By Bill Finley
Is trainer-driver Graham Lewis a violent, unhinged hothead who doesn’t belong in the sport, or a misunderstood, wronged man who is at the receiving end of a vendetta from the New York Gaming Commission? That will be the question Tuesday when Lewis appears before the Gaming Commission to ask it to reconsider his last application for a license, which was denied. Don’t expect any easy answers or resolutions next week, not in a matter that has dragged on for more than 12 years and has become nothing less than a bitter and ugly battle between a horsemen and a government agency.
“They are the most dirty scumbags on the face of the planet,” Lewis says of the Gaming Commission. “What has happened to me is completely disgraceful.”
Gaming Commission officials are too smart to fire back at Lewis with such inflammatory language, but they don’t have to. It’s pretty clear they really don’t like this guy.
Lewis, whose nickname is the “Dragon Man,” is from Wales and came to this country in the early 80s knowing there wasn’t much of an opportunity to make a living in harness racing in Great Britain. He stayed until Roosevelt Raceway closed in 1988, when he went back to Great Britain. But he never lost his desire to be a success in U.S. racing and reappeared on this side of the Atlantic in 2001.
He was doing fine until 2003, when he had an altercation with a groom named John Redding which began a Kafka-esque nightmare for the Welsh trainer that continues on today and has led to him essentially being banned from the sport.
As Lewis explains it, he was working mornings as a bricklayer and did not normally get to his barn at Yonkers until mid-afternoon. For that reason, Redding was in charge of the small stable throughout morning training hours. Lewis became alarmed when a fellow horseman told him the groom was abusing his horses. Lewis said he confronted the individual and fired him. That led to an argument over money Redding thought Lewis owed him for the work he had done earlier in the week. Lewis decided to dock him $50 because he was not going to finish the work week and refused to give the groom that amount even though, he says, the groom threatened him over the money.
“He said to me ‘If you don’t pay me, I will get my money one way or another.'” Lewis claims.
Lewis says the next morning he came to his barn and found that another horse in his stable had a stab wound and that the groom was standing nearby laughing as he dealt with the stricken horse. He admits he got into a physical and verbal altercation with the groom and says he vowed the individual would never see a penny from him. He also admits that he used a racial slur during his confrontation with the groom, who is Black.
Lewis moved on, started racing at Plainridge in Massachusetts and thought the incident was behind him. But when he applied for a license renewal with the then-New York State Racing and Wagering Board, he discovered that his troubles were just beginning. His license was denied.
According to a hearing officer’s report from a hearing in 2014 when Lewis again applied for a license, he was denied in 2005 because there was concern about him having used two different social security numbers on applications. Lewis said that he was not a U.S. citizen at the time and instead of using social security numbers on his applications, he was using work permit ID numbers and he had more than one work permit.
But Lewis said the real reason his license was denied was because Board investigator Joel Levinson told him his problems would go away if he simply paid off the groom. Lewis, who admits who doesn’t like to buckle to authority figures, told Levinson it would never happen and argues that Levinson has had it out for him ever since because he disregarded his request.
“They wanted me to pay a man who just beat my horse over the head with a bridle and stabbed another horse in the leg and came after me and slapped me around,” he said. “You want me to pay him for it? Not on your life. It will never, never happen.”
With Plainridge allowing him to race, Lewis could have slipped off to Massachusetts and let the matter drop. But he is stubborn, wanted to clear his name and wanted to be able to race in New York again. What followed was an almost comical game of cat and mouse where Lewis would apply for a license year after year and the Racing Board would deny him every time.
Whatever chance Lewis had of being reinstated diminished severely when his troubles with the Racing Board boiled over and turned even uglier in 2007. During a hearing at the Board’s offices in Schenectady, Lewis admits he became agitated and said it was because he was being berated by Board officials and that they repeatedly lied about him during the hearing. He slammed his fist down on a glass table top and broke it.
“Without any cause or reason his testimony and conduct was contemptuous and disrespectful,” the hearing officer wrote in the 2014 report. “There was considerable shouting, foul language, name calling, the smashing of a glass table cover, attempted pushing and shoving , blocking exits from the hearing room, calls to 911…”
“I slapped the table top and it broke,” he admitted. “I lost my temper because (Commission Investigator Ellen All) lied and she tried to put me at fault. They said I threatened her by saying ‘I hope you die a horrible and cruel death.’ Those words are wrong. What I actually said is ‘I hope you die as cruelly as you’ve lived.'”
Those sort of words and that sort of behavior certainly aren’t the best tactics to use when your at the mercy of the Racing Board and you want your license back. To the surprise of no one, Lewis’s application was once again rejected.
Rather than give up, Lewis only dug in. He went on a letter-writing campaign that includes complaints to Governor Cuomo, the Attorney General and others about the Racing and Wagering Board/Gaming Commission. Once again, he wasn’t exactly making any friends within the Gaming Commission’s offices in Schenectady.
“They continued to hold that against me,” Lewis said. “Every time I go to a hearing, they bring it up, my writing letters to the governor and the attorney general. That’s my right. This is about my property rights. I have every right to protect myself and I have every right to complain and right to write letters.”
In 2010, Lewis applied again and was denied. In the denial, the Racing Board cited his “violent tendencies.” Lewis tried again in 2012. Same story. In 2013, Lewis tried again and issued a formal apology to the Gaming Commission. Though it’s not in the hearing officer’s record, Lewis said that Levinson also issued an apology. He thought that the apologies might have cleared the way for a license renewal, but Lewis had no so luck.
In the meantime, things got even worse for Lewis. It is unclear why the Massachusetts Racing Commission had allowed him to race for several years when he had his license application in New York denied but the Massachusetts authorities apparently awoke to his situation and the typical rules of reciprocity when it comes to licenses and banned him in 2014.
Lewis went back to the Gaming Commission around the time of the Plainridge ban and once again asked to have his New York license back.
Hearing Officer Micheal Hoblock Jr. wrote the following in his report: “The issue now is: is his remorse, good conduct and apology sufficient to overcome his behavior and conduct denying responsibility, failing to furnish documentation when requested and contradicting and blaming Commission staff for his inability to obtain a license?” Later on in the same report, Hoblock answered his own question: “I observed his demeanor throughout the Hearing and listened to his semblance of an apology. His apologies were insincere given his outrageous conduct not only in New York, but in Massachusetts as well. I believe Mr. Lewis understands the seriousness of his actions–he cannot obtain a license anywhere in the U.S.–but I do not believe he is able to be truly contrite. His self esteem will not allow it to happen.”
The license application was denied on “the ground that his experience, character and general fitness are such that his participation in racing or related activities would be inconsistent with the public interest, convenience or necessity, or with the best interests of racing generally.”
Now out of the sport entirely, Lewis is back to working as a bricklayer and says he will drive in a few races this summer in Ireland and Wales. What he will not do is give up his fight. He understands that he has not always behaved perfectly but argues that a fight with a groom that he alleges stabbed one of his horses and a broken glass table top he said was worth less than $300 do not come close to justifying what has amounted to a lifetime ban from the sport. Aside from his problems with the New York commission, Lewis’s record is basically spotless.
He says this is no longer about anything that he may have done as far as violation of rules go, his fight with the groom or the broken table top. He says it has become personal and that the Gaming Commission is determined to ruin his career. He recently became a U.S. citizen, which he believes will ultimately help him prevail.
“According to (Commission lawyer) William Sekellick, he is denying me a license because he feels I am crazy lunatic and I beat some guy half to death,” Lewis said. “None of it true. I have a right to defend myself and my livestock and I have the right to defend my livelihood. I have become a U.S. citizen and I understand how due process of law works. How long are you going to punish me for me an accidental table top breakage that happened eight years ago? I have never been caught with drugs, my barn is hay and water, drug free. I have been taught the right way, taught to condition the old fashioned way.
“They should put this behind them. I paid my dues, you punished me to fullest extent you can. I know they don’t like me. But you cannot make this decisions based on whether you like or dislike me. Give me my license and let me move on.
“This is an abuse of their position, it is malicious prosecution. They are using me as an example in order to set a precedent that they can do whatever they want to whoever they wish without due process of law and just say no, no, no and deny you.”
Lewis says he will re-apply for a license each and every year, but realizes his only hope to be reinstated is to get a favorable ruling within the court system. He is confident it will eventually happen.
“They can’t keep doing this to me; they just can’t. It’s against the law,” he said. “It would be un-American for me not to keep fighting for my rights. I am fighting evil people.”