By Bill Finley
The New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC)'s three-year ban of trainer Linda Rice is “entirely unwarranted,” according to a decision handed down Thursday by the New York Supreme Court's Appellate Division (Third Department). The decision was unanimous.
The Gaming Commission fined Rice $50,000 and revoked her license for three years on May 17, 2021 after investigating claims that Rice received favorable treatment from the NYRA racing office and that the racing office was releasing to her the names and past performances of horses that had already been entered in races, giving her an unfair advantage. It has been alleged that Rice had paid racing officials in exchange for the information, a charge she denied. She did admit to routinely giving members of the racing department, as well as the gate crew, Christmas presents.
Rice appealed the decision and was granted an injunction, which allowed her to continue training after the ruling.
The court delved into the tactics the racing office used to “hustle” horses into races when there was not an adequate amount of entries and found that providing trainers with information about the horses already entered was not uncommon.
“Finally, petitioner argues, and we agree, that the penalty of a three-year revocation of her license is so disproportionate to the offense and shockingly unfair as to constitute and abuse of discretion as a matter of law,” the ruling read.
The court also noted that Rice's gender may have been a part of the story.
“Not to be overlooked is that petitioner is the only trainer ever disciplined by respondent for this rule violation–a troublesome point given that petitioner is the only female trainer ever to win a training title at a New York track.”
It appears that Rice will still have to pay the fine as the ruling noted that neither the court nor Rice's legal team had an issue with that portion of the penalty.
“No one took issue with the fine,” said Rice's attorney Andrew Turro. “That was part of the oral argument. The oral argument was that you cannot revoke her license for this.”
The Gaming Commission was looking into a period that began in early 2012 and ran through August, 2014. Martin Panza, then NYRA's senior vice president of racing operations, testified that there was no written rule restricting the information a racing clerk could disclose during the hustling process but that it was commonly understood in racing circles that the disclosure of the names of horses that had already been entered was prohibited. Other witnesses confirmed that certain information about horses already entered into a race was often shared with trainers, including the number of horses entered and whether or not there were horses in the race with early speed.
While Panza maintained that the information provided to Rice gave her an advantage, P.J. Campo, who was the NYRA racing secretary during the period in question, downplayed the idea that Rice had an edge on her rivals.
“From Panza's perspective, petitioner's actions compromised the integrity of racing,” the court wrote. “Campo, who served as racing secretary throughout most of the disputed period, downplayed the issue. Campo observed that most of the trainers would already know which horses would be expected to run in certain races. Campo acknowledged that having the horse names would be an advantage 'to a degree' but that such information would not affect anything.”
Considering that “hustling” horses often led to the racing office divulging information about what horses had already been entered in race was, the court reasoned, part of the problem.
“…NYRA bears much of the responsibility for what happened in this matter by fostering an aptly named 'hustling' process without a defined written rule or diligent oversight,” the court wrote.
At deadline for this story, Rice had not returned a phone call seeking her comment.
“This was a thoughtful decision from the court and I am very grateful that they will allow my client to continue to race and pursue her livelihood,” Turro said. “She's a wonderful trainer and this is what she deserved.”
Rice, who has been training since 1987, has 2,314 career wins. Her accomplishments include winning the 2009 training title at Saratoga when she won 20 races. She was also the leading trainer at the recently concluded Aqueduct spring meet, where she won 17 races.