey is confident more stringent rules aren't necessary.
"This case set off an alarm bell at tracks all over the East Coast and at the Daily Racing Form, whose integrity is at stake. I think there is closer scrutiny now of workouts and closer attention being paid to who owns these horses. I think this case was an aberration. Nothing happened like it before," he said, "and nothing has happened like it since."