Last Saturday afternoon in his spacious second-floor office at Gulfstream Park, in Hallandale Beach, Fla., track president Scott Savin paused in mid-sentence and turned to the television monitor behind him. Tasty Caberneigh, a 5-year-old gelding trained by Mark Shuman, was rallying in the deep stretch to take a race. "Shuman just wins," said Savin, laughing and shaking his head, "but it's like Mark McGwire. People thought, He must be on steroids. Anytime somebody's doing something that's never been done before, it's a source of conspiracy theories."
Shuman's unprecedented success—with 52 winners through Sunday, he has trampled the Gulfstream meet record of 39—has intensified the suspicion and envy surrounding him and the brash owner for whom he exclusively works, Mike Gill. While there's no direct evidence of wrongdoing by Shuman, 32, or Gill, circumstantial factors (horses improving dramatically after entering Shuman's stable; the banning of one of Shuman's vets for improperly storing medications; past drug suspensions for Shuman and Gill) have created speculation. As trainer Peter Walder said, "Am I suspicious? Yeah. Everybody is."
Shuman and Gill, 47, a New Hampshire mortgage broker, insist they're on the level. Says Gill, "If I come up with one bad test, I'll get out of the business." He's too late for that. In 1995 Gill was banned for three years by the New Hampshire Parimutuel Commission after one of his horses tested positive for a performance enhancer. Shuman got a 15-day suspension in Maryland last April after two of his entries tested positive for a banned muscle relaxant. Then there was the bizarre event of Feb. 3 when Shuman's 9-year-old Casual Conflict broke down on the Gulfstream track and was euthanized immediately. Shuman vet Philip Aleong ran out and sawed off part of the right foreleg before it could be inspected by track vets. Later Aleong surrendered the leg, and it was sent along with the body for a necropsy, the results of which have not been released.
Shuman and Gill say they're being targeted not for any of those incidents but because peers don't like Gill's aggressive claiming tactics. Horses entered in claiming races may be purchased for a price ranging from $5,000 to $100,000, commensurate with the caliber of the race. Because Gill has a large bankroll and a huge stable, he can buy and sell horses with rapid turnover. The approach allows Shuman to run horses below value—a $40,000 claimer, say, may run at $25,000, a level at which he's more likely to succeed. The size of Gill's stable mitigates fear of having one of his horses claimed because he can absorb the loss; conversely, Gill's willingness to claim from anybody else forces rivals to run horses at or above value to protect their property. "It's a poker game," says Shuman, "and we've got the biggest stack." Gill is unrepentant. "I don't care. I'll run these guys out of business," he says. "Ill win 100 races at Gulfstream; I'll set a record that will never be broken. Then every time these knuckleheads come to the track, they'll have to think of me."