SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 1, 2011--There is one person who taught me much of what I know about a race horse, a person who helped make the game great in the era in which he served and beyond.

Photo by: NYRA
Dr. M.A. Gilman
I’m not sure there ever will be another Dr. Manuel A. Gilman, who died last week at 91.

Gilman’s legacy has been well documented in the mainstream racing press this week, including this: Horseplayers have the good doctor to thank for developing the Universal Horse Identification System used to prevent “ringers” from populating the races.

In short, Gilman's methodology assures that the horse you bet from the past performance lines is the one you get when it leaves the starting gate.

Such was his skill-set that as a student at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school, he was awarded the Surgery Prize.

Like most people who work and are successful in this game; first you love it, then you live it.

“Doc” earned enough money mucking stalls and riding show horses in his youth that he was able to put himself through two universities, according to reports this week quoting his son, Charles.

The system he developed came from recognizing that the horny growths inside a horse’s legs called chestnuts, a.k.a. night eyes, were akin to the human fingerprint. Each set was different from the next.

The methodology essentially is foolproof and only once to my knowledge was it ever beaten. And it took another brilliant, albeit wayward, veterinarian to do it.

In 1977, Dr. Mark Gerard, who administered to Hall of Famers Secretariat, Kelso, Riva Ridge and, fittingly, South American-based Kentucky Derby-winning Canonero II, turned a $1,900 wager into an $80,000 score by betting a cheap claiming plater to win a turf race on September 23rd.

It was the celebrated Lebon-Cinzano case in which a South American champion named Cinzano, racing in the name of a notorious claiming also-ran named Lebon, won the finale at Belmont Park paying $116 to win.

The horses, bought by Gerard in South America and turned over to one of his former assistants to train--owner-trainer Jack Morgan was later exonerated--had virtually the same color and markings except that the white star on their faces were shaped differently.

The news of Lebon’s victory reached his native Uruguay accompanied by a winners’ circle picture that appearing in South American newspapers A turf writer recognized the markings and that Lebon was really champion Cinzano.

At the time, apparently, the “night eyes” comparison system developed by Gilman was not a requirement in South America where horses were differentiated by color and unique markings. Except for the “star,” Lebon and Cinzano were virtually identical.

The reporter who saw the photograph alerted the New York stewards and subsequently not even celebrated defense attorney F. Lee Bailey could prevent Gerard from serving a one-year jail term. Ironically, Gerard died earlier this year.

In addition to developing the UHIS, Gilman served as a racing official in a career spanning 46 years. He was the chief examining veterinarian for the New York Racing Association, served as general manager to Harbor View Farm which campaigned Triple Crown champion Affirmed, was Director of the Jockey Club and finally Jockey Club steward at the NYRA tracks.

In his role as Jockey Club Director, Gilman was further instrumental in horse identification procedures in creating blood typing verification tests, organizing laboratories for putting the practice in place and rewriting Jockey Club rules. His work in this field earned him the Jockey Club Gold Medal.

But it was in his role as Jockey Club steward that I got to know and appreciate Doc Gilman as a true industry leader. We talked many times. He was always accessible, unflinchingly candid, teaching me many things about Thoroughbreds, one Queens kid to another.

But that didn’t mean that a young reporter wasn’t guilty of being naïve, that, ultimately, doing the right thing by the horse was more important than making pragmatic business decisions.

No more is this dichotomy more pronounced than on the issue of raceday medication, especially Lasix. Doc believed that permissive medication endangered the lives of horses and riders alike and was unfair to horseplayers as well. He published his thoughts and spoke against the practice at every racing conference he attended.

As I have written previously, I had a taste for Kool-Aid in my younger days on the beat. I bought into the argument that New York racing needed to embrace Lasix in order to compete with out of town tracks where raceday medication was legal.

It was true that tracks outside New York held a competitive advantage for top racing stock. But now many other reasonable people believe that Doc was correct in his warning that the proliferation of permissive medication would be the end of quality racing as we knew it.

Time has proven Doc Gilman to be on the correct side of this timely and highly controversial issue. Empirically, does anyone truly believe that the breed has improved since the prolific use of raceday medication became a reality?

It’s generally acknowledged that New York never had a better examining veterinarian than Doc Gilman, either before he took the job or after his retirement 32 years later. Not one of his decisions to scratch a horse on race day ever was overturned upon review.

“There never was another vet like him anywhere in the country,” said the man who trains a filly I own in-part, John Parisella. “He was the best official racing ever had. He protected the horses and the trainers who claim horses. Now you have to be especially careful.”

Parisella said that Dr. Mary Scollay is one vet who soldiers on in the Gilman tradition. Scollay developed a uniform equine injury reporting system in 2007, is a prominent contributor to the Eclipse-winning “On Call” media assistance program, and a recognized leader in the field of equine medicine.

The industry, the horses, and the betting public owe Doc Gilman their gratitude. Any and all can show their appreciation by making a small contribution to one of Doc’s favored equine charities; the Backstretch Employee Services Team, B.E.S.T.

Or, perhaps, the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation which provides private funding for equine medical research. Consequently, who knows? The betting money you save may be your own.