News of Parx Racing’s leading jockey Mychel Sanchez betting against himself met the immediate, predictable wave of anger and frustration in the horse-racing community.
But ultimately, it’s a wake-up call for the racing-gambling alliance.
While horse racing commissions employ common-sense counter-moves, suspending him for 60 days in Pennsylvania and honoring that move by reciprocity in Maryland, another angle emerges – disbelief.
Beyond the issue that he gambled against himself is a deeper, more disturbing element, which is that he gambled at all.
In one ground-shaking development, a reported TVG account from which he gambled in December being discovered by authorities, Sanchez betting on himself raised riveting issues:
- How can he show such disrespect to a sport that has rewarded him for so many years?
- How can the horse-racing industry, bolstered by the recent infusion of online gambling handle, the budding new age of fixed-odds wagering and the technological boost provided by cutting-edge companies, fight cancer from within?
- What Sanchez revealed about danger to the gambling-racing dynamic is more damaging than his reported act.
Sanchez one of top-earning jockeys
This is heart-wrenchingly sad. Sanchez has been a rising performer for several years. Throughout the industry, he’s a well-respected rider. He cracked the $1 million mark in earnings for his owners in 2014 and reaped seven-figure marks every year after that. He cleared $5 million last year.
Jockeys may receive up to 10% of a purse, meaning that at the very least, Sanchez routinely cleared a solid six figures for at least the last five years.
In 2020, the average earning of the top 100 jockeys in the United States was around $3.5 million. Sanchez ranked 37th on the money list of top 100 jockeys in the nation according to BloodHorse. A highly-respected group of jockeys land behind him. That includes Reylu Gutierrez, awarded a mount in the recent $3 million Pegasus World Cup Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida. It includes Kent Desormeaux, who has won every leg of the Triple Crown. Desormeaux won three Kentucky Derbys and Preakness events, and one Belmont Stakes race.
The well-liked Sanchez tainting his career resembles a respected rich person jeopardizing a life’s reputation by shoplifting. It just doesn’t add up.
Jockey who bet on himself raises issue of problem gambling
Yes, Sanchez is entitled to due process, even the compassion extended to problem gamblers. No, he doesn’t have to be persecuted as a human being. Even the Nevada pastor who gambled away church funds many years ago did not incur the wrath of his congregation. Some even testified and tried to get him leniency. The pastor served some prison time but it points to something bigger – problem gamblers can’t stop playing. The Sanchez case reflects a need for action.
Whenever he speaks on this, Sanchez will have trouble convincing people he won’t gamble again. It doesn’t matter how contrite one becomes or if one finds Jesus. The itch is the itch.
Monmouth Park CEO comments on issue of jockeys who bet
Dennis Drazin, CEO of Darby Development, operator of Monmouth Park Racetrack, addressed the issue at-large but not Sanchez directly in a statement PlayPennsylvania:
“If you are asking if I think somebody who bets against a horse should have a more severe penalty than 60 days, sure I do. If the public perception is that you have stopped the horse from winning because you have a bet, that is horrible.”
Sanchez was the eighth-leading jockey at Monmouth Park in 2021, obtaining more than $1 million in earnings. The stigma of him betting on the events he raced won’t abate. Nor will it matter that, according to his lawyer, he sometimes won the races in which he bet against himself. The problem is that he crossed a line. Bettors can no longer trust whether he rides with their money or against it.
“So much of the handling of cases like this is not what you do, but how you do it,” said Drazin. “Everyone is entitled to due process. If a person wanted to come to our track, even if we wanted to ban them, we give them a hearing. They come before us, and while they are entitled to an attorney, they have to testify. After that, we have the right to say something along the lines that someone who bets against himself gives a bad perception to the public, we think that is serious and we don’t welcome him at Monmouth Park. But you must first extend due process; otherwise, you could be in litigation for years.”
Monmouth and other race tracks could ban Sanchez
Monmouth Park has several options regarding Sanchez. It will likely wait and see if the New Jersey racing commission suspends or bans him. The track also has the option of conducting a hearing, concluding the public has no confidence in the jockey and banning him from its premises. It is extremely unlikely that Sanchez will ride at Monmouth, but Drazin will not make that determination prematurely.
Drazin said any sweeping policy to permanently ban a jockey betting on races would have to be preceded by public comment and hearings. The Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act goes into effect on July 1, 2022. But it is unknown as of now if that legislation will cover this matter.
Drazin, a former New Jersey racing commissioner, noted that the commission must renew licenses every year. That means the state has de-facto power to impose a lifetime ban by simply refusing to license someone. It is likely that state commissions will accomplish the effect of a ban on Sanchez, one ruling body at a time, but no commission will rule beyond its own state.
Jockey betting on races causes major damage to horse racing industry
It’s the appearance more than the impropriety that matters. Jockeys betting on races presents the image of an industry that’s not above board. Horse racing must be vigilant to thwart gambling by its insiders. Credit TVG with an assist on this one.
Imagine the horror of a Sanchez scenario unfolding just before the Breeders Cup or the Kentucky Derby. Imagine it occurring with the world’s elite jockeys on the biggest stages. Public trust is the emotional currency of any sport. It also is the currency of horse racing. If the gamblers go, the sport ceases.
Even the appearance of something fishy is damaging. Gamblers already fume when their money is won or lost by a slow break from the gate, a mistimed ride or the lack of racing room encountered by a jockey. The players blame the jockey – where else can they go with their frustration – but it’s perceived as gamblers letting off steam. What if it’s not? Connect the jockey who mishandled a horse with a bet to that individual and it will invoke memories of past scandals.
History of gambling scandals
Jai Alai had so much cheating from its players that the Philippine government banned it for roughly 15 years in the mid ’80s. It never recovered.
The horse racing version hits close to home for Pennsylvania bettors who visited the Atlantic City Race Course in nearby Mays Landing, N.J. when it existed. One of racing’s notable fixes occurred there in 1975, according to various published reports. A New York Times account noted that security forces began the investigation after a race in which three long shots finished in the money and returned much less to the bettors than that combination should have returned.
A slew of subsequent indictments included one against Anthony Ciulla, known as “Big Tony.” Ciulla fixed hundreds of races. He ended up testifying against the jockeys and trainers who had fixed races for him before gaining entry into the Witness Protection Program.
Fast forward nearly 50 years and horse racing does act swiftly to expunge cheaters when it finds them. It will look unkindly on any strange association between its participants. And a jockey betting on a race he runs in fits that category. A skeptic might also think Sanchez was betting on behalf of others. However, until Sanchez speaks on the matters those questions remain unanswered.
It is one thing that the industry stopped Sanchez now, but allowing anyone to think an infraction will only be punished by suspension compares to letting a reformed alcoholic just look at a bottle. Why allow the temptation?
For the horse racing industry, this is not about hurting Sanchez. It’s about helping the sport by ensuring that every jockey is afraid, even petrified, to bet, at the cost of a career.
There are plenty of legalized wagering activities available. For jockeys, betting on horse racing cannot be one. Horse betting operator TVG deserves credit for discovering and reporting the problem, just as legalized sportsbooks in Nevada rooted out point-shaving scandals in other sports many years back. TVG not only did a service to horse racing, but protected its place as a major stakeholder.
Sanchez, in the end, is the messenger of a bigger concern. The situation alerts horse racing and gambling establishments that the wall between jockeys and betting pools may not be strong enough – that is the biggest problem.