Overweight jockeys trial begins

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Times Union Albany, New York
By Dennis Yusko, Staff writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

BALLSTON SPA -- The trial of two New York Racing Association officials accused of conspiring to allow overweight jockeys at Saratoga Race Course and other state tracks began today in Saratoga County Court.

NYRA clerks of scales Mario Sclafani of Yorktown Heights , Westchester County, and Braulio Baeza of Elmont, Nassau County, were accused of defrauding horse owners and bettors by Prosecutor John Prizzia in his opening statements today.

Sclafani and Baeza have been accused of permitting five jockeys to carry more weight than allowed during 2004 races at Aqueduct, Saratoga and Belmont tracks. They are the first of more than 20 NYRA employees indicted by former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to take their cases to trial.

Defense attorneys Todd Greenberg and Paul DerOhannesian in their opening statements told the 12 jurors that Spitzer's case was based on a faulty investigation and a misunderstanding of the weighing process.

But Prizzia listed dozens of races in which he said State Police used surveillance to gather evidence showing Sclafani, 50, and Baeza, a 67-year-old Hall of Fame jockey, falsifying weights of jockeys. The police alleged weights were changed so the jockeys could ride despite being more than 5 pounds overweight. Sclafani and Baeza face charges of conspiracy, tampering with a sports contest, falsifying business records and scheme to defraud.

"They changed the playing field," Prizzia said.

Greenberg and DerOhannesian argued investigators failed to take into account that some jockeys were weighed with safety vests, helmets, goggles and more before or after races.

"There is simply no evidence of criminal intent in this case," Greenberg said. "The evidence is not credible, accurate or believable."

Dennis Yusko can be reached at 581-8438 or by e-mail at dyusko@timesunion.com.

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