Sentimentality occasionally trumps the rule book. Umps stood by like fanboys, for example, when Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter headed from the dugout to the mound to perform what is technically the coaches-only job of pulling Mariano Rivera from his last game. And Huskies women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma felt comfortable making a hoop-for-a-hoop pact with an opposing coach so UConn’s Nykesha Sales, recently ruptured Achilles and all, would get an uncontested layup and the two points she needed to own the school’s career scoring record. Then there’s Ryan Ostrowski, a teen with autism and cerebral palsy, who went untouched on a prefab touchdown run for the Macomb Mustangs, his brother’s club football team in Michigan. Cheers/tears/YouTube clicks abounded. Hearts were warmed all over.
But don’t try that shit in horse racing.
Just about everybody at Fairmount Park on July 23 was rooting for My Kentucky Breeze to take the second race. A win for the filly meant racing history for her rider, Robert A. “Cowboy” Jones. At 70, Jones was looking to become the oldest jockey ever to win a Thoroughbred race in this country, as well as the first to post wins in seven separate decades.
My Kentucky Breeze, a five-year-old with zero career wins, was entered in a one-mile race for $5,000 maiden claimers.1 The race was part of a weekday card at the humble Collinsville, Illinois, track, which has been in operation since 1925 yet means nothing to racing fans outside the St. Louis market. Fairmount Park’s management works hard and with some success to draw crowds, though the small betting pools indicate that the folks who show up are intrigued more by the track’s cheap beer and all-you-can-eat promotions than by the quality of the racing. The course was bought in 2000 by the board chairman of Ralston Purina, one of the world’s biggest dog-food canners. Given the sad fate of non-regally bred animals once they leave a track of Fairmount Park’s ilk, one might view that acquisition as an attempt to eliminate the middle man.
“Fairmount Park is the end of the world for your horses,” says Greg Szymski, owner of Magnificent Mandy, another of the horses in Jones’s big race.
Cowboy Jones had never been picky about where he rode or who he rode on, and was in no spot to get selective so late in his career. Racing is no sport for old men. With a hump back and severely bowed legs being the most visible byproducts of a life in a rough game, Jones looked his age as My Kentucky Breeze’s connections helped him in the saddle.
“He’s fit for a guy 70 years old,” My Kentucky Breeze’s trainer, Steve Fridley, told me. “But he’s 70 years old.”
Jones had figured out what he wanted to do with his life when he was 13 and saw a kid in his Herrin, Illinois, neighborhood riding a pony. Within months he and his big brother, Itchy, who would grow up to manage a college baseball powerhouse at Southern Illinois University, had saved up $65 from mowing lawns and delivering newspapers and spent it on a horse they named Luigi. The brothers kept Luigi in a pen in the backyard of their family’s home. Cowboy says the oversize house pet got him dreaming for the first time of career options beyond the coal mines or the railroads. The horse trader who sold him Luigi made the dreams real when he got Jones, still in his midteens, work jockeying at racing meets in county fairs in the late 1950s. He’s been riding cheap horses in cheap races at tracks few cared about ever since.
“I never dealt with big trainers at big tracks,” Jones says. “I was always the big fish at the small pond, and that’s all I ever wanted. I loved it.”
Through the years, he’d been a part of jockey colonies at pretty much every small track in the Midwest, but he had his best days at Ellis Park, the Henderson, Kentucky, loop where Jones rode beginning in 1959. A big sign greets anybody who walks into the jocks’ room there: “Home of R.A. Cowboy Jones.” That sign was painted and hung in 1965. He won three riding titles at Ellis Park, but the last one came back in 1972. The track was opened in 1922, and its heyday isn’t recent, either. The single-day attendance record of 18,000 patrons set in 1951 still stands. Some jocks have used Ellis Park as a springboard: Calvin Borel, who rode three Kentucky Derby winners in the last decade, was a regular. But Jones never looked to move up in class, and the folks around Ellis Park love him. He was celebrated with his own bobblehead day there in 2003; he was out for the season at the time with a broken leg, but got on a horse, cast and all, to parade in front of the grandstand anyway.
“The only time I took vacation is when I broke a bone,” he says.
He got a lot of days off. Jones says he’s broken 83 bones in racing accidents, including arms and hands and all his fingers. The wound that had him sidelined on bobblehead day was one of at least eight layoffs for broken legs, and he’s suffered “a few” broken backs and the occasional ruptured pelvis. “I was 5-foot-9 and looked normal when I started,” he says. “I’m 5-foot-2 now. After 54 years in racing, I finally look like a jockey.”
There is no mandatory retirement age for jockeys — Gary Stevens came back this year after an eight-year layoff and at 50 rode winners in the 2013 Preakness Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But 50 ain’t 70. Jones learned the hard way that few stables were willing to turn over control of their 1,200-pound animals to a rider so long in the tooth. His race mounts began tailing off 30 years ago — Jones hasn’t had a 500-ride season, a decent workload for a full-time jockey, since 1984, and his last 100-ride year came in 1995. But he stayed busy by picking up jobs as an exercise rider, a gig that pays about $10 a horse and requires waking up before the sun’s out. Even in the less glamorous role, Jones proved himself a dependable worker bee. “Cowboy’s here at 6:30 six days a week,” Ralph Simpson, Ellis Park’s stalls superintendent, tells me. “He’d be here seven days, but the track’s closed that one day.”
By taking all the sunrise assignments and hanging out at the track, Jones kept his weight down and let owners and trainers at Ellis Park know that he was available if a jockey were ever needed. For the last decade, he’s been designated as the track’s “house jockey,” meaning a guy who is on the premises and on call, ready to take the reins at the last minute if a saddle opens up.
But even with that role, mounts rarely came, particularly good ones. He hadn’t posted a win since 2004, when he became the oldest rider to ever win at Ellis Park (a record that still stands). And leading up to Fairmount Park, Jones had only gotten one ride all year, and that was on a surefire loser. On July 4, he was put atop Morato Cat, an unraced two-year-old. The odds board had Morato Cat at 54-1, the longest shot in the field, and Jones didn’t coax him into exceeding expectations. Morato Cat came out of the gate at the back of the 11-horse pack and stayed there, finishing dead last, 42 lengths off the pace. “Trailed” was the only comment Morato Cat got in the Equibase race chart.
Ben Wessels, a longtime friend of Jones and a small-time horse owner, heard about the last-place ride and wanted to help out his pal. Wessels also grew up in racing in Illinois and stayed in it. He’s now a steward at Balmoral Park in Crete, Illinois. So he’d known of Jones for decades and always respected his work ethic. He’d even hired Jones as clerk of scales at Balmoral in the 1980s to tide him over during one of the jockey’s many injury sabbaticals. Wessels called Jones and asked him if he would get on My Kentucky Breeze at Fairmount Park, some 170 miles west of his home track. Wessels paid only $1,200 for My Kentucky Breeze in the fall of 2009 at the Keeneland yearling sale, when the average price per horse that year was $60,527 and the high was $2.05 million. And though she’d never reached the winner’s circle, My Kentucky Breeze had finished second in three consecutive starts at Fairmount Park this year, including a July 9 race. Despite the humble nature of both the horse and track, Jones reacted to Wessels’s offer like he’d been asked to ride Seabiscuit at Del Mar.
“Cowboy Jones lived for racing, loved racing,” Wessels says. “I didn’t want him going out that way, in last place. I told him about My Kentucky Breeze, and said I was sorry I couldn’t get him in a big race on a great horse. But Cowboy was so happy, so positive, like always. He told me there was going to be a book written about him, and he just needed an ending. He was going to win to get that ending. He said this was going to be his Kentucky Derby.”
Wessels had already talked to Steve Fridley, trainer of My Kentucky Breeze, and the filly’s regular jockey, Argelio Velazquez, and asked their permission to give the old rider a shot at history. Velazquez said OK right away. Fridley initially wasn’t keen on putting Jones in his saddle, because he was worried about the rider’s frailty and because he didn’t feel Jones would “give the horse the best chance to win.” But Wessels wore him down, and Fridley signed on.
Jones, who was never a regular rider at Fairmount Park, brought a large entourage from Ellis Park so he’d feel at home. He was trailed by a stable of camera crews from St. Louis TV stations and local writers who normally wouldn’t give a rip about racing but had been tipped off by Wessels about the day’s history-making potential. Track steward Jim Lages noted that Jones brought his biographer. The racing cable network TVG was at the track to simulcast Jones’s race and the rest of the Fairmount Park card. After seven decades and tens of thousands of races, this was the first national exposure Jones had ever gotten — it really was his Kentucky Derby. He put on showy red, white, and blue silks, like a racetrack version of another daredevil with a shattered body, Evel Knievel.
Wessels arrived with family and friends, all wearing the T-shirts and buttons he’d had stenciled with “Cowboy Up!” Neither Jones nor Wessels, however, had bothered to get the proper paperwork from the Illinois Racing Board; his Kentucky license didn’t give him the right to ride out of state. He needed to get checked out by the Fairmount Park staff before he’d get his IRB permit. Because riders were by rule quarantined for a period before the first race, Wessels had to talk the track doctor into leaving his clinic and giving Jones a physical in the jocks’ room — a highly unusual courtesy. Track officials had trouble fingerprinting him because his hands were so bent from riding injuries. Also slightly weird: Jones was given a Breathalyzer during the doc’s once-over. “Cowboy had a previous incident with alcohol at the track in Illinois, so they were just doing their diligence [before licensing Jones],” says Wessels. “He passed every test.”
A clean bill of health and 0.0 blood-alcohol level don’t always guarantee a license for a rider of Jones’s vintage: Frank Almonte, who according to the Jockeys Guild became the country’s oldest winning jockey by winning a race in 2005 at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts when he was 69 years, 364 days old, was denied a permit at that track last year when officials ruled he was a danger to other riders. Almonte sued the track for age discrimination, but has not yet been permitted to race.
Surely, the racing regulators felt pressure to get the guest of honor on a horse. There was more press at Fairmount Park than anybody could remember for any event, let alone a maiden claimer on a Tuesday-afternoon card. “We had cameras in the jockeys’ room before a race at Fairmount Park,” says John LeJeune, a 56-year-old rider who was aboard Magnificent Mandy, one of the five other horses in the race. “I’ve been in racing my whole life, and I’d never had that before.”
Another change: The track had a huge crowd that wasn’t drawn by discounted beer or burgers. Folks actually came to watch a horse race.
Jones’s license application was fast-tracked. Now came time for Cowboy to give that book an ending.
Bettors wore their hearts on their AmTote tickets: My Kentucky Breeze went off as the even-money favorite.
Coming out of the 3-hole in a six-horse field, Jones and My Kentucky Breeze settled in a length or so behind the two front-runners, 12-1 shot Rajulie and Magnificent Mandy (4-1), who traded the lead over the first half-mile. Rajulie, sticking to the inside, began dropping off the pace coming into the far turn, at the very same time LeJeune angled Magnificent Mandy out toward the middle of the track. That opened a hole for My Kentucky Breeze, and Jones asked his horse to shoot the gap coming out of the turn. They headed for home with My Kentucky Breeze a length or so in the lead and Jones obviously using all the riding skills he had left to keep in front. All the way down the stretch, Jones worked his whip into his mount’s hindquarters as if his life’s story depended on it.
But with the crowd roaring for My Kentucky Breeze and racing history seemingly within Jones’s reach, another horse, Ola D, made a charge from behind. Ola D, the bettors’ second choice at 3-2, had spent most of the race well off the pace, running with backmarkers Uptown Player and Puck Scores. But coming out of the last turn, Ola D had made up lots of ground and, with jockey Uriel Lopez on her back, was clearly the fastest horse in the field. Rather than grab the lead there and head for home, however, Ola D steered right and briefly made a beeline for the grandstand before straightening out. Lopez appeared to be fighting his horse.
Ola D had plenty of speed left to stay in contention despite blowing the turn and the apparent battle with her rider. And she kept coming. Ola D passed Magnificent Mandy with about 100 yards left, and over the last several strides of the race caught and passed My Kentucky Breeze. Ola D finished 1¾ lengths ahead of My Kentucky Breeze, with Magnificent Mandy another 1½ lengths back. The remaining three horses in the field were at least 28 lengths behind the lead pack at race’s end.
So Jones and My Kentucky Breeze didn’t make any history or money. But the race had provided enough lead changes and plot twists over its 104 seconds to leave all the railbirds — not just those sporting “Cowboy Up!” shirts and buttons — standing and screaming.
Even in defeat, Jones seemed OK with the performance. The tote board flashed the 1/3/4 finish, and the “official” lamp lit with no objections or inquiries, as Jones dismounted from My Kentucky Breeze and spoke with the largest press assemblage of his career.
“I couldn’t have asked for a race to be handwritten better than that,” Jones told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Other folks at Fairmount Park were already thinking the same thing.
I knew what was going on on the backside,” Gene Allen, Magnificent Mandy’s trainer, told me. “I knew what was happening, because of all the hype.”
And what was going on, Allen contends, is that while the fans were cheering for history to be made, his own jockey, John LeJeune, was throwing the race so Cowboy Jones could do just that.
“My jockey took the lead, then let [My Kentucky Breeze] come on through, and just sat behind her, riding chilly.” (“Riding chilly” is racetrack parlance for cruising down the stretch without whipping a horse.) Allen didn’t like what he saw of Lopez’s ride, either. He told the Fairmount Park stewards that he didn’t think the race was run on the up-and-up.
The stewards were already sniffing around. Lopez was still in the winner’s circle when he got a phone call saying that officials wanted to talk to him. He says it was clear they thought a fix had taken place and that he was in on it. Ola D’s double-wide ride coming out of the last turn put him in their sights.
Jim Lages, downstate chief state steward, walked over to the jockeys’ room after the race to tell LeJeune to come to his office the next day to explain his trip. Lages would later say that he got suspicious while watching the race live on four separate monitors in his office. He noticed on the backstretch that LeJeune “looked back repeatedly … and he was particularly looking at Cowboy Jones.” His Spidey sense really began tingling with the lead horses heading for the wire and the race hanging in the balance, as LeJeune never touched Magnificent Mandy with his whip.
The stewards also let Ola D’s jock know his stickwork had been watched: Lopez, like LeJeune, laid off the whip over the final furlong.
Jones, by the investigators’ count, struck My Kentucky Breeze 23 times down the stretch.
A comment about Ola D in the footnotes of the official race chart drawn up by Equibase’s professional race watchers — “took over with very little asking” — indicated that the stewards weren’t the only ones at Fairmount Park who thought the horse made it to the winner’s circle with no help from the jockey.
By day’s end, every trainer and rider in the race except Jones, who Lages said showed maximum effort, had been ordered to appear before the stewards in their Fairmount Park offices by the end of the week. The stewards also asked the track’s mutuel clerk for copies of all betting records, and interviewed attendants in the jockeys’ room to ask about what was heard before the second race.
In a race he didn’t even win, Cowboy Jones was getting more ink and airtime than he’d ever gotten in his life. A longtime Fairmount Park patron named Ron Gori told the Post-Dispatch with apparent sarcasm that the gap that benefited Jones, created by LeJeune’s strategically inexplicable angling-out move, was “miraculous.” “Like the parting of the Red Sea,” Gori said.
The St. Louis CBS affiliate flashed a chyron reading “RACE RIGGED?” during its package on the shenanigans at Fairmount Park. Newscasters at the Fox affiliate told viewers that investigators believed “fellow jockeys conspired to let Jones win.” All local news stations broadcast clips of the last quarter-mile of the race, and the more folks watched that replay, the more they were convinced that the Fairmount Park gang didn’t ride straight.
Racing message boards filled up with posters sure the fix was in. Over at Peeps Place, an online hangout for horseplayers, one said in the thread labeled “Obviously Rigged Horse Race” that Magnificent Mandy “swung so far wide I thought he was going to leap the fence.”
Lenny Kohn, a horse owner who races regularly at Fairmount Park, says he got a call from a staffer in the track’s racing office alerting him of shenanigans. “And he tells me, ‘Watch the replay! Watch the replay! You won’t believe this!’” Kohn says. “And I watched it, and as an owner it makes me sick. To think that that would happen here, well, the sport doesn’t need that.”
The pundits at TwinSpires.com, a racing site owned by Churchill Downs, shared the view that what took place wasn’t clean.
“To Cowboy Jones, nobody gives a rat’s ass about this record,” said TwinSpires’s Derek Simon on his racing podcast after watching the replay. “If you have to set a record this way, you need to get out of the game. It’s so egregious to me. You can’t have people laying down to help people set a record.”
At an administrative hearing in Chicago called in response to the race-rigging investigation, Lages said that his office got an “exorbitant” number of phone calls from patrons who thought the race was fixed.
“They were questioning it,” he said. “You know, ‘What is going on over there?’”
Cowboy Jones admits to riding in one race with a scripted finish. He and other riders from Ellis Park played jockeys in A Horse for Danny, a 1995 made-for-TV movie starring Leelee Sobieski and Robert Urich that was filmed at that track. In the climactic scene, the sentimental favorite, Tom Thumb, wins despite being drugged by the local mobsters who rigged the race for another horse.
Like most things in life, though, it always looks easier in the movies.
“I’d say horse racing is like they used to say in those commercials about Ivory soap: 99.9 percent pure,” says Szymski, Magnificent Mandy’s owner and a former executive director of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. “Racing is an extremely honest, clean sport.” To be precise, Ivory claimed to be only “99 44/100ths” pure, and Szymski is among those who don’t think Magnificent Mandy got an extremely honest, clean ride at Fairmount Park on July 23.
“What happened that day was unusual,” he says.
Of course there’s cheating in racing. Drug abusers remain the most commonly caught of the sport’s no-goodniks. The highest-profile drug case in recent years came when I’ll Have Another won the 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes while his trainer, Doug O’Neill, was being investigated by racing authorities in California. Suspicion over O’Neill’s tactics went through the roof when he scratched I’ll Have Another from the Belmont Stakes and thereby quashed the horse’s chance to win the Triple Crown that racing fans have been craving since 1978. Cynics figured the horse didn’t run because the trainer would be unable to use his illicit performance-enhancing regiment while the whole world was watching. Days after the Belmont Stakes, O’Neill began serving a 45-day suspension for running doped horses. I’ll Have Another never raced again.
There are frauds at racing’s bottom rung, too: A 1999 report in the New York Times mulled the presence of a “battery,” a handheld device also known as a “machine” or a “joint,” that is used by jockeys to administer an electrical shock to the horse midrace and, theoretically, incite a burst of energy. The same buzzers are used within the rules on rodeo animals to get them to buck. While illustrating their prevalence, the Times cited the case of jockey Patrick Boxie, who was sanctioned by the Illinois Racing Board two years earlier for ”possessing and conspiring to use an electrical device” at Fairmount Park. According to the story, Boxie had been issued a “lifetime ban.”
The O’Neill charges and battery cases involve single-horse situations in which somebody was alleged to use performance-enhancing methods in an attempt to win. Conspiracies like that alleged at Fairmount Park, in which jockeys and trainers are suspected of getting together and pledging to lose, are rare — or at least rarely uncovered.
Jockey-inspired fixes like the one alleged at Fairmount Park are nearly unheard of. Paul Berube was a racetrack crime fighter, first as an investigator and later as president of the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau; he can cite just one case in which a group of jockeys got together without outside gambling interests and tried to rig a race. That came in 1975 at Bowie Race Course in Bowie, Maryland, in what is now dubbed “The Valentine’s Day Massacre.” Before the ninth race on the February 14 card, a bettor turned over $684 and asked for 38 separate triple tickets boxing the nos. 2, 8, and 12 horses. That’s an $18 bet that would pay off if those three horses — one of whom went off at 47-1 odds — finished first, second, and third, in any order. The bettor, later determined to be Ernest Davidson, a brother of jockey Jesse Davidson, would have gone unnoticed had he spread the bets around to several tellers. But by failing to betting-window shop, when the horses came in 8-12-2, security was on high alert for anybody trying to cash out. The handicappers were also cursed by the long odds: In 1975, federal tax law mandated that any bettor holding a ticket worth more than $900 had to sign IRS forms to get paid. The 8-12-2 paid $927.30 per ticket, meaning the triple was worth $27.30 too much for winners to get away without identifying themselves. (The IRS now requires that only winning bets over $5,000 must be signed for.) The first guy to try to cash a ticket confessed to investigators that he was fronting for jockeys. The local U.S. Attorney’s Office got involved immediately. Ultimately, the jockeys on four of the five horses who finished at the back of the eight-horse pack were indicted on race-fixing charges; the fifth was given immunity and ratted out his fellow horsemen. The riders whose horses finished first, second, and third were not implicated or charged.
Videotape of the race showed one jockey standing up and all but choking his horse coming out of the gates. The rider aboard the favorite took his horse wide early and, though the rail was open, never moved inside to save ground, while another jockey swept way wide late in the race for no good reason. A fourth jockey was shown being blatantly apathetic to his horse’s failure to compete. And the horse carrying the brother of the dumbass whose request for 38 separate tickets doomed the fix to failure earned a chart comment of “showed nothing.”
Yet, at trial, the video evidence by itself wasn’t enough to make the feds’ case.
The defense team included Baltimore-based labor lawyer Peter Angelos. His clients didn’t deny subsidizing Ernest Davidson’s bet, but swore that no matter how they’d wagered, they’d ridden to win. Angelos said he still believes their story. But the jury, Angelos now says, focused on how big the jockeys could cash in by losing.
“I don’t think the jury was convinced until the betting evidence,” Angelos said. “We couldn’t overcome that.”
All indicted riders were convicted. One of the four, Ben Walsh, committed suicide in May 1976, just before he was to begin serving a six-month prison sentence. To the end, Walsh denied he’d thrown the race.
This exposure to racing’s seamy side didn’t sour Angelos on the sport of kings. A few years after the Massacre, and long before he bought the Baltimore Orioles, he founded Marathon Farm, a serious and moneyed operation. In 1998, a Marathon-owned colt, Spartan Cat, finished sixth in the Preakness Stakes, the biggest event on his hometown’s annual sports calendar. He says his years as a horseman have left him feeling fixes are next to impossible to pull off.
“Maybe it’s attempted more often and [the fix] doesn’t work out, but I doubt it,” Angelos says. “[Jockeys] need a living, and they’re not going to risk that. There has to be money in it.”
Berube has not looked into what went on at Fairmount Park on July 23. Yet he said experience tells him all rigged races have a common bond. “First thing you look for, number one, is the money evidence,” he says.
Fairmount Park investigators found no money evidence to further their suspicions that the second race was rigged for Cowboy Jones.
Firstly, for all the publicity the event generated, the total handle for the race that Cowboy Jones called his Kentucky Derby was only $71,934. The handle for last year’s actual Kentucky Derby was $133.5 million; figures released earlier this year by Gulfstream Park, a Florida track most popular in the winter months, showed that the average per-race handle there in 2012 was $843,000. (Jon Sloane, spokesman for Fairmount Park, declined requests for seasonal betting statistics for his track.) A betting pool in the mid-five figures would make it impossible to get in any meaningful wager without affecting the odds enough to attract notice.
Also, the actual finish of the disputed race differed very little from how Bobby Pace, Fairmount Park’s suitably named racing secretary and in-house oddsmaker, had predicted. Pace set the morning line, which was printed in the track program before any wagers were taken: My Kentucky Breeze 2-1, Ola D 9-2, Magnificent Mandy 5-2, Uptown Player 5-1, Puck Scores 10-1, Rajulie 12-1. The actual finish, with final odds of the in-the-money horses in parentheses: Ola D (3-2), My Kentucky Breeze (1-1), Magnificent Mandy (4-1), Uptown Player, Puck Scores, and Rajulie. If you flip My Kentucky Breeze and Ola D, Pace would have had the whole field nailed. The similarities between the predicted finish and odds and the actual finish indicate that either the horses ran to form, or, for real conspiracy buffs, that the track handicapper knew something was up and wanted to let everybody in on what he knew. (As good as Pace’s handicapping turned out to be, according to Fairmount Park sources, he was among the track officials who cried foul on race day about the jockeys’ conduct.)
The stewards, however, didn’t just look at the win, place, and show wagering. Lages said they also crunched the numbers provided for every combination bet, or so-called “exotic” wagers — triples, daily doubles, etc. — offered during the second race. But that search, Lages admitted at an Illinois Racing Board hearing, uncovered “no betting patterns [to show] anything unusual going on.”
That forced the stewards to admit that if the jockeys threw the race, they did it for absolutely no other reason than to try to help Cowboy Jones make history. Lages admitted as much at an IRB hearing, saying that LeJeune would be losing prize money and had “nothing to gain” other than “doing something nice” for Jones.
Try finding a horseman who thinks you can buy a rider’s services with a purely emotional payoff.
“If you’re gonna fix a race, you’re gonna fix it for financial gain,” says Steve Fridley, who trained My Kentucky Breeze. “My Kentucky Breeze was the even-money favorite. Nobody’s going to fix a race for even money, and nobody’s going to fix it for sentimental reasons. John LeJeune lost money by not winning. Nobody fixes a race to lose money.”
Yet if the riders did go in the tank in tribute to a peer at the end of a long riding career, that was fine by some folks. The Carbondale Southern Illinoisan, which had been covering the investigation in its news pages, ran an editorial pointing out that the focus of the query was an aging local hero and pooh-poohing the hunt for wrongdoing at Fairmount Park.
“When compared against shocking criminal and banned-substance accusations facing some professional athletes,” it read, “the horse race probe appears to be much ado about nothing.”
In a meeting with Fairmount Park horsemen and staffers held at the track three days after the race, the stewards targeted the conduct of Lopez and LeJeune. Lopez, a 46-year-old native of Mexico who’d been riding at Fairmount Park since 1996, told the investigators he was unaware of any jockey conspiracy to help Jones. He didn’t even know Jones, he said. He admitted the replay could look shaky to folks who were unfamiliar with Ola D and those who didn’t watch the whole race, but he’d give the horse the same ride all over again.
“I rode the horse the way [she] wanted to be ridden,” he said. “I wasn’t choking the horse, I was getting [her] under control.”
When asked about his failure to whip Ola D, Lopez reminded the investigators that he’d won the race.
“If you don’t need to beat a horse to win,” he said, “why would you beat a horse?”
Lages said at the subsequent statewide hearing that his original suspicions about the jockeys’ conduct were confirmed only after viewing the replay as many as 70 times. His gut reaction to what he saw? “I was appalled,” Lages said, adding that he felt a need to protect “people that are risking money in their wagers.”
He asserted that LeJeune angled out for “no reason other than to open up the door, open up a hole” for Cowboy Jones.
Fellow Fairmount Park steward Patrick Bovenzi, meanwhile, became even more convinced that nefariousness was afoot after looking back at the horse and riders’ past performances. For the track’s July 9 card, for example, LeJeune rode Magnificent Mandy over the same distance and against many of the same horses as he did on July 23. By Bovenzi’s count, LeJeune hit his horse with the whip 15 times from the top of the stretch to the wire in the earlier race; the same jockey hit the same horse zero times while Magnificent Mandy was approaching the finish line on July 23. Bovenzi said that, compared to the earlier ride, LeJeune’s July 23 effort was “pretty lame.”
“With encouragement, some whippings and driving, I believe the horse would have finished better than she did,” Bovenzi said.
LeJeune admitted nothing. Like Jones, he’s a racing lifer. His father, Sidney P. LeJeune Sr., and a brother were jockeys. Sidney died after an accident at a stud farm in 2006 caused a head wound when a stallion got loose in the breeding shed and stomped him. John LeJeune started riding unsanctioned races at 11 years old, and has been riding Thoroughbreds since 1984, all at low-profile tracks. This was his first year at Fairmount Park.
“If I’m known for anything, I guess I’m known for riding junk horses,” he told me.
Amazingly, he’d never had a riding infraction in his entire career — the racetrack equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain never fouling out.
As of the July 23 race, LeJeune had 32 wins at Fairmount Park in 2013, which stood as his career high for victories in a year. LeJeune, like Lopez, said he was unaware of a plot to benefit Jones. LeJeune claims he’d never met, rode with, or even heard of Cowboy Jones until they raced at Fairmount Park. Even after race day, he said, “I have never spoken to him at all.”
LeJeune said he wouldn’t risk his reputation or license to help out a stranger.
When asked about the stewards’ comparisons of Magnificent Mandy’s July 9 and July 23 encounters with My Kentucky Breeze, LeJeune emphasizes that his horse finished 3¼ lengths behind My Kentucky Breeze in the earlier outing, while in the disputed race, Magnificent Mandy finished just 1½ lengths back. The clock also points against any fix, he says: In the July 23 race, where no whip was used, Magnificent Mandy actually ran the last eighth of a mile one-fifth of a second quicker than in the July 9 matchup.
He asserted he didn’t whip Magnificent Mandy on July 23 because the duel for the lead in the first half-mile had taken too much out of his mount to compete with the two horses that passed him.
“My horse was dead,” LeJeune told me. “You know the saying ‘You don’t beat a dead horse’?”
Trainer Allen, for all the suspicions he voiced to the steward and others at the track that something untoward took place on Cowboy Jones’s big day, didn’t provide the investigators with any evidence to back up what he thought had occurred. He never saw his rider speak with Jones.
The stewards could not find anybody in the jockeys’ room on race day who would say they heard LeJeune or Lopez or Jones or any riders talk about letting Jones win or in any way try to arrange the finish. Lages admitted that the clerk of scales, who runs the jocks’ room at Fairmount Park, told the stewards that the unprecedented media gaggle made it impossible for any such confab to take place there.
But the matter couldn’t just be dropped so easily. Stewards at Fairmount Park aren’t employed by the track; they work for the Illinois Racing Board. Like some of the patrons who called the track after seeing the race replay, Lages and Bovenzi’s boss, IRB executive director Marc Laino, had definite opinions that something funky took place on July 23. Laino testified at the Chicago hearing that he found “irregularities in the actual conduct” of the “jockeys” in the Cowboy Jones race — as in more than one rider.
“I felt that the constant need among jockeys in the race, and particularly Mr. LeJeune, to look behind at the field just to see where other riders or horses were in relation to where he was in the race, I found that repeated attempt to assess where the field was to be unusual,” Laino said.
At the hearing, IRB lawyer Jennifer LaDuke asked Laino if he felt it would be OK for a jockey or jockeys “to try to help a septuagenarian win, it being a sentimental thing to do?”
“I am all for bringing positive media attention, and that’s a heartfelt story,” he said. “It’s quite an accomplishment to be a rider and to have won a race in seven consecutive decades, but not, clearly, at the expense of the public’s confidence in the integrity of the conduct of races in Illinois.”
Lopez was not penalized by Fairmount Park stewards. Neither Lages nor Bovenzi disclosed their reasoning for the inaction. Lopez said investigators gave him every indication they thought he’d tried to help Cowboy Jones win and wanted to punish him for it. But they couldn’t overcome one fact: His horse, not the filly the alleged fix was meant to help, finished first.
Allen, for one, didn’t take the non-punishment as an endorsement of the ride Lopez gave Ola D. “The only reason Lopez didn’t get days,” the trainer said, “is because he won.”
LeJeune, of course, did not. In July, the stewards announced he was guilty of violating Section 1416.140 of the Illinois Administrative Code, a state law also known as the “Horse Ridden Out” rule:
Every horse in every race must be ridden so as to finish as near as possible to first, and show the best and fastest race it is capable of at that time and shall not be eased up or coasted, even if it has no apparent chance to win first, second, third or fourth prize, so that the record of that race may, as truly as possible, show its real ability.
LeJeune was given a 60-day suspension. Stewards Lages and Bovenzi issued a joint statement saying he was being punished for a “failure to persevere and put forth his best effort to achieve a maximum placing.”
Fairmount Park’s 2013 season ended on schedule September 20, a week before LeJeune’s suspension would be lifted. The way the appeals process works in Illinois, LeJeune would have to serve out the full suspension even if he contested his punishment. Bovenzi told an Illinois Racing Board hearing that the penalty was designed to guarantee that LeJeune “was no longer allowed to ride at Fairmount Park for 2013.”
“We felt that Mr. LeJeune’s conduct was so egregious against public policy and the integrity and the credibility of the game that we needed to get Mr. LeJeune out of there,” Bovenzi said. “We felt we needed to protect the public, the betting public.”
Lages said that he’s unaware of any other rider at Fairmount Park ever being suspended for violating the Horse Ridden Out rule.
LeJeune would likely have been banned for life if investigators had uncovered any proof beyond the replay that a fix had taken place. As it was, he wasn’t allowed to ride or work as an exercise rider or in any capacity at any Thoroughbred track in the U.S. while on suspension. Given the lack of corroborating evidence, the penalty was viewed as harsh by almost every Fairmount Park horseman I spoke with.
If LeJeune or any other jock rode abnormally, Fridley said, it had more to do with being afraid of hurting the track’s special guest than it did with manipulating the finish.
“Let’s be honest: Cowboy looked a little weak and frail coming out of the jocks’ room,” Fridley says. “So I think they were being polite and respectful during the race. Nobody wanted to run over an old guy.”
One exception: Gene Allen, trainer of the horse LeJeune rode into trouble on. “I think John LeJeune just got caught up in the moment,” Allen told me.
LeJeune filed an official complaint against the Illinois Racing Board soon after the punishment was announced and asked for the decision to be reversed. LeJeune lived in a trailer outside Collinsville, Illinois, during the racing season and sent money home to his family in Camden, South Carolina. He had nothing to send back once the suspension kicked in and took away his livelihood.
Arthur Engelland, a Chicago attorney and one of the few lawyers in the country specializing in defending accused racetrack cheats, took LeJeune’s case. Engelland, whose son is Chip Engelland, the former Duke hoops captain and current San Antonio Spurs assistant, took the case pro bono. “LeJeune’s phone got shut off after he got suspended because he couldn’t pay the bill,” Engelland says. “He’s a freebie.”
Engelland, 82, says that in his 50 years as a racetrack lawyer he’s represented 78 jockeys who’ve been suspended, fined, or otherwise sanctioned — he got the lifetime ban bestowed on Patrick Boxie, the jockey cited by the New York Times for using a battery at Fairmount Park, reduced to just six years.
Yet for all his decades of dealing with the sport’s alleged bad actors, Engelland still swears racing is almost pure, and, like Szymski, pulls out an Ivory soap–like adage to express his faith in the game. “I always say ’99 percent of all races are 100 percent square,’” he said.
Nothing about the July 23 race lessened his view about racing’s integrity. He’s convinced his client gave Magnificent Mandy a clean ride.
“Let’s say for the purpose of argument the jockeys really did want to help Cowboy Jones out,” he says. “You still have to deal with the facts, and the facts are LeJeune’s horse ran faster and finished better against the same horse than [she] had before. The times say this guy could not have pulled his horse, and the stewards had no answer for that. If I’m the steward [for the July 23 race], I’m going to do nothing. But that race got so much attention, they couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t do nothing. This was a terrible race with terrible horses, bottom-of-the-barrel maiden claimers. Yes, it looked ugly. But it was not fixed.”
Officials of the Illinois Racing Board say a ruling on LeJeune’s appeal will come at its December meeting.
“The racetrack’s been my whole life. It’s all I got. And I have never been in a fixed race and I’m not about to fix one now,” LeJeune said. “When this is over, I’m going to go back to riding. I don’t know where, and I know I won’t be riding when I’m 70, but I’m going to go back somewhere.”
Lopez went back to work right away, though he remained bruised by the inquiry. I spoke with him in late August, a month after he’d first been accused. The grandstands were full for Fairmount Park’s Fan Appreciation Night, which featured $1 beers and $1 hot dogs. Lopez told me that even though he wasn’t officially punished, the stewards didn’t leave him feeling vindicated, either. A racing columnist at the Louisville Courier Press wrote after LeJeune’s suspension was disclosed that stewards in Kentucky felt that “Lopez was lucky not to be sanctioned.”
“If I didn’t win, I wouldn’t be here talking about it,” Lopez told me.
The horses caught up in the July 23 debacle came out better than the riders.
Ola D went back to work at Fairmount Park on August 3. Lopez was again handed her reins. After running at the back of the six-horse pack for most of the mile-long race, Ola D mounted a charge that included sweeping very wide coming out of the last turn and taking the lead over the last eighth of a mile and holding it. The horse wasn’t hit with a whip even once down the stretch. “As rider pleased” was the chart comment. In summary: Ola D and Lopez took the exact same trip to the winner’s circle this time out as they had in the Cowboy Jones race. Yet nobody cried fix this time.
When Magnificent Mandy returned to Fairmount Park on August 20, she needed a new rider, what with LeJeune exiled from the saddle and the track. Bettors made the filly the overwhelming favorite, and she took the lead early in the race. The replay shows that jockey Stephanie Slinger, in her first full year of riding, used the whip down the stretch on the way to a 12½-length win. The performance earned the chart comment “ridden out” — the opposite of “sitting chilly.”
Wessels, owner of My Kentucky Breeze, said that immediately after watching Cowboy Jones pilot his filly to second place on July 23, he’d intended to offer his friend another ride on the same horse and another shot at history.
But all the investigations and accusations changed his mind.
“With all the hullabaloo, I couldn’t ride him back,” Wessels said. “I couldn’t do that to my trainer, and I couldn’t do it myself. It was too much.”
So when he and trainer Fridley put the horse back on the track on August 10 at Fairmount Park, Jones was out and Argelio Velazquez was back in the saddle. My Kentucky Breeze took the lead at the top of the stretch as she had in her last outing, only this time she kept it all the way to the wire, a maiden no more.
Jones returned to his Kentucky home after the race and was never called back to Fairmount Park for the inquiry. The stewards said they saw no need to question him because they could find no fault with his effort. I visited Jones at Ellis Park after the penalty against LeJeune was handed down. He walked me through the jockeys’ room to show off his old sign. He jumped on the scales — 112 pounds, in dungarees and boots and a cowboy hat — to prove that when he’s at the track, he’s always ready to ride.
We talked while sitting at a picnic table outside the last turn of Ellis Park’s 1⅛th-mile oval while the last few races of a weekday card were run.
Jones told me he thought he’d have a chance to testify to the Illinois Racing Board that he wasn’t in on or aware of any plan. He said he doesn’t know John LeJeune and had never even talked to him, but occasionally rode against “a guy named Sidney LeJeune a long time ago.” He seemed surprised to learn that Sidney was indeed John LeJeune’s father.
As we talked, horses running in the seventh race approached the stretch en masse. Jones stopped talking about the old days, got up from the picnic table, and walked up to the rail to get a close look as the pack headed for home. The no. 7 horse, a six-year-old mare named Drivingmitziandmax, grabbed control of the race and lengthened her lead over the pack of fellow $4,000 claimers as the track announcer said with some excitement that the horse was running “like an odds-on favorite should!” Jones returned to his seat just as Drivingmitziandmax hit the wire for her first win of the year.
Jones said he feels like a victim of the fiasco at Fairmount Park. LeJeune may have been the only rider to get sanctioned, but Jones can’t shake the implication that he couldn’t even win a race that was rigged for him.
“‘Failure to persevere,’ huh? That’s some shit,” Jones said. “I went there to win a race and make history. I tried, but didn’t win. But that wasn’t set up. Horses that get passed late like that boy’s horse did don’t come back and win — only the good ones. And that boy wasn’t on Secretariat.”
His own mention of the greatest horse ever triggered memories from his and his sport’s heydays: “You know, I rode with [Secretariat's jockey] Ron Turcotte,” he said. “He’s the only guy I ever got an autograph from. We were in the steam room together. And Willie Shoemaker still owes me a cigar. We were in the same card game.”
Trainers whose horses he’d been exercising for years hadn’t been calling him as much since the July race, Jones said, though he didn’t link the cutback in work to the race-fixing controversy. He hoped his sunrise exercise riding gigs would pick up again soon, and planned to continue hanging around the track until he gets what didn’t come to him at Fairmount Park.
“The next race I win,” he said, “will be my last.”
Every few minutes, a track patron would stop by our table to say something nice and nostalgic to Ellis Park’s eldest statesman. Buddy Mangold, 56 and from nearby Evansville, Indiana, broke away from a pack of his friends and family to tell Jones his old bobblehead is now displayed in a daughter’s bedroom. Before rejoining his party, Mangold said he had wagered on My Kentucky Breeze for that July 23 race at Fairmount Park because he wanted Jones to break some records.
“If those horses slowed down for you, you would have won!” said Mangold.
“The newspapers say they did slow down for me!” Jones answered, as both rider and fan cackled.