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NYRA’s Weighty Scandal

Times Staff Writer

The besieged New York Racing Assn. fired two veteran officials Wednesday after they were named in a 291-count state indictment that said they took cash bribes in exchange for allowing jockeys to ride as much as seven to 15 pounds overweight.

Mario Sclafani, clerk of scales at the New York tracks -- Belmont Park, Saratoga and Aqueduct -- and his assistant, retired Hall of Fame jockey Braulio Baeza, face maximum sentences of seven years apiece if found guilty. Sclafani, 48, and Baeza, 65, are alleged to have misstated jockeys’ weights 67 times for races that were run between June and December last year.

Some top jockeys, including Jose Santos, Cornelio Velasquez and Robby Albarado, were among the riders named in the indictment. The riders are unlikely to face criminal charges, officials said, but their state licenses could be in jeopardy and they might also be subject to sanctions from the NYRA.

The charges against Sclafani and Baeza come at a time when the New York tracks are already reeling from a scandal in which many of their mutuel clerks sought to avoid paying federal and state taxes. Twenty clerks were indicted and two department heads were fired in a scheme that went unchecked for about 10 years. NYRA paid a $3-million fine and avoided a criminal indictment when a court-appointed monitor said last week that the company, under new management, had made positive cleanup strides.

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The state license for NYRA, which had an operating loss of $16 million last year, expires at the end of 2007, and several companies, including Magna Entertainment Corp., the owner of Santa Anita and other tracks, are expected to vie with the current group for the franchise. Belmont Park is the host for the Breeders’ Cup races Oct. 29.

Sclafani, who entered a not-guilty plea at his arraignment Wednesday in Saratoga County Court, and Baeza, whose arraignment is scheduled for Oct. 6, could not be reached for comment.

Both men had been suspended since mid-January as the NYRA, in cooperation with Eliot Spitzer, New York’s attorney general, helped investigators piece together details of the scam.

“These two officials basically had one job to do,” Spitzer said Wednesday, “and that was to ensure that the weight of the jockey was recorded accurately and then disclosed to bettors. Instead, they misled the public and compromised the integrity of races run by NYRA.”

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According to New York rules, jockeys cannot ride if they are more than five pounds over the assigned weight.

Santos’ agent, Mike Sellitto, said Wednesday that the jockey could not be reached for comment, and Santos didn’t respond to a phone message. Other jockeys named by Spitzer were Herb Castillo Jr., Aaron Gryder, Ariel Smith, Pablo Fragoso and Oscar Gomez. Castillo’s agent didn’t return a phone call and attempts to reach Velasquez, who was riding at Belmont, were unsuccessful.

One of the races cited in the 195-page indictment was the $350,000 Cigar Mile Handicap at Aqueduct in November. Santos rode the winner, Lion Tamer, who according to the Equibase chart of the race carried 115 pounds, eight less than the high-weighted favorite, Pico Central, who finished third. Velasquez’s mount, Purge, finished sixth with a listed weight of 116 pounds.


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