My first reaction to the news that former NYRA clerk of scales Mario Sclafani and his assistant Braulio Baeza had been indicted for allegedly misreporting the weights of certain jockeys was that this was another minor story that had been blown way out of proportion and that it involved the usual suspects. I thought that the investigation and subsequent indictments were the work of politically motivated individuals who thirst for headlines and that it was initiated by the so-called new NYRA, which is desperately trying to reshape its outlaw image before its franchise expires. What better way to do that than to throw a couple more minor employees under the bus because their hands may just have been in the cookie jar?
As it turns out, it's worse than that. The evidence against Baeza, Sclafani and the five jockeys involved is so flawed that this case should be laughed out of court. Whether that's because of some sloppy detective work, a lack of knowledge of horse racing on the part of the investigators or because someone was just out to get these guys, this case never should have progressed as far as it has. It's 1-10 that Sclafani and Baeza beat the charges.
The New York State Attorney General's Office has alleged that Sclafani and Baeza allowed the five jockeys -- "Robby Albarado, Jose Santos, Ariel Smith, Herb Castillo and Cornelio Velasquez" -- to ride at anywhere from seven to 15 pounds over their listed weight on 67 occasions in 2004. In doing so, the indictment claims, they defrauded a betting public that did not have access to accurate weight information when wagering and deprived other jockeys of picking up mounts the overweight jockeys should have had to decline. In New York, no jockey who is more than five pounds overweight can accept a mount.
One of the races involved was the 3rd race on July 11, 2004 at Belmont. Castillo rode Southack to a third-place finish and was listed at 118 pounds. Based on comments from the Attorney General's Office that the riders were anywhere from seven to 115 pounds overweight, Castillo supposedly weighed at least 125 pounds.
Isn't it curious then that he rode at 115 the day before at Delaware Park? That means he somehow gained 10 pounds over the course of a day or the clerk of scales at Delaware was also in on what had to have been a vast conspiracy. Both cases are highly unlikely.
On Aug. 30, Jose Santos rode at 116 pounds aboard horse named Ohbeegeewhyen in the sixth race at Saratoga, another example listed in the indictment. That means that Santos had to have weighed 123 pounds or more. Isn't it curious then that he rode two days earlier at Monmouth Park and made 116 in the fourth race. Santos must have eaten like a real pig over the course of the next 48 hours. Either that or the Monmouth clerk of scales was also part of the conspiracy.
And what about the Aug. 23 races at Saratoga? Robby Albarado was listed a 117 pounds in the third race, at 118 in the fourth race and at 118 in the sixth. The third and sixth races are listed in the indictment as examples in which Albarado's weight was fudged, but not the fourth. Does that mean he lost sever pounds in between the third and fourth races only to gain it back for the sixth?
What happened on November 27 at Aqueduct? Jose Santos was listed at 115 pounds when he rode in seventh race, which was not included in the indictment. Two races later, he was again listed at 115 when riding Lion Tamer to victory in the Cigar Mile. That race was included in the indictment, meaning he weighed at least 122 pounds. Just how many Big Macs did he eat between those races?
The evidence is so, well, goofy, that it's easy to come to the conclusion that Sclafani and Baeza did nothing wrong. But what if they did? This is a grotesque example of the punishment not fitting the crime. Sclafani and Baeza were indicted on 291 counts, including: Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree; Conspiracy in the Fifth Degree; Falsifying Business Records in the First Degree; Tampering with a Sports Contest in the Second Degree; Grand Larceny in the Third Degree; and other charges. They face up to seven years in state prison.
There's no arguing the fact that no one should be tampering or misreporting the weights carried by jockeys. To do so is to mislead the betting public, as well as owners whose horses may not have the best chance to win because they are carrying too much weight.
But clerks of scales looking the other way when jockeys show up overweight is as old as the sport itself. It happens just about everywhere, and It's never about trying to defraud the betting public or insiders cashing bets by wagering against the overweight jockeys. There are few bettors who care even the slightest about how much weight a horse carries. Clerks of scales, many of whom are ex-riders, cheat because they are looking out for jockeys who are having a hard time shrinking their bodies down to unrealistically small sizes.
And even when people have been caught the punishments have been minor. In 1989, it was discovered at Suffolk Downs that three jockeys had been misreporting their weights. Suffolk's clerk of scales Francis McGowan was suspended 45 days over the incident.
If Sclafani and Baeza were guilty, they should have been fired, and nothing else. The threat of sending them to jail borders on cruel and unusual.
There's also the disturbing question of why this was allowed to go on so long. The first race named in the indictment occurred on June 23. By the end of the 2004 Saratoga meet, the Attorney General's gumshoes had compiled evidence against all five jockeys involved. By then, someone should have stepped in and put and end to the practice so that, if the allegations are true, the process of defrauding bettors would have stopped.
Instead, the investigation didn't wrap up until Dec. 5. Presumably, during that entire time, state investigators knowingly allowed the public to be defrauded and did nothing to stop it.
Unless our justice system has been totally turned upside down, Baeza and Sclafani will beat the rap. But that won't solve everything or answer every question. How do they get their good names back? What really happened here and why are there so many holes in the evidence? Was this case against Sclafani and Baeza justified in the first place or where they railroaded? Why is someone ready to haul them off to jail for seven years for something that is about hardly a serious offense.
Maybe someone should investigate the investigation.