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Horse Racing’s FBI: A Look Back At The Old Days Of The Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau

When more than two dozen people, including top trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis were indicted in connection with doping racehorses earlier this year, many people saw it as proof that racing was just as dirty as they’d feared. If only racing had a central organization responsible for investigating malfeasance on the backstretch, they sighed. Perhaps if the sport could have its own Thoroughbred-centric version of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The thing is, it once did.

Some 60 years ago, Sports Illustrated ran a feature about a mutuels manager at Arlington Park who one day took it into his head to forego his usual routine of handing off $ 132,000 in cash allotted for daily double payouts and walked off with the money.

The title of the story, written by Whitney Tower, was ‘The Best-Policed Sport of All.’ As Tower described it, the man was identified within an hour and a half despite his pristine record in 18 years of employment. State police joined in the hunt for Charles Marvin Woworsky, who picked up his wife and skipped town. The FBI arrested him just days after the incident.

The speed of Woworsky’s identification and apprehension was a credit to a new collaborative security and investigative force in horse racing, Tower wrote. The Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB) stood at the ready to make criminals shake in their boots if they dared pass through a racetrack’s entry gates. The TRPB had already taken strides to reduce the incidence of ringers at the track and had cracked down on “undesirables” – people of criminal persuasion who had been trespassed from the property. Surely a pristine sport was just around the corner.

Evolution of a new agency

In 1946, the racing world was very different from the one many of us know today, but it was no less subject to suspicions from spectators about the cleanliness of the proceedings than modern corners of Twitter. Ringers (horses who were entered under false identities) were prevalent, as was race-fixing and ‘touts’ who would take off-book wagers and stiff customers. Even a pedestrian weekday card garnered enormous crowds at many racetracks, and with large groups came pickpockets and hustlers hawking phony jewelry or mutuel tickets.

Track owners were keen to reestablish faltering public confidence in a lucrative sport, and came together to form the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America (TRA), which founded the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau (TRPB). The idea was that TRA member tracks would pay into the costs of running the TRPB and would, in return, get a unified force of specialized investigators who would run security at their racetracks. In 1960, when Tower wrote about the TRPB’s efforts, it had grown to include 36 member tracks who each pitched in toward the organization’s annual budget of just under $ 600,000 and relied upon the TRPB alone for their security.

The group reached for the stars when selecting its first leader. Spencer Drayton came to the job with 14 years’ experience in the FBI at offices in Cincinnati, Seattle, and Indianapolis, and had been a special investigator in Washington and New York. He did not know horse racing when he started, but those who worked in the TRPB said his FBI training was more valuable than a lifetime’s experience on the rail.

“If I’m not mistaken he came with a recommendation from J. Edgar Hoover,” said Paul Berube, president of the TRPB from 1988 until his retirement in 2005. “And basically, when he set up the organization, he did set it up as a little FBI there, no doubt about it. Report writing, administration, the cataloguing of information, the way personnel were handled – everything was literally a carbon copy of how the FBI did things, at least at that time. And the people he hired were, many of them, ex-agents also. Not exclusively, but many of them were.”

Hoover is known to many as the first director of the FBI and a somewhat controversial figure thanks to alleged abuses of his power unearthed toward the end of his life and just after his death. He was also a frequenter of the races, both on the Maryland circuit and at Del Mar in the summer.

“I have found that an afternoon at the races gives me complete relaxation from a grueling week of work in the FBI,” Hoover told the Morning Telegraph in August 1959. “It is a complete change of pace and has the advantage of being a colorful sport and outdoors. I have found racing to be a wholesome diversion.”

Drayton maintained a central office for TRPB, where agents channeled information on subjects into one central set of files that could be shared – a pedestrian concept in today’s internet age, but nearly magic for investigators then.

In his first few years at the TRPB, Drayton took aim at the problem of ringers by instituting the lip tattoo program to positively identify horses. He also took steps to better identify the people working at the track, taking fingerprints and running them through state and federal systems to check for criminal records before people could be licensed to work on the track. In 15 years, he had files of 86,000 horses with tattoo numbers and identifying photographs, and files on 200,000 people, many of them along with fingerprints, known associates, betting habits, banking information, etc.

That kind of information could be helpful, because touts and other scammers were also a big problem at tracks in the organization’s early days. Sometimes the trick would be as simple as an attractive lady offering to hold a racegoer’s ticket “for luck,” then offering to cash a winning one and never returning with the money. Touts would offer better odds than the tote, then vanish into the crowd when a bettor came to collect. Other times, the schemes were more complex series of fake tips mailed or called unsolicited to potential horseplayers at home, where they were unable to make a bet. The tout would always rig the system to ensure he made more money than the bettor.

Drayton found touts especially distasteful, even penning a column on them in 1946 under the heading “They Prey On Suckers” and referring to them as leeches preying on the gullible and relying on their undeserved sense of shame. Besides information-sharing, his prime weapon against touts and others waiting to exploit racegoers was a familiar one to today’s racing industry: boots on the ground.

Berube started his career in a pair of those boots, joining the TRPB after a stint in U.S. Army Intelligence and a childhood at Narragansett Park and Lincoln Downs in his native Rhode Island. He first served as a track detective splitting his time between Rhode Island, Rockingham and Scarborough before working in New Jersey, Florida and New York, moving up the ranks to agent/investigator, agent in charge, and vice president.

Each racetrack that paid into the TRPB had a dedicated agent who ran day-to-day track security, in addition to special investigations. By the time Berube joined the organization in the mid-1960s, most detectives were plainclothesmen with the challenging task of becoming known enough to generate good sources, without becoming so well-known that their subjects would see them coming.

A familiarity with the players was key, which was why agents were encouraged to become specialists on particular circuits. Don Ahrens began working for the TRPB in the early 1980s, when he joined as an investigator at Bowie. He would go on to become a “pinch hitter,” traveling from track to track to help agents problem-solve. Ahrens would go on to work at 39 racetracks in roughly 39 years. He is now director of security and parking at Sam Houston Race Park.

“You look over the program every day, you check the overnights, you look at horses’ PPs, and you look at the mutuels pools,” said Ahrens.

Race fixing rings were a big focus for both Ahrens and Berube. The formula of each ring would be different, but the goal was usually the same: win money at the betting windows. Groups would conspire with riders to hold horses or advance them with buzzers; they also might conspire with trainers to sedate a horse or dope it ahead of a race to exact control over its form and create a longshot that could pull off a ‘surprise’ win.

“There are a lot of identical fundamentals,” said Ahrens. “Nobody fixes a race to get their picture taken.”

Often, it’s easier to see a race fix in hindsight than it is to anticipate one (and allowing one to go ahead would make investigators complicit). Agents maintained good relationships with mutuel clerks and managers who could call them if a bet stuck out as unusual.

Sometimes though, it was old-fashioned undercover work that would bring down those running afoul of the rules. Ahrens remembers renting a van and running a video camera through blinds in its back windows to film a purchase of illicit medications off track property. It wasn’t always necessary to hide to catch the most emboldened cheaters, though: he also remembers driving his bright red convertible with a white top up to a clocker’s stand positioned near a barn where he was told a trainer was going to tube (needs explanation what this means) a horse. Barn employees saw him milling around in the stand with a commission investigator; he saw the activity he’d been warned about, and when he approached the barn to speak with the trainer, a groom went running down the shedrow, shouting to everyone in sight, “It’s coffee time!” Luckily for Ahrens, the groom didn’t give her co-workers enough warning for them to dispose of the evidence he needed.

Even if rule-breakers are looking out for racing investigators, they still make mistakes. Berube recalls finding out about the use of buzzers by accident. A jockey had fallen during a race and his whip was recovered by a track worker who thought there was something strange about it. Someone had wired it up to a battery, discreetly giving the whip an electric charge. The next day, Berube and his fellow investigators dug up a handheld metal detector and waved it over riders’ gear before a race while no one was looking. It didn’t take them long to find another rigged whip and pull the rider out of the race.

The importance of the FBI

Of course, as TRPB agents were all too aware, having evidence against someone wasn’t the same thing as seeing them charged. Thanks to Drayton and other early TRPB agents who were former FBI employees, the organization maintained a close relationship with the organization. That was key, because although a TRPB agent could trespass an individual on behalf of the racetrack, they weren’t a police force and couldn’t arrest someone. The FBI, in turn, was only likely to send resources in cases where it had a commitment from a U.S. Attorney’s office to prosecute.

“They don’t take cases lightly,” said Berube. “They reject more than they take because they have so many and the ones that they do take represent a commitment of resources and staff, and also represent the fact they think they can win. They don’t want to take a case that’s just a toss-up or maybe a let’s-take-a-shot type thing. They want, you might say, slam dunk type cases.”

And sometimes they didn’t. Berube had more than one race fixing case where he generated solid evidence but couldn’t get federal buy-in. Of course, he could and did still bring that evidence to state authorities.

What does that mean for the Servis/Navarro indictments?

Berube has no specific knowledge of that case, but experience tells him a federal prosecutor was on board early, before the FBI really began digging up evidence. He suspects the agency was in the midst of investigating something else when it intercepted information, probably via wire taps, about doping horses and drug misbranding. From there, it needed buy-in from the U.S. Attorney’s office to keep looking.

And of course, there were a lot of cases through the years that didn’t make the headlines or garner federal prosecutors’ attention. Luckily, Ahrens said, he was never in the field to be a hero.

“Some of the situations get press. Others don’t,” he said. “Nobody’s looking for headlines. We have a job to do and you wake up every day and you just go do it. Some days are boring. Other days, stuff happens.”

So what happened?

With a system that was working so well, why didn’t the TRPB continue to be racing’s FBI?

Mostly, Berube said, racing changed.

“With simulcasting, obviously, the crowds have disappeared and with that reduction of personnel, track detectives are pretty much a historical footnote because you don’t really need them anymore,” said Berube. “It’s just not as many people at the racetrack.

“The other thing is the change in the ownership of racetracks. When I started and through a good bit of my career you had some real leaders and giants who were in the TRA, the big names in racing and the good names in racing. And mostly the tracks were privately owned. And today, obviously, the landscape of ownership has changed.

“It started even when I was president, the diminishment and erosion of the commitment to have a viable TRPB. Since 2005, it’s just faded away.”

These days, the organization, headquartered at Fair Hill in Maryland, focuses primarily on wagering integrity (although it has also overseen the conversion from lip tattoos to digital identification with microchips). That model made sense once so much wagering activity was primarily digital and off-site, Berube said, but there’s no longer the same emphasis on training new agents and getting them out into the backstretch.

That doesn’t mean there are no more investigators in racing – Ahrens manages investigations for Sam Houston but also joins special teams at the Breeders’ Cup and for American Quarter Horse Association stakes races to boost surveillance power at those events. Although most in the field agree there’s a shortage of them and they’re no longer part of a unified force like TRPB, there are still good investigators out there doing what they can to make the sport better. There’s something to be said for investigative work seeming a little like a swimming duck – peace above the surface, furious paddling in the depths that almost no one gets to see.

To keep moving forward, Ahrens said, it would always be nice to have more resources, a bigger budget, federal buy-in. But the biggest thing he needs is for the public to help him keep doing his job.

“The saying, if you see something, say something is right. If you see something wrong, tell somebody,” he said. “I can tell you I’m not in the rafters of every bar. I don’t know what goes on every place. If you saw it, you’ve got to let me know and I’ll follow through on it or my team will or the state will. You don’t know what you don’t learn.”

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