Mark Gerard, Veterinarian at Center of a Horse Race Fraud, Dies at 76


Mark Gerard, Veterinarian at Center of a Horse Race Fraud, Dies at 76

Mark J. Gerard, a veterinarian who cared for champion racehorses like Kelso and Secretariat but who perpetrated one of the most notorious racetrack frauds of the postwar era, died June 21 in Miami. He was 76.

Dr. Mark Gerard in 1977, on his way to the court house to be arraigned for switching the identities of two racehorses.

The cause was complications of a stroke, his sister, Joyce Aimee Titchnell, said.

Dr. Gerard was a highly respected veterinarian at New York’s premier tracks in the 1960s and ’70s, overseeing the health of hundreds of horses raced by the sport’s top stables and trainers.

It was all the more shocking, then, when he turned out to be the solution to the puzzle behind an obscure Uruguayan horse named Lebon, who won a modest grass race at Belmont Park on Sept. 23, 1977, at odds of 57 to 1.

Lebon was not what he seemed. He was in fact Cinzano, the top 3-year-old in Uruguay in 1976, winner of seven of eight stakes races. The real Lebon, the sports columnist Red Smith later wrote in The New York Times, “couldn’t beat a fat man from Gimbels to Macy’s.”

Both horses had been imported by Dr. Gerard, and their identities had been switched. The long shot’s real name came to light when the racing editor at a Uruguayan tabloid, thrilled by the news of humble Lebon’s unexpected victory, asked The Associated Press for a winner’s circle photograph. He immediately recognized Cinzano and alerted the New York Jockey Club.

Close inspection revealed that although Lebon and Cinzano looked remarkably alike, there were indisputable differences. For one thing, a dental examination showed that the ringer was a 4-year-old; Lebon was 5.

It was downhill for Dr. Gerard after that, although the taste of victory had been more than sweet. He bet $1,200 to win and $600 to show on “Lebon,” collecting $80,440 at the cashier’s window.

With F. Lee Bailey as his lawyer, Dr. Gerard was acquitted of two felony counts but found guilty of “fraudulent entries and practices in contests of speed,” a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $1,000. The sentence was reduced on appeal, and he served a lesser sentence in jail in Nassau County.

Mark Joel Geronimus, known as Mike, was born on Oct. 6, 1934, in Brooklyn. He changed his last name when he became a veterinarian.

At 10, his older sister bought him a retired polo pony named Velvet. He took the horse with him when he went to study at the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, where he was the captain of the polo team. During summers, he worked at the New York tracks as an exercise rider and a hot walker.

One of his first employers was Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who trained for the potent Phipps family stable. The connection paid off. As his veterinary practice flourished, Dr. Gerard tended to the likes of the Kentucky Derby winners Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Canonero II and Kelso, one of the greatest racehorses of the modern era.

At the time of the Lebon scandal, he and his assistant vet cared for 400 horses at Belmont and at Aqueduct.

The Lebon-Cinzano affair dominated the sports pages for months, in part because the strands of the fraud proved so difficult to untangle.

“The record reveals a factual scenario that might have been authored jointly by an Alfred Hitchcock and a Damon Runyon,” the New York Court of Appeals wrote in 1980 in its decision upholding Dr. Gerard’s conviction.

In May 1977, Dr. Gerard, through an agent in Uruguay, purchased Cinzano for Joseph Taub, a computer executive and a future owner of the New Jersey Nets, paying $81,000. He then bought, for $1,600, the lowly Lebon, who had won just one race in the previous two years.

Claiming that Cinzano had died in an accident at his farm in Muttontown, on Long Island, Dr. Gerard filed an insurance claim for the horse . Mr. Taub, who was not implicated in the scheme, received an insurance settlement of $150,000. Dr. Gerard then procured a certificate of foreign registration from the Jockey Club for the horse he called Lebon, supplying photographs of Cinzano.

As investigators worked to unravel the Cinzano mystery, they encountered further murk. Evidence surfaced that several horses imported from Argentina by Dr. Gerard for other owners had also been switched. No charges were brought in those cases, however.

In a bizarre coda to the Lebon affair, Cinzano resurfaced as a 10-year-old, competing, with great success, in nonbetting hurdles races in Virginia.

“He’s a good horse, and I’m sure the racing public would like to see him,” his owner, David Denise, said. “But I don’t know what to do next.”

With his career on the racetrack finished, Dr. Gerard moved to Florida, settling in Wellington, near Palm Beach, and developed a successful practice caring for polo ponies.

Besides his sister, Joyce, of Los Angeles, he is survived by his wife, Alice. His sister said that he had left a written request that his ashes be scattered “where happy horses graze.”

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