Trial under way in jockey weight case

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Two defendants are accused of allowing riders to exceed assigned weights at NYRA tracks

Times Union Albany, New York
By Dennis Yusko, Staff writer
First published: Thursday, September 6, 2007

BALLSTON SPA -- Mario Sclafani and Braulio Baeza are either corrupt former New York Racing Association employees or individuals ensnared in a careless and political investigation. A Saratoga County Court jury must decide which. The trial of the two NYRA clerks of scales began Wednesday on accusations they conspired to allow five overweight jockeys to race at Saratoga Race Course and other state tracks from June to December in 2004.

State Prosecutor John Prizzia said in opening statements that Sclafani, of Yorktown Heights, Westchester County, and Baeza, from Elmont in Nassau County, defrauded dozens of horse owners by permitting the jockeys to ride heavy, which means carrying more than five pounds over their assigned weight.

"The rules of racing were designed to ensure the integrity of the sport," said Prizzia, assistant deputy attorney general under Andrew Cuomo. "No one person has the right to place themselves above those rules."

But defense attorneys Paul DerOhannesian and Todd Greenberg told the 12 jurors that the case was based on a faulty investigation and a misunderstanding of the process for weighing jockeys.

They said their clients had no criminal intent and that state prosecutors and investigators failed to account for some jockeys being weighed with safety vests, helmets and goggles.

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

The defense lawyers portrayed their clients as "scapegoats" who followed "vague" rules given to them. They said NYRA helped deliver the two clerks to investigators as part of its attempt to show lawmakers and federal investigators that it ran a clean operation.

Baeza and Sclafani face a mix of felony and misdemeanor charges, including conspiracy, tampering with a sports contest, falsifying business records and scheming to defraud. They are the first of more than 20 NYRA employees indicted by former Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to take their cases to trial.

In court Wednesday, Prizzia listed dozens of races in which he said State Police surveillance caught Sclafani, 50, and Baeza, a 67-year-old Hall of Fame jockey, falsifying jockeys' weights so they could ride.

"They changed the playing field," Prizzia said.

Sclafani and Baeza have been accused of allowing Jose Santos, Robby Albarado, Heberto Castillo Jr., Ariel Smith and Cornelio Velasquez to ride 7 to 15 pounds overweight. The prosecutor claimed in his opening statements that the extra weight influenced the outcome of races and was part of an ongoing scheme to defraud horse owners.

But in the defense's opening statements, DerOhannesian noted none of the jockeys was indicted. The case lacks a motive and criminal intent, DerOhannesian said.

"There were hundreds of hours of wiretaps, cameras and not one word picked up of any conspiracy, any agreement, any illegality," DerOhannesian said. "There is not one cent passed to either of these men."

Sclafani and Baeza, who were fired by NYRA after they were indicted, did the best they could with what were loose rules, he said. The defense said the prosecution did not account for the pounds of safety gear, sweat and mud when jockeys weigh in after races. Also, the defense attorneys said, NYRA scales are 50 to 60 years old and weights were never precisely calculated because the scales' hands were constantly moving.

"When you look at this case you say there's something wrong here," DerOhannesian said.

Testimony is expected to continue this morning before County Judge Jerry Scarano.

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