The “Tawdry” Tale of Burton Sipp

|

Burton Sipp and Kin Run in 1976 | Narragansett Park/Gene Aldo

By

Either trainer Burton Sipp is an unwitting pariah, or racing is his witting fool.

Over the last 40 years, Sipp has faced allegations involving insurance scams and dead horses, animal neglect cases, race-fixing stings and regulatory malfeasance. Not all the accusations against him have stuck.

Since the mid 1990s, Sipp has been barred from applying for a racing license in New Jersey due to swirling suspicions of fraudulent practices. So he moved his tack to more welcoming pastures.

For the past few years, the trainer has been dogged by allegations he's knowingly funneled his horses into the slaughter pipeline. Proving these allegations has been trickier, exposing gaping holes in racing's aftercare safety-net.

“There's nothing wrong with auctions,” Sipp told the TDN, when asked of the risks that kill buyers pose. “I haven't done anything wrong in the eyes of Mountaineer,” he added, highlighting the West Virginian track where he currently races.

As Sipp sees it, he's been martyred at the court of public opinion. “Unfortunately, with the internet, anybody can say anything about anybody,” Sipp said. “Look at the way they bash Donald Trump.”

In the early 1980s, Sipp sent out nearly 300 victories in one year. So far this year, he's had just eight. At 78, Sipp realistically has few remaining years to add to his career haul of 2,891 wins. Then earlier this week, Churchill Downs temporarily barred him from racing and training at Presque Isle and its other tracks. The faucet's getting tighter.

Many wonder why it wasn't completely turned off years ago.

 

“I didn't throw him under the bus”

As long ago as the early 1980s, the name Sipp was mired in ignominy.

In 1993, Bill Finley reported in the NY Daily News how a National Association of Racing Commissioners report detailed 83 rulings against Sipp over a 12-year period, some for minor infractions, though some major, including a 60-day suspension for a lidocaine positive. The report was published in 1982.

Sipp is believed to have collected more violations than any other trainer in the history of racing up to that point, wrote Finley.

One of the more egregious incidents occurred on August 15, 1980, when Sipp allegedly forged a scratch card on another trainer's horse, forcing that horse to be withdrawn–a possible criminal offense.

According to Finley's reporting, Sipp avoided criminal charges by helping prosecutors in a sting operation called “Operation Glue,” in which Sipp and a cadre of New Jersey State Police officers posing as owners offered jockeys bribes to pull horses in a race.

Four jockeys–journeymen riders struggling to make ends meet–eventually took the bait, but the case fell apart in trial. As Finley reported, the nature of the sting left a nasty after-taste among many in the industry, including one of the jockeys charged, Gilfredo Gonzalez.

“What he has done to people and what he has done to animals…he is a disgrace,” said Gonzalez, at the time, about Sipp. “We are all human beings and deserve a second chance, but he has had more chances than a cat.”

Sipp eventually served a 60-day suspension for the forged scratch. But the trainer's run-ins with the law weren't over.

In 1984 as Christmas loomed large, Sipp was indicted by a grand jury in New Jersey on charges of inflating insurance claims on nine horses who died in his care over a four-year period.

As a Burlington County Prosecutor's Office statement reportedly read at the time, “in each of the nine claims, the horses died within three days to five months of the insurance application.”

Per Finley's reporting, the investigation allegedly exceeded the scope of just nine horses. Finley cites an affidavit written by an attorney on behalf of jockey John D'Agusto, in which it's written:

“The investigation had been initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and centered around the allegation that Mr. Sipp had killed 41 horses in an insurance fraud scheme.”

Sipp eventually pled guilty to the lesser charges of witness tampering, and on Aug. 1, 1986, was fined $7,500 and sentenced to five-years probation. Not everyone, it appears, agreed with the final sentencing.

Gregg Shivers, the assistant Burlington County prosecutor at the time, reportedly said that his office could have easily proven the earlier charges, but that the plea bargain was driven in part by the anticipated cost of the trial, expected to be one of the most expensive in Burlington County history.

One constant throughout Sipp's troubles is his insistence on innocence. At the time of his 1986 sentencing for witness tampering he denied wrongdoing, arguing that his guilty plea was a result of entrapment.

“People believe what they've read about me,” he told Finley at the time. “I know within my own conscience that I didn't kill any horses and I'm the only person I have to live with.”

To this day, Sipp insists he has a guilt-free conscience. He told the TDN that his suspension for the forged scratch, for example, was an instance of him falling on his sword to protect another.

“We were playing a joke on a guy, and I took the heat for that,” Sipp told the TDN. “The person that actually was involved in that was one of the racing officials, and I didn't throw him under the bus.”

Over the years, Sipp hasn't faced scrutiny only for his racing infractions. Trouble and suspicion have similarly plagued Animal Kingdom, his former 32-acre zoo and pet store in Burlington, N.J., one that over the years housed tropical birds, tigers, lions, and giraffes.

 

“Deceptive business practices”

By the time of Finley's 1993 NY Daily News article, tragedy had already struck Animal Kingdom when a drunk was gored to death by one of the zoo's bulls. Sipp reportedly faced no charges for the incident.

A 2005 Boston Globe article, however, details how a Burlington County grand jury indicted Sipp in 1990 on charges of “deceptive business practices and attempted theft by deception.”

According to the Globe, Sipp in 1988 allegedly staged a burglary at his pet store of two exotic breeding birds to collect an insurance pay-out. According to Finley's reporting, the case went to trial and he was found not guilty.

The year 2011 was a terrible one for Sipp both personally and professionally.

In April of 2011, Sipp's wife, 43-year-old Bridget, died in a fire at the zoo, running back into a burning building to save her mother, who had already been pulled free.

In October of that same year, another fire tore through the zoo. According to a subsequent Philadelphia Inquirer article, the blaze killed 24 animals, including a mother and baby giraffe. Both fires were ruled accidents.

The same article, however, reports how by that time–January of 2013–Sipp was under investigation by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for alleged animal welfare violations.

According to the Inquirer, citations stemmed all the way back to 2002, when five emaciated giraffes reportedly died at the zoo.

USDA inspectors, the Inquirer notes, were also looking into other more contemporary neglect allegations, including the euthanasia of both an adult hyena with a foot wound and a giraffe that had survived the 2011 fire, along with an ailing lemur found dead in its cage.

By that time, Sipp had amassed more than 200 violations over 12 years, “many for animal neglect and facility maintenance issues,” the Inquirer reported.

Per a subsequent article in nj.com, Sipp reportedly cancelled his license to exhibit animals in 2014.

The same 2014 nj.com article also notes how the USDA had issued Sipp only two official letters of warning and a $469 fine. These letters were reportedly issued in 1995 and 2011, the latter just days before the second fire.

TDN reached out to the USDA to verify the details in these news articles. “I will say that we usually shelve these documents after three years,” wrote a USDA spokesperson, in an email.

As such, the TDN has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the USDA for a record of all citations Sipp received for his operations at Animal Kingdom.

Sipp, however, maintains his innocence from all nefarious events at the zoo.

He said he has no recollection of the five emaciated giraffes perishing in 2002, as reported by the Inquirer. “I don't know where you got this information from, but that's not true,” he said.

Sipp also said that from about 1996 onwards, he was busy with his work as a racehorse trainer and wasn't responsible for the day-to-day running of the zoo.

“My wife ran the zoo and she hired a curator and we had staff…that handled everything,” he said. By the time of certain citations that occurred after the second fire, “I didn't own the zoo at the time. I had sold it,” he added.

According to the 2013 Philadelphia Inquirer article, Christopher Basner and his wife, Anne Butler, briefly took over the zoo in October of 2012, but terminated a two-year contract after just three weeks.

According to the Inquirer, the zoo was back in Sipp's charge when one of the giraffes had to be euthanized “after it was found in the barn too weak to stand.” Sipp was reportedly cited for that incident for failing to provide veterinary care.

 

“A tawdry image of that industry”

By 2009, Sipp, who had long before muscled his way back into the training ranks, was posting decent returns. That year, his horses won 73 races and amassed more than $650,000 in earnings. But his notoriety had hardly waned.

“In the best-case scenario, he tampered with a witness and is not the type of person who should ever be allowed to take part in a sport that involves gambling and where the integrity of the product is tantamount,” wrote Finley, for ESPN, in 2009.

“In the worst-case scenario, he killed horses for personal gain,” Finley added. “No reasonable person could argue that Sipp should ever have been allowed to race again.”

Some authorities evidently agreed with Finley, for Sipp's attempts to get licensed and to race over the years have resembled a game of whack-a-mole. Take the years following 1993, when his probation on charges of witness tampering had ended and he sought a return to the sport.

While the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission initially granted Sipp a license, Philadelphia Park and Penn National were less welcoming, the latter track steadfast in refusing Sipp access to the facility.

The matter went to court in 1994, when a Commonwealth Court judge upheld the tracks' bans which were based, the Globe reported, on the trainer's history of violations.

As per the Globe, “Judge James Gardner Colins wrote in his 15-page decision, 'a reasonable mind could readily conclude that Sipp's association with horse racing not only taints the image of that industry but also fosters a tawdry image of that industry.'”

Early in 2013, when Sipp attempted to once again enter horses at both Penn National and Parx Racing, both facilities reportedly refused his entries. The trainer subsequently appealed, but the Pennsylvania racing commission upheld the bans.

Whereas in Pennsylvania Sipp's excommunication hasn't been an absolute, that's not the case in New Jersey.

In 1995, the New Jersey Racing Commission (NJRC) asked the state Office of Administrative Law to conduct a hearing into allegations of Sipp's fraudulent racing practices.

In a disposition with the NJRC, Sipp agreed that he “will never apply for any form of racing license in New Jersey, or engage in any activities requiring licensure by the New Jersey Racing Commission,” wrote Leland Moore, a spokesperson for the N.J. attorney general's office, in an email to TDN.

According to Moore, the NJRC has not issued a license to Sipp since. But not all the sport's higher-ups have maintained such a hard-line stance against the trainer.

“There's nothing in the rule book that keeps him from getting a license because he has a past,” Suffolk Downs chief of stewards Bill Keene, told the Boston Globe, back in 2005.

Over the past few years, other racing commissions and racetracks have also routinely welcomed the trainer, despite Sipp's checkered regulatory history continuing to grow.

According to the Thoroughbredrulings website, Sipp has been issued 47 citations since the start of 2005, the vast majority for relatively minor infractions.

Sipp has been found guilty of several medication violations during that time, including for a pre-race TCO2 test at Beulah Park in December of 2008, a Flunixin positive at Presque Isle in June of 2013, a Dexamethasone positive at Mountaineer in August of 2017, and a Phenylbutazone positive at Presque Isle in September of 2020.

The most egregious violation concerned an Ohio State Racing Commission (OSRC) search of Sipp's barn at Thistledown on Aug. 30, 2013.

According to Thoroughbredrulings, the search revealed the following: One apparently used syringe with the needle attached, four unused needles in their packaging, two needles that appeared to have already been used, one opened bottle of Iron Hydrogenated Dextran Injection (Hematinic), one unopened bottle of Iron Hydrogenated Dextran Injection (Hematinic), one opened bottle of Super B Complex Injection (Vedco), and one unopened bottle of Super B Complex Injection (Vedco).

In a ruling dated Aug. 31, 2013, Sipp reached an agreement with the commission. He was suspended five months and fined $500.

The TDN contacted current OSRC executive director, Chris Dragone, to confirm the details. Dragone said that Sipp's file contained information confirming the suspension and fine, but little else about that particular incident.

Once again, Sipp considers himself blameless. Sipp's assistant, he said, had purchased the vitamins from an on-track veterinarian to be used on his own horse, but had mistakenly stored the materials in Sipp's truck, the focus of the search.

“It was my truck he was using, and I knew nothing about him buying vitamins for the horse,” said Sipp. When asked about the iron supplement and syringes, “That was his, not mine,” Sipp replied.

 

“There's the person you ought to be going after”

Which leads to the past few weeks, and a flurry of activity on social media raising serious ethical questions of Sipp's treatment of three of his trainees who all raced within just four days of each other in late July at Mountaineer Park and Presque Isle.

On July 24, the 7-year-old mare, Come on City (Wiener Walzer) finished down the field in a $4,000 claimer at Mountaineer Park.

Back in 2020, Come on City was sold to Sipp at the Keeneland January sale for $1,500. According to Sue Kenny, former racing secretary for trainer Graham Motion, she had subsequently followed the mare's career due to welfare concerns under Sipp's charge.

According to Kenny, she had asked a Mountaineer trainer to place a claim for Come on City on July 24 on behalf of an elderly couple who wished to retire the mare. The state vet subsequently voided the claim, and so the trainer purchased the mare privately from Sipp for the same price as the claiming tag, said Kenny.

By the time Come on City arrived on Aug. 3 at The Winter Farm in Summerfield, North Carolina, however, the mare was suffering a severe hock infection stemming from multiple open wounds, said the farm's executive director, Holly Carter.

Sipp told TDN that the horse had also been shipped to Presque Isle and another facility beefore Winter Farm, suggesting that the injuries occurred during that period.

According to Carter, the veterinarians who looked at the mare on Aug. 3, “felt like the infection had been there for about two weeks, just by the heat of the swelling and the gunk. It wasn't a fresh wound. That's why we think she raced on it.”

Between the severe hock infection and osselets–chronic degeneration of the fetlock–in the horse's left front ankle, Come on City will likely never be rehomed as a sport horse, said Carter.

Three days after Come on City ran, the 6-year-old mare, Tailadios (Adios Charlie) failed to finish a $6,250 claimer at Presque Isle.

Tailadios' breeder, Jean White, a Florida-based veterinarian, said she was alerted on Aug. 11 via Facebook how Tailadois was in a facility in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, that markets itself as “finding the slaughter bound horses” in order to secure them “alternative homes.” White subsequently purchased Tailadios from the facility, she said.

Sipp said he sold the horse at a public auction in Ohio called “Smokey Lane” for $950. The person who purchased Tailadios, Sipp added, “is an unscrupulous person” who needs investigating.

“The guy that put her up for ransom, why didn't Churchill Downs contact him? There's the person you ought to be going after,” Sipp said.

“She's thin–not life-threateningly so–but she's got horrible looking ankles,” White said, of Tailadios' condition, adding that the mare is currently undergoing a full veterinary examination while in quarantine.

The same day Tailadios failed to make it past the finish line at Presque Isle, the 8-year-old mare Little Christy (Silent Name) suffered an even worse indignity at Mountaineer Park.

According to Equibase, Little Christy–who cost Sipp $3,500 at the Keeneland January Sale of 2020–was having her third start in three weeks.

In her very final race, Equibase writes, Little Christy “took a bad step and fell in mid stretch being euthanised on the track.”

 

“I cannot comment on consideration of future permit applications”

On Tuesday, Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI), which owns Presque Isle, announced that it had temporarily suspended Sipp, along with “any trainer either directly or indirectly employed by him,” from racing and stabling at all CDI-owned racetracks until further notice.

“The suspension is a result of concerns over the care and treatment of horses in the best interest of racing to protect the safety and integrity of the sport and its participants,” the statement read.

TDN reached out to James Colvin, the director of racing at Mountaineer, about the recent scrutiny on Sipp.

“I have no information for you to discuss on Burton Sipp, the WV Racing Commission has licensed Mr. Sipp and has also investigated him and to my knowledge have found no wrongdoing as to date,” Colvin wrote.

In 2010, the track instituted a policy barring trainers who sold horses at an Ohio sale frequented by known kill buyers. Colvin failed to respond to follow-up questions, including about the track's current policy on horses sold to slaughter.

In answer to a series of email questions, West Virginia Racing Commission executive director, Joe Moore, wrote that the commission's investigations into Sipp have led to “no actionable violations.”

According to Moore, the commission considers “rule violations in all racing jurisdictions as reported in the ARCI database, as well as criminal convictions,” when determining permit application approval, but that no rulings reported to ARCI have prohibited Sipp's licensure in West Virginia.

“Mr. Sipp is currently licensed by the West Virginia Racing Commission,” Moore wrote. “I cannot comment on consideration of future permit applications,” he added.

And where does the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) fit into the equation?

Lisa Lazarus, CEO of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority, said that currently, the law as written does not give the HISA Authority an “obvious way” to hold responsible parties accountable for horses that end up in the slaughter pipeline.

However, “we started looking more deeply into how we can actually address this,” Lazarus said.

At the same time, said Lazarus, the law “does give us broad authority over equine welfare, and over making sure that horses are protected,” she said, adding that HISA is able to take measures against “actions and conduct that interfere with horse welfare.”

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.

Liked this article? Read more like this.

  1. Tattersalls Director Jimmy George Joins Writers' Room
  2. Two Trainers, Jockey, Suspended After Searches at Parx
  3. Racetrack Surfaces: Where HISA's Rubber Meets the Road
  4. Weekly Stewards and Commissions Rulings Sept. 12-18
  5. Keeneland VP of Sales Tony Lacy Talks Smashing September Sale On Writers' Room
X

Never miss another story from the TDN

Click Here to sign up for a free subscription.