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Head of NM Racing Commission: “There are individuals abusing the animals”

By   /   March 26, 2012  /   No Comments

The day after a shocking horse racing story in the New York Times came out, detailing what the paper called “an industry still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation” and claiming through computer analysis that New Mexico is home to an overwhelming number of the most dangerous tracks in the country, Capitol Report New Mexico talked to the new head of the state’s racing commission who said that while he thought the Times story portrayed New Mexico unfairly in some regards, “the article had its points.”

The 6,4000-word exposé goes into frightening details concerning the drugging and abuse of thoroughbreds as well as the subsequent risk of death or paralysis for jockeys riding the horses.

From the New York Times: "The body of Teller All Gone was dumped in a junkyard next to an old toilet at Ruidoso, a short walk from where he had been sold at auction the previous year." Photo by Jakob Schiller for the NY Times

Agency director Vince Mares told us that the commission that oversees racing in the state “will go after the trainers who abuse the system and prosecute them aggressively.”

Mares, who’s been on the job about six months, disputed the figures the Times analysis cited when it said “five of the six tracks with the highest incident rates last year were in New Mexico” and listed Ruidoso Downs as topping the list with 14.1 incidents per 1,000 starts.

Mares says New Mexico has a list of horses that are “banned off” from racing and says the Times data analysis lumped in horses who are suffering from relatively minor injuries with those who have broken down, suffered major injuries or have been euthanized.

“Did that inflate our numbers? Yes,” Mares said.

But at the same time, Mares acknowledged there is a problem in New Mexico.

“Absolutely,” he said by phone from his office in Albuquerque. “There are individuals abusing the animals … their main focus is to win, not the welfare of the horses.”

The Times article (click here to read it) also points to unscrupulous trainers who have injected thoroughbreds with alarmingly high doses of painkillers and other substances that often lead them to break their legs as they race and says the racing commission has “been unusually slow in responding to the safety alarms.”

“I cannot speak for past commissions,” Mares said, adding that the newly-formed commission is aggressively trying to clean things up.

He points to the commission’s passing a ban on the drug Clenbuterol (often abused because it helps horses build muscle) at its monthly meeting in February and its efforts to institute meaningful drug testing.

“I will say this though,” Mares said. “We need funding. The Legislative Finance Committee did give us money for out-of-competition testing” that gives the commission the ability to randomly select horses 30-60 days ahead of time to try to ensure the animals are not being drugged.

“I’m confident we’ll catch those individuals trying to cheat the system,” Mares said.

There has been grumbling that in the past, the leadership at the state racing commission has been unfocused and in some cases unqualified.

For example, back in February of 2010 KRQE-TV ran an investigative piece by reporter Larry Barker that mentioned how during the administration of former Gov. Bill Richardson:

Richardson earlier had doled out about 450 policy-making jobs throughout state government in positions exempt from personnel rules, so the governor could hire whoever he wants.

These are the political appointees loyal to the governor and armed with fat paychecks …

Case in point: India Hatch, a political hire with a state career orchestrated by the governor. She was hired to run the New Mexico Racing Commission although she had no racing experience.

Later the governor moved her to the Gaming Control Board. She had no gaming experience.

Next stop? The New Mexico Film Museum with–you guessed it–no museum experience.

Last year, Hatch landed back at the racing commission. The governor’s office ordered the agency to stick her in a deputy director’s job and pay her $88,000 a year.

Mares was appointed to the racing commission by current Gov. Susana Martinez after spending 14 years as the chief of police in Raton. He was confirmed by the state Senate in February.

“I don’t know about India Hatch,” Mares told us. “I was appointed for my merits. I’ve spent 30 years in law enforcement and was an investigator with the racing commission [for three years] before I had this job … I cannot speak for past commissions.”

As for the fallout from a frontpage story in the Sunday edition of the nation’s most famous newspaper?

“It’s a blow across the country, not just New Mexico,” Mares said. “The industry knows there is a problem … I really want to make a difference. When I see horses breaking down, it’s heart-wrenching because of this illegal doping.”

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Rob Nikolewski is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org based in Santa Fe, N.M. Contact him at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @NMWatchdog.

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