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Clean up the racing industry

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By Sherry Robinson

Some people were shocked by the revelation that five New Mexico race tracks had the worst safety records in the nation.
According to the New York Times, trainers here “illegally pump sore horses full of painkillers to mask injury” and race them; if they’re caught the penalties are minimal. In the last three years, some 3,600 horses died at state-regulated tracks nationwide. In just 13 days in 2010, nine horses died racing at Sunland Park, five were hauled away, and two jockeys were hospitalized, one in critical condition.
The March 24 story features a photo of a dead racehorse at a Ruidoso dump, its broken front leg visible, and a video interview with Jacky Martin, a New Mexico jockey paralyzed after his horse went down.
One person who wasn’t shocked was Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee. Lopez had her moments of shock months earlier, and began investigating. When members of the state Racing Commission came before the committee in February for confirmation, Lopez was ready.
Questioning Commission Chairman Robert Doughty III about drugs and additives given to horses, she said New Mexico’s enforcement is so lax that it draws the worst in the racing industry.
Said Doughty: “My personal opinion is we’ve been very tough. This commission as a whole has been tough on people trying to pull shenanigans. I believe this commission has taken a strong stance.”
Lopez continued: “Is testing being done so there are checks and balances? It’s very serious. We’re talking about drugs and injections shortly before a race. Who’s watching?”
Commissioners offered assurances but didn’t really answer Lopez’s questions.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, asked if they test only the winning horses. Commissioner Ray Willis, of Roswell, said that because of funding cuts in 2010, only the first-place horse is tested in each race.
Both the Times and the Albuquerque Journal blame gaming for raising the purse so much that trainers and owners take chances and push their animals. The Rules Committee hearing revealed another problem.
The quality of races has declined, both in horses and the number of entrants. It’s possible that this too has contributed to a tolerance of drugged horses in lower tier races.
An Albuquerque lawyer who represents accused violators told the Times that “our commission right now is not equipped to deal with it.” He wants to see federal regulation, and Sen. Tom Udall has introduced a bill to that effect.
Meanwhile, the Racing Commission is trying to live up to its charge. Minutes of meetings, posted online, indicate actions to tighten the screws. In January, the commission prohibited possession of stimulants, narcotics or depressants along with needles to inject the substances. If any trainer is found in violation, all of his or her horses will be tested at the owner’s expense.
In February, New Mexico became the first state to ban clenbuterol, a drug intended to improve respiration but abused because it can build muscle. And during the March 22 meeting, foreign substances and penalties were on the agenda.
The New Mexico Horse Breeders Association says the industry adds $400 million to the state’s economy and provides 10,000 jobs.
Federal regulation isn’t necessarily the answer. We want to clean up the industry, not kill it.
That said, we need to see some self-regulation in the industry – a declaration that they won’t tolerate doping, that they will uphold safety for jockeys and horses.
Commissioners are the governor’s appointees, so she can hold their feet to the fire. But regulation won’t work without testing and enforcement, and the budget-cutting governor will have to spend some money.
As Sen. Lopez says, it comes down to who’s watching.
Sherry Robinson
New Mexico Progress