When Mark Gerard was studying to be a veterinarian at Cornell University, he helped make ends meet during the summers by working as an exercise rider at Belmont Park on Long Island in New York. One of the horsemen he worked for was the Hall of Fame trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.
Across the street from Belmont was Esposito's, a rickety bar that was like a second home for many racetrackers. Esposito's also served a cheap breakfast, for a buck and a half, and Gerard could be found there many mornings, wolfing it down.
"He couldn't afford a nickel more," the late John Esposito, owner of the bar, once said. "We'd give him free Cokes to wash it down. I didn't think he'd ever turn out the way he did."
After Cornell, Gerard launched a veterinary practice in New York. He tended to at least three horses — Secretariat, Riva Ridge and Canonero II — that won the Kentucky Derby. He was the vet for Kelso, a five-time winner of horse-of-the-year honors.
But a $200,000-a-year practice wasn't enough, and in 1977 Gerard put over one of the biggest betting coups in New York history, running a champion from South America in a cheap horse's name and collecting almost $80,000 on bets. He put it over, that is, until racing officials investigated. For running a very good horse under the name of a cheap plater, Gerard was sentenced to a year in prison. He was only in his 40s, but his career as a caretaker for marquee horses was over.
Gerard spent many of the ensuing years away from the track, treating polo ponies in California and Florida. He was still at work on June 6 when he suffered a stroke at a stable in Wellington, Fla. Gerard died Tuesday at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, said his sister, Joyce Aimee Titchnell of Los Angeles. He was 76.
"I get the feeling that he must be a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," said Jack Price, the owner and trainer of 1961 Kentucky Derby winner Carry Back, when he was once asked about Gerard by Sports Illustrated. "Certain things [about the ringer case] make no sense whatsoever. Why would a vet with such a practice risk his career?"
On a dank, rainy day at Belmont Park on Sept. 23, 1977, a horse listed in the program as Lebon came thundering down the stretch to win a grass race by four lengths. Any of the 12 horses in the field could have been claimed (bought) for $16,000, but there were no takers for the winner, who if he really had been Lebon had not won a race in 10 months and had finished next to last two weeks before, in his U.S. debut.
It turned out that Cinzano, the 3-year-old champion in Uruguay the year before, was masquerading as Lebon. The winner paid $116 for a $2 bet. According to the program, he was owned and trained by Jack Morgan, a young horseman who had once worked for Gerard as an assistant. Morgan, who eventually was exonerated in the scheme, said that he thought he was running the real Lebon, adding that his betting profit on the race was less than $2,000.
So where was the real Lebon while Cinzano was shocking the bettors at Belmont? Quite likely, investigators said, his remains were covered by thousands of tons of garbage at a dump in Huntington, N.Y. In June, the day after the two horses were flown from Uruguay to New York, Gerard reported that one of them, which he identified as Cinzano, had died at his farm in Muttontown, N.Y., after fracturing his skull.
Even before his score at Belmont, Gerard had made a profit on both horses. He bought Lebon for $1,600 and sold him to Morgan for $9,500. He paid $81,000 for Cinzano and sold him to Joseph Taub of Tenafly, N.J., for $150,000. In August, a couple of months after the horse died in Muttontown, Taub was paid in full on a $137,000 insurance policy he had bought from Lloyds of London.
After the ringer race, Gerard's girlfriend (he was separated from his wife) told friends that she flushed some of their winning tickets down the toilet, for fear that cashing all of them would draw undue attention at the betting windows, but it was the last race of the day, and Gerard, with tickets that cost $1,900 in his hand, took a chance by going to a clerk who didn't know him. Trouble was, the clerk didn't have enough cash to pay off, so he sent a runner to the money room. The runner, who also galloped horses in the mornings, recognized Gerard when he returned. "Hi, doc," he said. "Nice hit."
Gerard's scam began to unravel when a winner's circle photo of the horse appeared in South American newspapers. Lebon and Cinzano were a year apart in age, but they were both bays and closely resembled each other, except for the white stars on their faces, which were shaped differently. Almost three weeks after the race, a reporter in Uruguay alerted the Belmont Park stewards that, based on the marking, the real Lebon was not the winner of the race.
Gerard, whose legal team included F. Lee Bailey, was convicted for making a false entry "in a contest of speed," which was a misdemeanor. He was acquitted of the felony charge of defrauding Lloyds of London.
Cinzano, who was banned because he had run under the wrong name ("They gave the trainer a year and the horse life," one wag said), was sold to a New Jersey man who had hoped to run him as a steeplechaser, but the jump-race crowd wanted no part of him either. So by 1980, Cinzano was running — and winning — in betless point-to-point races in Virginia. By then, the joke that had made the rounds in New York had run its course: "Have you heard about the new cocktail called a ringer? It's Cinzano on the rocks, but it doesn't look like it."
Gerard, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Oct. 6, 1934, is survived by his sister and his wife of 41 years, Alice.
Christine is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.