SI Vault
Trotting's long-deferred cleanup gets fresh impetus, as two letters are delivered and WAR IS DECLARED
Jeremiah Tax
September 10, 1956
Lawrence Baker Sheppard of Hanover, Pa. is a lean, large-eared 58-year-old whose face has the color and skin the consistency of old saddle leather. This is entirely appropriate for a man who has been a horseman all his life, president of the U.S. Trotting Association for six years and who owns the Hanover Shoe Farm, largest horse breeding farm in the country.
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September 10, 1956

Trotting's Long-deferred Cleanup Gets Fresh Impetus, As Two Letters Are Delivered And War Is Declared

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As the New York press, which had had a field day with the previous scandals, began running headlines like TRACK BAN DEFIED BY RACKETEERS, Governor Averell Harriman stepped in with a request to Monaghan that he furnish a full accounting of his stewardship. It was a moot point whether Monaghan had indeed been zealous in attempting to rid the tracks of questionable stockholders, but his record as commissioner includes some highly creditable accomplishments along similar lines, especially for a man who admittedly knew nothing at all about harness racing before he took the job. He had dissolved an interlocking corporate empire which for years had monopolized trotting in New York. He had set up a system of fingerprinting and investigation of all applicants for licenses under which literally hundreds of unsavory characters had been denied participation in the sport. He had moved vigorously, if not always wisely, on the few occasions when allegations of race-fixing had been brought to his attention.

All of these, however, would not help him with a state administration sensitive to newspaper charges of "racketeering," and Lawrence Sheppard was meanwhile prepared to open fire on another front—the management and conduct of racing at Batavia Downs, midway between Rochester and Buffalo in upstate New York.

The president of Batavia Downs is Pat Provenzano, a self-admitted large-stakes bettor who for years drew over $8,000 from the state as assistant secretary of the Senate and $25,000 from the track at the same time. To buy control of Batavia, Provenzano borrowed the money he needed from four men, three of whom were either bookies, convicted operators of illegal gambling establishments or had other types of police records—and all of whom either were, or still are, stockholders in the track. The executive vice-president and a large stockholder is James O. Marra, whose presence the Moreland Commission deemed inimical to the sport because of his background as race track tout and suspected bookie, and a police record that includes arrests for petit larceny, pocketpicking and vagrancy. The 23% of Batavia's stock that Marra owns was a gift to him from Provenzano. Another big stockholder and director of the track is Harold Wishman who, with his brother Jack (an original Batavia investor), owns a cigar store in nearby Rochester where they have been arrested a total of 15 times (Harold three, Jack 12) for keeping slot machines and punch boards, handling lottery slips (numbers) and other gambling devices.

The situation at Batavia is completely unlike that at Yonkers and Roosevelt, where so-called undesirables have nothing whatever to do with track management. This may be the reason why the quality of racing at Batavia also suffers miserably by comparison. For years now, a clique of drivers and bookmakers have been setting up races there and cashing in on betting coups. Since it is unimportant which horse wins a particular race, they will often fix it for a driver who isn't in on the scheme at all. As one such "outside" driver put it recently: "I've driven in races and won, and afterward some of the other drivers will say to me, 'You didn't know it was your turn to win tonight, did you?' " One high USTA official has told of sitting in the stands and watching one of his own horses shooed in in a race he would not have won otherwise.

Last fall, after he had been commissioner for two full seasons and had frequently characterized Batavia's management as being devoted to clean racing, George Monaghan decided it was time to do something about Batavia. Heralded by a fanfare of press releases, he headed a task force upstate that created a good deal of fuss and accomplished practically nothing so far as the conduct of the racing was concerned. He suspended the license of one horse owner who was not a part of the clique described above and left the general situation exactly as he had found it.

Since honest horsemen have been complaining about the situation for years, Lawrence Sheppard's USTA and George Monaghan's Racing Commission must share responsibility for Batavia's plight. Instead of joining forces to clean it up, they have aimed charges at each other—Monaghan implying that the USTA had tolerated suspicious goings-on at Batavia for a long time (true) and the USTA accusing Monaghan of whitewashing the track's management (also true).

Behind the headline charges which have forced track owners to take sides with Monaghan, and horsemen to line up with Sheppard, is an all-out struggle for ultimate control of harness racing. Since its organization in 1938, the USTA has been the sport's nationwide ruling body, licensing participants, judges and tracks and disciplining its members. Monaghan makes no bones about his plan to strip from the USTA all of its administrative functions and reduce it to the status of a stud-book and record-keeping agency. If he succeeds in this in New York, the same battle will undoubtedly be fought out in all of the 11 other states which have pari-mutuel betting on trotting. Already repercussions have been felt in Illinois, which has now (SI, Aug. 20) fallen heir to the rich Hambletonian Stakes, trotting's most important annual event. E. Roland Harriman, the New York governor's younger brother and president of the Hambletonian Society, has announced that the race will be moved to Du Quoin because of "the unsatisfactory conditions under which harness racing is being administered in New York at the present time"—a statement aimed squarely at George Monaghan.

The administration of harness racing in Illinois, however, is itself ripe for investigation. Back in 1951, acting on a tip from the Kefauver crime committee, a Chicago newspaper disclosed that nine state legislators were large stockholders in Chicago Downs raceway, which had been organized by an ex-convict who had served a sentence for grand larceny. The same nine had been influential in passage of legislation which paved the way for the raceway to get its license and a monopoly on choice summer racing dates. They had purchased their stock for 10¢ a share, subsequently earning phenomenal dividends. Through the front-page scandal that followed, everyone concerned had simply sat tight and done nothing. A recent survey by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reveals that practically all the legislators and the 30-odd other stockholders who were state officials of varying prominence are still collecting dividends on their dime-store investments. The Illinois Harness Racing Commission, consisting of three businessmen who can only give part-time service to their unsalaried jobs, has neither the personnel nor the funds to supervise the sport adequately. What this means was succinctly described last year by one commissioner: "Harness racing in the past seven years here has been simply a matter of do what you want."

In all of the intrasport wrangling and newspaper comment, one key fact has been overlooked almost completely. Big-time harness racing flourishes today because the U.S. public bets close to a half billion dollars on the trotters and pacers each year. To make this possible, the various state governments have passed legislation exempting betting on horse racing from their antigambling statutes. Any other form of gambling is a crime, with stiff penalties. There has always been—and undoubtedly always will be—a considerable number of Americans who do not approve of legalized gambling. And each time the racing interests permit their sport to deteriorate to scandalous proportions or air their family squabbles in print, the antigambling groups renew their efforts to abolish pari-mutuel betting.

It is not necessary to pass on the merits of legalized gambling to realize that the end of pari-mutuel betting would mean the virtual collapse of harness racing, a sport which has endured and grown in this country for more than 150 years and is just now approaching major league status. All of trotting's dissident groups would be well advised first to compose their differences and then work together to foster the public confidence which alone supports the sport. Any other course could, in the long run, prove fatal.

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