Trainer John Cotter was saddling a horse at Saratoga in 1974 when his jockey, Mike Hole, came to him with a startling piece of information. Another rider had offered him a $5,000 bribe to finish out the money.
According to testimony in hearings before the New York State Racing and Wagering Board that concluded Tuesday, Cotter asked who had made the offer. Hole pointed at Jacinto Vasquez -- one of the country's leading jockeys, a two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby.
Cotter went to the stewards and reported the alleged bribe, perhaps expecting that he was about to touch off a major investigation and scandal. But racing officials did nothing at Saratoga that summer. They did nothing for the rest of the year. And now, seven years after the fact, the state is conducting an impotent, publicity-oriented investigation into "allegations of corruption in racing" that is likely to accomplish nothing, either.
The most astute race-watchers at Saratoga in 1974 knew that the track was a hotbed of corruption. "It was my greatest year," New York's best professional gambler told me, "but it got to the point I didn't like it any more. It was getting like the trotters. They were holding horses every day."
Racing stewards everywhere seem to pay no attention when jockeys apply strangle holds to their mounts, and most horseplayers assume the stewards are blind or incompetent. But even after Cotter reported the bribe attempt to the Saratoga stewards, no official of the New York Racing Association or the state took any action. Joe Wickman, an agent for the Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau, testified, "I had the feeling that everybody didn't want me to go into this." Officials didn't want to rock the boat or harm the image of the sport.
But they couldn't suppress the rumors and the scandals forever. Confessed race-fixer Tony Ciulla claimed he had paid some of the most prominent riders in the country -- including Angel Cardero Jr. and Jorge Velasquez -- to lose races. Jockey Jose Amy, during the trial of Con Errico for race-fixing last year, accused several prominent riders of holding horses. Because these accusations hung like a dark cloud over the whole New York racing industry, the state opened its hearings with the hope of clearing the air once and for all.
But, as they ended, they had accomplished nothing of the sort. The board didn't have the power to compel anyone to testify, and it unearthed little in the way of new information. Most of the jockeys who took the stand acted like candidates for sainthood. Velasquez testified that in his long career as a rider he had never seen heard the term "hold a horse," let alone do such a dastardly thing.
The board might penalize Vasquez for allegedly making two bribe offers. But Eddie Maple, who testified Tuesday, was very vague about what Vasquez said to him before one of the suspicious races at Saratoga. And Michael Hole is dead, an apparent suicide victim. The betting in New York is that nothing will happen to any of the jockeys under suspicion unless Errico -- who faces a 10-year prison term -- decides to implicate some of them in order to reduce his own sentence.
It is not easy to apprehend and convict wrongdoers seven years after the fact. The only effective way to deter jockeys' larceny is to take action when it is happening. Stewards have to be vigilant and have to let riders know that they are watching them closely. But as this New York inquiry has made painfully clear, stewards seem more interested in protecting the game's public image than in protecting its integrity.