Back In The Saddle Again

by Ed Meyer

posted on January 15, 2009 in General Discussion, News | 2 Comments >>

After winning the Eclipse Award for outstanding owner in 2005, Gill greatly reduced his vast equine holdings that included as many as 450 horses in training, 30 broodmares, and 50 foals and yearlings. He ended his self-imposed exile last spring by opening up his checkbook to go on claiming sprees at several tracks.

Gill’s goal in 2009 is to break the single-season record of 494 victories set by Dan Lasater in 1974, a mark that Gill narrowly missed when he finished the 2004 season with 487 victories and $10.8 million in earnings.

In addition, Gill said he feels confident he can now turn a profit with the blue-collar runners he buys, thanks to the slots-enhanced purses at Penn National and Philadelphia Park.

“I didn’t like the way I left,” Gill said, when asked why he changed his mind about getting back into racing. “I’m not one to get pushed around. I intend to break the world record and make money doing it.”

After leading the nation in wins and money won for three consecutive years, from 2003 to 2005, Gill announced he was tired of what he labeled “dirty politics” in racing.

Gill had been denied stalls and told he couldn’t run horses at Delaware Park, a dispute he claims arose from his refusal to agree to avoid claiming horses from certain owners the track wanted to protect. Gill is now free to claim and race at Delaware again.

He was also the focus of a controversy at Gulfstream Park following the fatal breakdown of Casual Conflict in 2003. Both Gill and his then-trainer, Mark Shuman, were cleared of any wrongdoing.

Gill, 52, never completely got out of the game, but in 2006 and 2007, he won a mere 44 total races.

He quietly began rebuilding his arsenal last spring, by claiming 63 horses in less than two months in Maryland, then went on another shopping spree during the summer at Suffolk Downs. He claimed 16 more horses in the final weeks of the season during the fall at Delaware Park, and took 14 more in the last two weeks of December at Philadelphia Park.

Gill estimates he currently has 225 horses, primarily with trainer Tim Hooper. He also has horses with Murray Rojas at Penn National, Mike Catalano at Philly Park, and recently sent runners to Chris Grove in Maryland and Hector Garcia at Philly.

“I used to have one trainer trying to train 150 horses,” Gill said. “I found out for spending about the same amount of money I could hire three trainers to handle 50 horses apiece.”

Economically, Gill said he finds it’s now feasible for him to turn a profit with modestly priced claimers, thanks to the inflated purses in Pennsylvania.

“These tracks are claim-friendly,” Gill said of Philly Park and Penn National. “By running horses through their conditions, I can make $100,000 quickly with a $15,000 animal.”

Hooper, 39, a former longtime assistant to Scott Lake, has the bulk of Gill’s horses, many of whom are based at the Elk Creek Ranch Training Center in Oxford, Pa., close to the border between Pennsylvania and Delaware.

“We certainly attack the entry box, and the advantage of being on the farm is that we are not tied into one racetrack,” Hooper said. “I love to run where we can find a winning spot whether it is at Laurel, Charles Town, Penn National, or Philly. There are so many opportunities.”

Gill has his critics, including rival horsemen who at times were so fearful of losing their horses that they would run $25,000 claimers for $35,000 or $40,000 just to discourage Gill.

“There are bad feelings about Gill because of all the claiming,” Hooper said. “What they don’t understand is when we claim, they get money in their pockets and now they can regenerate their stock. He is good for the game and people should start understanding that.”

Gill likes to pick out the horses he claims himself. He focuses on speed horses who have recently tried to duel for the lead, only to stop.

Because he believes many of these horses are undiagnosed victims of equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (an infection of the central nervous system that can sometimes manifest itself by paralyzing the flaps in a horse’s throat), Gill commonly orders vets to perform a myectomy on the overwhelming majority of his new acquisitions. The minor throat surgery often produces dramatic results and form reversals.

Despite not gearing up with a full stable until late in the season, Gill managed to win 121 races and $1.9 million in 2008. And in the first 12 days of racing in 2009, he was off to a good start in his quest for Lasater’s record. So far, Gill has gone 22 for 78 (28 percent), with the bulk of that total coming at Philly, where he is 10 for 35, and Penn National, where he is 9 for 31.

“I’m smarter now,” Gill said. “If I can’t make a profit this time, then I’ll leave.”

The way Gill’s going, don’t count on that happening.