The latest chapter in the Sweet Catomine fiasco ended with an emphatic victory for owner Marty Wygod and an embarrassed California Horse Racing Board trying to explain its own ineptitude. Wygod celebrated his victory Saturday when the charges against him were dismissed following a hearing at Hollywood Park, but his troubles may not be over. That, at least, is the hope of professional gambler Arthur Mota and his horseplaying lawyer Stephen Bernard.
Mota, who wagered an undisclosed amount on Sweet Catomine, has sued Wygod, trainer Julio Canani and Magna Entertainment, the owner of Santa Anita, alleging all three parties defrauded bettors because the information regarding Sweet Catomine's myriad problems before the race was kept form the wagering public. Under the false pretense that Sweet Catomine was in good physical condition before the race, the public wagered about $800,000 on the filly in the win, place and show pools alone.
Following her dull fifth-place finish, Wygod all but said Sweet Catomine was a wreck before the Santa Anita Derby and it was understandable that she ran so poorly. Mota, understandably, felt like a sucker and called his lawyer.
It's doubtful that he will ever be awarded a refund of his wager or even a coupon for half-price admission.
"It's going to be very hard for the bettor to succeed," said Ben Liebman, a lawyer and former member of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board. "When it says official on the toteboard, it's just that, official. You have to play by those rules and any court is likely to say it will simply go by the official result of the race."
But that doesn't mean that Mota's case is a waste of time. If nothing else, perhaps his refusal to take his loss quietly will help change the culture of the racetrack, where most believe it's fine to deceive the betting public.
Imagine if something similar happened on Wall Street. Imagine a CEO of a company failing to report record losses and, rather, spinning a story that his company was "doing great," the very words Canani used to describe his filly's condition before the race. What would be the fallout?
"You'd have federal prosecutors coming in with the guts to wage a real investigation," Bernard said.
Instead, you had a thoroughly unprepared CHRB conducting a hearing that was a waste of time. The Daily Racing Form's Jay Hovdey described the hearing as "nothing more than a hurriedly compiled wish list based on bad press and snippets of unprocessed information."
Perhaps Wygod would have been found innocent no matter how well prepared the CHRB was, but the end result of the sham hearing was that the betting public didn't get it's day in court. Bernard hopes that it will, once, that is, his case against Wygod, Canani and Magna proceeds.
"The betting public is a consumer," Bernard said. "It should have the same rights and opportunities to have proper information conveyed to it as any consumer would on the products they purchase. I'm sure this sort of thing goes on at Santa Anita quite frequently. It just took a race of the magnitude of the Santa Anita Derby and a prominent horse like Sweet Catomine to bring it to a boil. The public has a right to know these things. That was supposed to be the purpose of the (CHRB) hearing. All that hearing did was just infuriate people further."
The surprise is not that the CHRB botched the hearing but that the CHRB took action in the first place. The root of the problem is a culture that exists at every racetrack in the country where insiders believe what goes on on the backstretch and with the handling of the horses is no one's business. A horse could be coming into a big race with four broken legs and the owner and trainer will invariably tell the press that their horse "couldn't be doing better."
It's not a harmless little lie. Some $15 billion is wagered every year in this country, much of it by serious horseplayers trying to make educated decisions on the outcome of races. Never should a person be asked to make a wager on a race in which relevant information is purposefully withheld.
Should a trainer have to report to the public every time a horse has a sniffle? No. But there has to be a better system in place than the one we have now, which is, basically, the public can be damned. At the very least, when a horse undergoes any kind of surgical procedure or is shipped to a veterinary clinic for treatment, which is where Sweet Catomine spent about 40 hours the week of the Santa Anita Derby, that information should be disclosed. Has a horse missed any serious training time of late? Have there been any serious infirmities since its last race? The betting public has a right to know.
"I think the system will be changed, whether our case is stopped tomorrow or not," Bernard said. "It's about people not wanting to be deceived. If there is a serious problem with a horse, it has to be resolved and that cannot be a unilateral decision."
Make some serious rules. Enforce them. Penalize anyone who breaks them. For the betterment of the game, it can and must be done.