Thoroughbred racing is facing what appears to be its biggest crisis—a series of grand jury investigations in several states involving testimony about fixed races, hidden ownership of horses and druggings. Hundreds of witnesses, ranging from veterinarians, stewards and owners to some of the most successful jockeys and trainers in the country, have been questioned or have been under surveillance by federal and state law-enforcement agencies. Current and former famous jockeys such as Angel Cordero Jr., Jorge Velasquez, Braulio Baeza, Jacinto Vasquez, Mickey Solomone, Mike Venezia, Eddie Belmonte and Con Errico are among dozens under investigation.
The key witness against them is Tony Ciulla (pronounced shoo-la), a 6'3", 320-pound career fixer and the acknowledged mastermind behind the wholesale rigging, who is now under federal protection. Ciulla's testimony before a recent U.S. grand jury in Detroit helped bring about the seven-count indictment of eight co-conspirators, including jockeys Billy Phelps and Larry Kunitake and Trainer Michael Marion, for allegedly fixing races at Detroit Race Course and Hazel Park in 1973.
In New Jersey, Jockey Ralph Baker and Trainer John Salvaggio have pleaded guilty to charges of race fixing masterminded by Ciulla at Garden State Park in 1974 and 1975, and a State Superior Court jury in Mount Holly, N.J. is hearing testimony in a race-fixing case based on evidence primarily supplied by Ciulla.
Jockeys Kevin Daly, Paul Kallai, Frank Verardi, Steve Plomchok, Jesus Guadalupe and Ralph Ortiz Jr. are defendants, along with trainers Tony Famiglietti, Mickey Crock and Louis DePasquale.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice Organized Crime Strike Force have been working on various race-rigging cases since 1973, but the fixing was on such a massive scale that it has taken until now to fit the whole scheme together. By his own admission, Ciulla fixed several hundred races at 39 tracks across the country and was most active in the New York area between 1972 and 1975. His crew of intermediaries and runners was so large, the FBI discovered, that it cost Ciulla $6,000 a week for motel rooms, food, liquor, telephone calls and travel expenses.
Ciulla says his customary method of operation was to make sure certain horses—favorites when possible—lost so that he could win on long shots in exactas or trifectas. He claims that by means of bribes—as much as $6,000 for Cordero, who has won the Kentucky Derby twice, and as little as a couple of hundred dollars for lesser jockeys—he could control races such as the ninth at Aqueduct on April 7, 1975.
In that race, according to Ciulla, by bribing the jockeys to hold their horses back, he eliminated four horses, among them three of the leading choices, horses that most knowledgeable bettors would include when they tried to select the exact one-two-three finish to win the trifecta. Then Ciulla put only "live" horses in his $18 "box" tickets. Box tickets give the bettor every possible combination of three horses—and therefore a winning ticket no matter in what order the three horses finish—as long as they're among the first three. In order to maximize profits and to give Ciulla more options he also made other bets on the live horses.
According to Ciulla, Baeza kept Ham, the favorite, in fifth place, although with some difficulty; Velasquez put Bostons Boy in sixth; Cordero brought Saratoga Prince in 10th; and Venezia finished 11th and last on Sassy Prince. The payoff should have told people something. Ordinarily, the lucky bettors who had selected the unlikely winning combination would have received upwards of $3,000 per ticket. But the 475 or so tickets that Ciulla's runners bought on the winning combination reduced the trifecta's payoff to $632, giving him and his partners a net of about $200,000 from the mutuel pool of $539,206. The investment was between $20,000 and $25,000 in bribes and $48,000 in tickets, Ciulla says.
To hear Ciulla tell it, few, if any, riders could pull a horse as skillfully as Cordero could. "He'd have you thinking he was pumping and whipping and hustling more than anybody else in the race," Ciulla says, "but Cordero would almost be breaking the horse's jaw with his left hand and only fanning the horse with his whip. And Cordero always did the job, even if a few of those races looked suspicious." One such ride, Ciulla says, came in the ninth race at Aqueduct on April 10, 1975. "Cordero practically bent Greek Holiday in half to keep him out of the trifecta," says Ciulla.
Some of the races that Ciulla says he rigged at Aqueduct that spring did not go unnoticed, however. The New York State Racing and Wagering Board questioned John Cotter, a New York trainer, about drug and claiming violations for which he was subsequently fined $1,000. In the course of the questioning Cotter testified that he had seen horses pulled in New York.