Kirk Ziadie's presence at Laurel Park is a new low for Maryland horse racing
Kirk Ziadie's success as a thoroughbred trainer in Florida generated more suspicions than accolades. He won races at an astonishing rate, and horses improved phenomenally under his care, but skeptics of his achievements could point to the fact that he had 13 medication violations on his record from 2004 through 2009. By last summer, Calder Race Course had had enough of its four-time leading trainer. The Miami track took the most drastic punitive action available to it, telling Ziadie on Aug. 20 that he was barred from its grounds and that he had 72 hours to clear out.
Calder didn't offer any explanation or present any evidence against the trainer, but few people in racing were fretting about issues of due process. Many were delighted that the sport had rid itself of Ziadie.
Or at least it had done so until last week, when Ziadie's name again appeared in the entries. Despite the trainer's reputation, Laurel Park put him back in business by granting him 10 stalls. In doing so, it raised serious questions about the way the sport polices itself. And it forced racing fans in Maryland to deal with the confounding Ziadie factor.
One statistic in particular suggests that Ziadie, 41, is either a cheater or an amazing horseman. Over the past five years, when Ziadie has claimed horses from other trainers, those acquisitions have won 47 percent of the time in their first start for the new barn. It is a mind-boggling number. Ziadie improves almost every horse he gets his hands on, and he improves upon the work of almost every other trainer.
He disputes the popular notion that this success is evidence of any wrongdoing. "I don't move 'em up in two weeks," he told me in an interview this week. "When I claim a horse I usually don't run them back for three months. I clean them up, retrain them. These things don't happen overnight. And my horses last -- I've got plenty of 9- and 10-year-olds." Such sustained success, he maintained, is hardly the hallmark of a trainer getting a quick boost from illegal drugs.
Nobody outside Calder's management knows if its ejection of Ziadie had anything to do with drugs. The track, owned by Churchill Downs Inc., had a reason for not charging him with anything. If it accused Ziadie of a specific offense, the case could drag through racing's legal system for years. Ziadie had been handed a 60-day suspension when one of his horses tested positive in March 2007 for the tranquilizer Acepromazine, but his appeals had kept him from serving the suspension in the 29 months before Calder barred him. Instead of getting bogged down in another such process, Calder opted to use its right (one that has been upheld by the courts) to exclude people from its property by decree.
At the time of his 2007 suspension, Ziadie said he had never administered drugs "to make horses run faster," the Miami Herald reported. He said he did not administer Acepromazine to the horse on the day of the race, though he said he has used it on other horses on race days to help settle them down.
Churchill Downs Inc. has never told anyone, including Ziadie, why he was expelled. The trainer only received a letter citing "business reasons" for his exclusion. "Everybody was out to get me," he said.
Ziadie was out of business. He put some of his horses in the care of his girlfriend, trainer Ashley Behrens, who races in Pennsylvania. He worked on a farm caring for his other horses. He did not apply for stalls this winter at Tampa Bay Downs, where he had been so successful in the past, possibly because he suspected such an application would have been futile. Peter Berube, Tampa Bay's general manager, said his track probably would have been influenced by Calder's actions. "It is highly unlikely that he would have received stalls here," Berube said.
This winter, a friend of Ziadie's suggested he contact Laurel's racing secretary, Georganne Hale, and try to obtain stalls in Maryland. "I told her my situation," he said, and at this point the whole regulatory system broke down. Hale, like any racing secretary, was happy to find a trainer who could bolster her track's horse population, and she didn't know about Ziadie's history of drug violations. "I was a bit naive," she conceded.
Joe Pogue, investigator for the Maryland Racing Commission, interviewed Ziadie, who presented a letter from the Florida Racing Commission saying he was a licensee in good standing. "I did see that he had a ton of rulings against him," Pogue said. But because Calder's ban had not gone through racing-commission channels, it wasn't part of Ziadie's official record and Pogue knew nothing about it. Ziadie's application was approved in a routine fashion. Ziadie already had his stalls by the time Maryland officials learned more about his record and realized they should have been asking more questions.
"Now," the trainer said, "I'm going to rebuild my stable and prove that I'm not a monster." He already has started four horses at Laurel and won with three of them. One of those horses, Black Gabriel, had made his career debut at Philadelphia Park in early January under the care of Behrens, and lost by 27 lengths. On Thursday, now officially in the care of Ziadie, Black Gabriel was bet down to odds of 5 to 2 and improved sharply to win by nearly four lengths. It was a scenario familiar to anyone who has followed Ziadie at Tampa Bay and Calder. In race after race, he turned the art of handicapping into an exercise in guessing how much the Ziadie horses were going to move up over their published form.
Maybe this won't matter in Maryland. The quality of racing in the state has eroded so badly that there isn't much left to ruin. And maybe most Marylanders won't fret about Ziadie's presence. The dwindling number of fans who go to the track mostly bet out-of-state simulcasts and pay little attention to the live product. But though the Maryland racing industry has already declined so far in recent years, it has hit a new low by signaling that it cares so little about the integrity of its product.