Piece was first-rate, riveting and occasionally off mark, industry says
For one muddy but glorious afternoon, when a 50-1 shot from New Mexico named Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby, the state’s horseracing industry was on top of the world.
Last week it may have fallen to the bottom.
An investigative analysis and 6,000-word story by The New York Times showed that five of the seven U.S. tracks with the highest rates of horse breakdowns and deaths are in New Mexico.
Ruidoso Downs had the worst record of all from 2009 to 2011, at 13.9 incidents per 1,000 starts, according to the Times.
Perhaps more damning, the Times said New Mexico’s racetracks and regulators had been “unusually slow in responding to the safety alarms.”
Vince Mares, a retired police chief and first-year director of the New Mexico Racing Commission, said the methodology used by the Times exaggerated rates at the state’s five tracks, in part because of their careful ways.
An exerted horse might be moved from a track in a van, but that precaution does not necessarily mean the animal is hurt, Mares said in an interview. He said the Times’ analysis appeared to combine incidental cases with breakdowns or catastrophic injuries.
But Mares also said the story was correct on its main points. It pinpointed drugs, deceptions and differing regulations from state to state as industry-wide problems that endanger horses and jockeys.
Mares said he favors a national regulatory system for horse racing.
“Honestly, I’m glad this is coming to light. There are problems, but they are national problems,” he said in an interview.
Like Mares, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said a patchwork of different industry regulations by the states does not serve the industry, its riders or horses.
“The Times exposé has shined a glaring light on the need for national standards in a sport that reaps gambling profits, but has lacked proper oversight for decades,” Udall said.
No track faced tougher scrutiny by the Times than Ruidoso Downs, where horses run at an altitude of almost 7,000 feet. Bruce Rimbo, president of that track, faulted the story as oversimplified.
He said nearly 16,000 horses started at Ruidoso in the three years the Times analyzed. Three-tenths of 1 percent received injuries leading to their being euthanized, Rimbo said.
“In a perfect world there would be no injuries, but in the world of sport that is just not a reality,” he said.
As for Ruidoso’s particular conditions, Rimbo says the track’s high altitude can weigh on racehorses, leading to short-term troubles such as dehydration, headaches and difficulty breathing.
“... Often times those same horses will come back in their next start just a few weeks later after acclimating to the altitude and perform at a very high level,” he said.
Salvador Martinez, a jockey, mostly in quarter-horse races, said Ruidoso had become a symbol for industry problems for another reason.
“Everyone seemed to start paying attention to the situation after Jacky Martin was injured,” Martinez said.
Martin, a champion jockey, was paralyzed from the neck down at Ruidoso in September after his quarter horse faltered and broke a leg at the finish line.
What happened to Martin (left) was a tragedy, to be sure, but not a case of negligence or dangerous conditions, Martinez said.
“The Sunland (Park) track is one of the best tracks anywhere and it’s safe. Ruidoso is safe as well,” Martinez said.
Sunland Park issued a brief statement after the Times story, saying its commitment to safety was established by attaining accreditation from the National Thoroughbred
Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance. Sunland Park is the only accredited track of the five in New Mexico.
Michael Ziegler, executive director of the alliance, said 23 tracks, or about one-third of those operating across the country, are accredited.
Tracks that have not gone through the process may do a good job with safety, Ziegler said in an interview. But the ones that commit to meeting accreditation standards demonstrate that safety is their priority, he said.
Accreditation covers myriad issues, such as making certain that a track is systemically reporting equine injuries, monitoring racing surfaces for safety and checking small but important details, such as padding in starting gates.
Ziegler said the Times story was an eye-opening profile of an industry’s failings.
“They did a thorough job,” he said.
Joel Marr, who trains about 80 racehorses near Sunland Park, mostly thoroughbreds, works at all five tracks in New Mexico.
Some, he said, are better than others in terms of safety, but he will not be more specific by naming names.
Likewise, Marr said that doping of horses is “a bigger problem in some places than others.”
He said he found “a lot of truth” in the Times investigation, but also an omission that may have presented a misleading portrait of the industry.
“If you’re a horseman, you dedicate your life to horses,” Marr said. “Most people in the industry have nothing but compassion for the horse.”
The Times’ chilling anchor photo of a fallen horse bothered him in that regard. The caption said: “A 2-year-old quarter horse named Teller All Gone broke a front leg in a race on Sept. 3 at Ruidoso Downs Race Track in New Mexico and was euthanized. His body was then 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.”
Marr said that area merely was the place where the horse’s body was temporarily held after it was euthanized. Yet the tone of the story, he said, made it seem like the fallen animal mattered to no one, a casualty of a ruthless business.
“There’s abuse in every sport,” Marr said, adding that he had confidence in the New Mexico tracks.
Perhaps no part of the Times’ investigation was more explosive than accounts of drug usage.
On that count, New Mexico racing executives say they were proactive, working on the problem well before the story broke.
“I am hopeful, and I think we’re headed in the right direction,” said Mares, the racing commission director. “Our medication committee is looking at what needs to change to make sure everything is fair, that we have an even playing field.”
Scott Darnell, press secretary to Gov. Susana Martinez, also said the five-member state Racing Commission was making progress. She appointed four of the members after taking office in 2011, keeping only one holdover.
"The governor is greatly concerned about the safety of horses and jockeys on racetracks in New Mexico,” Darnell said. “She supports recent moves by the racing commission to, for example, temporarily ban Clenbuterol while examining whether it can be completely removed from New Mexico racing, seek opportunities to increase the number of horses that are able to be tested, and issue tougher penalties for those who violate the New Mexico Horse Racing Act.”
Clenbuterol is a legal bronchial medicine for horses if administered within prescribed dosages and within established timeframes before race days. The commission’s worry is that the drug could give a horse steroid-like advantages if a trainer or veterinarian supplied it in excess.
Darnell said Gov. Martinez would ask the commission for a report on the most serious problems that persist, along with the potential remedies.
Rob Doughty, an Albuquerque attorney chosen by Martinez to head the racing commission, said he considered the state’s operation stronger after it removed the previous director and installed Mares, the former police chief of Raton, as its administrator. Mares worked as an investigator at the racing commission for three years before being promoted.
Doughty said the commission also had made progress on particulars, such as its focus on Clenbuterol and pressing for necropsies on fallen horses.
These changes are intended to make racing safer. But money, as always, is an obstacle to thoroughness in policing the industry, Doughty said.
Mares said races in New Mexico average eight horses. The winner and typically one other horse picked at random are tested for illegal drugs, he said.
The cost of two tests per race runs about $250, so the price of enforcement escalates quickly.
Marr, the trainer, said the commission historically was ponderous and prone to inaction on disciplinary matters involving drugs. He said longstanding problems had not been resolved.
“Things don’t ever get done,” Marr said.
He cited a challenge he made to elevate his second-place horse to a winner’s designation because of a competitor’s doping violation. That case has lingered for more than a year, including court appeals, he said.
Marr said a weakness of the Times’ account was the jumbling of details regarding legal and illegal drugs.
For instance, the story said: “Without a national law regulating drugs in racing, New Mexico regulators can be as lenient as they wish in disciplining drug violators.
“Trainers in New Mexico who overmedicate horses with Flunixin get a free pass on their first violation, a $200 fine on the second and a $400 fine on the third, records show.”
Marr said Flunixin is a anti-inflammatory drug that is legal for horses in prescribed doses. Flunixin is used at horse tracks across America, and a host of variables can skew a test result to make an honest use of the drug seem improper, Marr said.
Use of Flunixin is far different from a drug intended to enhance a horse’s performance, just as an Olympic sprinter who takes an aspirin for a headache stands apart from a rival on steroids, he said.
Mares said unscrupulous owners or trainers will give horses cocaine, Viagra, steroids and muscle-building drugs, all in hopes that their animal will gain an advantage.
Such abuses are the challenge for regulators everywhere, Mares said, and that is why a consistent national enforcement system might be the most sensible approach.
State Rep. Zach Cook, R-Ruidoso, said the intense interest in the racing industry because of the Times story had created an opportunity.
“I’d like to hear from the track and what their response is,” Cook said. “I don’t want to just be reactionary or try to stick out my chest on this and say ‘By God, this is where we’re going to go.’ ”
Lonnie Barber, director of racing at SunRay Park in Farmington, said safety is the watchword at every track.
“The worst thing that could happen to us is for a jockey to be hurt or a horse to be crippled,” Barber said.
For Ruidoso Downs, the worst has happened, placing it on the front page of the world’s finest newspaper.
Yet those in the business reject the idea there is a sinister explanation as to why jockey Jacky Martin was injured. Illegal drugs or the malevolence of few bad people may have nothing to do with a catastrophe on the track, they say.
“I think all the tracks try hard on safety. This is their business and they want things to go well,” said Chris Zamora, a thoroughbred and quarter-horse jockey.
Sometimes, he said, the raw and thunderous power of horses is explanation enough.
“... When you have quality horses going as fast they as they do, things can happen,” Zamora said.
Nothing was ever finer for New Mexico horse racing than the day Mine That Bird, an undersized, overlooked gelding, stormed back from 30 lengths to win the 2009 Kentucky Derby.
He passed 18 horses in 21 seconds, left them as though they were running in place, to stride home in electrifying fashion.
“An impossible result,” the Churchill Downs track announcer said of Mine That Bird’s victory.
Now, the state’s fortunes have been reversed.
Leonard Blach, a veterinarian and co-owner of Mine That Bird, called the Times article “terrible for horse racing and slanted against the state of New Mexico.”
But Blach also said: “Some of the data in their story I can’t deny, and there are points in the story that have to be addressed.”
Horsemen, racing commissioners and even Congress may try to supply the solutions.
Contributing — Felix Chavez in El Paso, and Terrance Vestal, Mike Curran and Jim Kalvelage in Ruidoso.