Mike Gill was surprised, he said, when Hollywood Park issued him 11 stalls for the 30-day meet that opens today.
Horses owned by Gill have won 950 races in the last four years, but he is accustomed to being turned away. Belmont Park, Monmouth Park, Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park are among the tracks that have denied Gill’s horses stalls. Delaware Park responded to other horsemen’s objections about Gill’s aggressive claiming tactics, and there have also been suggestions that Gill has cheated his way to the top by staying one step ahead of the chemists who test racehorses for banned substances.
Southern California racing, like several racing jurisdictions on the East Coast, might be watching Gill’s operation closely, but the horse shortage on the West Coast prompts tracks here to welcome, at least temporarily, controversial newcomers.
Two of the Maryland-based Gill’s trainers, Nick Canani and Mark Shuman, recently claimed 23 horses during the second half of the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, a number appreciated by California racing secretaries, who struggle daily to put on attractive cards. One thing about Gill’s trainers: They’re known for running back their claims quickly.
Whether Gill’s invasion of California is good for the sport, or whether it disrupts the horse-claiming game as it did at Delaware Park last year, could be a topic for months to come.
In a telephone interview, Gill said that after Hollywood Park’s season ends on Dec. 21 he would also like to run his horses -- many of them grass runners and 2-year-olds just turning 3 -- in the Santa Anita meet that opens Dec. 26.
That might give Santa Anita officials pause. Santa Anita is owned by Magna Entertainment Inc., which also owns Gulfstream Park, a track Gill is suing. But then, Hollywood Park, which is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., has given Gill stalls, whereas Calder, also a Churchill track, has said it had no room.
Gill’s operation didn’t draw national attention until last winter, when he sent a large draft of horses to Gulfstream, one of the country’s premier tracks. When the meet was over, his trainer, Shuman, had won 87 races, breaking the record by 38.
But in February, a 9-year-old gelding trained by Shuman suffered a fatal breakdown, and minutes after the euthanasia Gill’s veterinarian amputated one of the dead horse’s legs. Gulfstream later barred the vet from practicing at the track.
Gill, Shuman and the vet were cleared when post-race tests produced no illegal drugs, but Gill has sued, claiming that track officials had not declared his innocence until after his lawyers had forced them to do so. Gill also has an antitrust suit pending against Delaware Park.
“They can call me brash, they can call me controversial,” Gill said. “There’s nothing in the rules that says they have to like me. But if anybody comes after me, they better get it right.”
Gill, 48, failed with a few businesses before he founded the Mortgage Specialists, a financing firm in his native New Hampshire that grosses more than $100 million a year. In 1995, Gill briefly trained his own horses, and the first one he raced tested positive for clenbuterol, a powerful windpipe dilator.
Gill, who was suspended for 80 days, professed his innocence.
“The first horse I ever saddled, and I’m going to fool around?” he says now. “Come on.”
By 2000, Gill had hired Shuman, a second-generation trainer who was then 29, and they began claiming horses and winning races by the dozens. Almost every horse Gill buys out of a race is given a myectomy, a minor throat operation that he says improves breathing and prevents bleeding from the lungs, a stress-induced condition that affects many racehorses.
Gill’s other trainer, Nick Canani, 29, is the son of Julio Canani, who has trained one Santa Anita Handicap winner and two winners of the Breeders’ Cup Mile. The younger Canani, who had his own stable in California, was hired last summer by Gill to run a division of horses at a training center in Maryland. It was Nick Canani who persuaded Gill to try California.
No matter what they do together in the year’s final weeks, Gill has the national title for most wins sewed up.
Through Sunday, Gill’s horses had won 384 races, 178 more than horses owned by Rick Englander, who’s second in the standings. With $8.2 million in purses, Gill also leads the money list. No. 2 on that list is Magna chairman Frank Stronach, with $6.6 million.
With a pool of 370 horses, Gill also wanted to run at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans this winter. Tracks don’t charge stall rent for horses, but they reserve the right, often supported by the courts, to turn trainers and owners down. The track allocated 44 stalls to Gill, but when he made a separate deal to rent additional outside space from trainer Louie Roussel, the former owner of the Fair Grounds, the track, according to Gill, cut him back to 12 stalls.
“That’s not enough for my operation,” Gill said. “So I’m paying $15,000 a month for Roussel’s stalls, even though I’m not going to be there. Roussel’s not letting me out of the lease.”
Hollywood Park Facts
* What: Hollywood Park’s 23rd autumn meet.
* When: 30 days, Today through Dec. 21. Dark days: Wednesday; Nov. 17-18, 24-25; Dec. 1-2, 8-9, 15-16.
* First post: 12:30 p.m., except 7 p.m. on Friday and Nov. 21, and 11 a.m. on Nov. 27.
* Stakes highlights: Saturday, $100,000 Hollywood Prevue; Nov. 22, $250,000 Hollywood Turf Cup; Nov. 27, $100,000 Vernon O. Underwood; Nov. 28, $150,000 Hollywood Turf Express and $100,000 Miesque; Nov. 29, $400,000 Citation Handicap and $100,000 Generous; Nov. 30, $500,000 Matriarch and $600,000 Hollywood Derby; Dec. 6, $100,000 Native Diver Handicap; Dec. 7, $150,000 Bayakoa Handicap; Dec. 20, $200,000 Hollywood Futurity and $150,000 Dahlia Handicap; Dec. 21, $200,000 Hollywood Starlet.
* Last year’s leaders: Trainer Doug O’Neill, 16 wins; jockeys Victor Espinoza and Alex Solis, 34 winners.