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VOL. 40 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 17, 2016

The horse race that (thankfully) never happened

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There I was, cranking out another story, minding my own business, of course, when the phone rang.

“Newsroom, Sam Stockard,” I said. It was sometime in 1987, long before newsrooms became information centers.

The person on the other end of the line identified himself as a reporter with WSM Radio and said something like, “I’m calling to see how you feel about being sued for $500 million.”

Being a relatively quick thinker, at least back then, my response was, “Well, I don’t have it.” Honesty is always the best policy.

But giving me the benefit of the doubt and considering I hadn’t seen any kind of lawsuit filed against me and the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, the reporter gave me a break and said it might be better if I talk to my editor and newspaper attorney before making any kind of statement.

As it turned out, he told me, I was being sued by horse racing promoter Claude Cockrell, a character with a shady background who was pushing a referendum to allow him to build a track in Rutherford County.

What got me sued was one question and one story.

When the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Racing Control Act of 1987 allowing pari-mutuel gambling on horse races, it also set up the Tennessee State Racing Commission to issue track licenses and make sure people followed state law.

On the day of the commission’s formation, I drove to Nashville and, after the meeting, did a quick interview with the late Jim Neal, one of Tennessee’s most famous attorneys, who had been appointed chairman of the commission.

My question to him was whether the commission would approve a track license for a convicted felon, which Cockrell was.

He’d been convicted of receiving and concealing stolen property, illegal possession of firearms and felony mail fraud, in addition to being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1977 for an effort to take over 20th Century Fox (that would be the movie company), according to reports.

Neal responded with a typical generic answer, saying each application would have to be considered on its own merits, and yada yada.

So in the next day’s story, I included my question and Neal’s answer.

No big deal, right?

Not according to Cockrell, whose lawsuit contended my question and story were designed to kill his efforts to pass pari-mutuel gambling in Rutherford County and stop him from making millions of dollars, along with anyone else who would net horse track revenue. The $500 million was the amount I was trying to circumvent.

Nearly 30 years later, that’s still a pretty big number, even with inflation.

And when you’re 23 years old and the most you’ve had in your bank account is probably $500 or so and you get sued for half a billion dollars, it can be just a little unnerving.

With a few butterflies in my stomach, I went to former DNJ Editor Mike Pirtle’s office, waving my hands to get through the cigarette smoke (you could smoke almost anywhere back then).

I wasn’t sure whether to ask for a raise from $5.50 an hour or to go straight to the point and tell him I (we) needed an attorney.

Being a hospitable soul, he lit another cigarette and let off a stream of cuss words that would make a sailor blush (to be honest, I can’t remember if he did that or not, but it sounds like something he’d do). Anyway, he told me not to worry.

But when the next day’s edition has a headline screaming, “DNJ, writer sued for $500 million,” it was hard not to be on edge.

Once I settled down, though, and talked to the newspapers’ attorneys, I wasn’t nearly as concerned. They assured me it was a frivolous claim and more of an attempt to intimidate me and the newspaper than anything.

It turned out they were right. The lawsuit never made the first court hearing.

But Cockrell, a really big guy who talked a really great game but had this questionable history, kept pushing the horse racing referendum. He was the wrong man for the job, and ultimately it failed in Rutherford and Davidson counties, passing only in Memphis and Trousdale County, according to reports. Thus, horse-race gambling never materialized across the state.

A few months later, when the hoopla over horse racing died down in Murfreesboro, I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, of course, when another call came in. This time it was about a raid at a home on Southeast Broad Street, a big farmhouse where Cockrell was living.

So I went out there, and sure enough the Alphabet Soup gang was there, everybody from the TBI and FBI to IRS and ATF, along with some Treasury agents for good measure. When they brought Cockrell out of the home and took him away, the agents could barely fit the cuffs around his wrists.

The list of charges escapes me now, but it dealt with fraud in some alleged con game he was running from the home.

Apparently, Pirtle sent me to write the story so I could get a little bit of satisfaction from writing a story about the person who sued me for half a billion dollars.

To be honest, though, I felt sorry for the guy. He was only trying to make a buck and more than likely was headed for the federal pen.

But imagine what would have come of horse racing in Rutherford County if he’d been in charge of the track. I’d be willing to bet newspapers sales would have exploded amid the potential for corruption.

As the story unfolded, I went to the federal courthouse in Nashville to cover some of the case. It’s been so long now, I can’t remember the details of the outcome, but it wasn’t good for Claude.

I do remember, however, going to the men’s room at the courthouse and, as I was standing at the urinal, looking over to see Cockrell, who was doing the same.

This all comes to mind because of a great story written by Richard Locker in the Memphis Commercial Appeal detailing the history of horse racing in Tennessee and its possible rebirth.

The General Assembly killed the Racing Control Act last year but passed legislation this year setting up a Horse Racing Advisory Committee to conduct a two-year study into re-establishing a structure for pari-mutuel gambling.

Instead of running for the roses as they do in Kentucky, maybe we’ll run for the irises in Tennessee. But while I’m not big on playing the ponies, the potential for horse-track gambling could lead to a bunch of news stories.

Maybe this time I can get sued for a full $1 billion.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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