Sport: The Great Belmont Park Sting

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Not exactly a horse of a different color

It was the final event of the day, a cheap claiming race on the inner-turf track at New York's Belmont Park. With a mixed bag of nags running on a spongy grass surface, it was not the easiest race for bettors to sort out, and by the time the field of twelve horses paraded to the post, rain was falling steadily. So it was understandable that many fans had started to drift toward the exits. But something happened during the ninth race on Sept. 23 that stopped the exodus and sent horseplayers back to stare at the tote board with envious wonderment. After leading most of the way, a 57-to-1 long-shot Uruguayan import named Lebón had breezed easily to a four-length win—and returned $116 for every $2 laid down by his few faithful followers.

As Lebón was led to the winner's circle, a handsome man in his early 40s went to the cashier's window to collect his investment of $1,300 in win tickets and $600 in show tickets on Lebón. The cashier did not have the $80,440 payoff those tickets were worth on hand and told the bettor he would have to send to the track's main safe for additional funds. Within a few minutes, a courier—who doubles as a stablehand at Belmont—arrived with cash. As he handed the money to the clerk, he glanced through the window at the big winner. "Hi, Doc," the stablehand said. The salutation was for Dr. Mark Gerard, veterinarian to Secretariat during that Triple Crown winner's racing days and a familiar face to Belmont backstretchers. The chance encounter with the courier was to prove very troublesome. Three weeks later, a Uruguayan newspaperman called the Jockey Club steward at Belmont and told him that the horse in the winner's circle photograph was not Lebón but Cinzano, Uruguay's 1976 Horse of the Year. That brought Gerard under suspicion of engineering a horse-swapping "sting."

In the investigation that ensued and is still under way, it was learned that Lebón, Cinzano and a third horse, Boots Colonero, were imported to the U.S. by Gerard in early June. But the day the horses arrived at Gerard's Muttontown, N. Y., farm, Cinzano was reported to have suffered massive head injuries in a barn accident—the circumstances of which have never been explained—and had to be destroyed. New York State racing officials suspect that it was Lebón that was destroyed, not Cinzano, and that Cinzano, a blue-chip colt, was run as Lebón—a raced-out plodder who had sold at auction for $600 a few weeks before Gerard purchased him.

Gerard seems an unlikely candidate for such shenanigans. As a top track veterinarian, he tended thoroughbreds for some of America's best-known owners and trainers. But in recent years, Gerard has augmented his lucrative practice by importing South American horses. He buys cheap and sells high: Lebón was purchased for $1,600 in Uruguay and sold to Jack Morgan, a former assistant of Gerard's, for $10,000. Some racing people became wary of Gerard's activities. Says a trainer at one premier stable: "When I came to work here, my owner told me never to let Gerard in his barns, never to let him treat our horses."

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