State struggles to balance race track safety, trainer rights

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – When the hooves hit the dirt at New Mexico horse racing tracks, they are supposed to be galloping along on a level playing field – horses and jockeys propelled by skill, natural ability and force of will.

But, forced by some trainers to take illegal performance-enhancing drugs, the horses are rarely separated only by natural ability.

“It puts the horse’s life at risk, it puts the jockeys at risk. And we don’t want this,” said State Representative Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell. “We want the cheaters to get out of our state.”

To that end, when the New Mexico Racing Commission catches a trainer doping, they use a series of lab tests and hearings to issue a sanction. Penalties run the gamut, from suspensions to probationary warnings to outright revocation of a trainer’s license. Purses are forfeited and monetary fines that run into the thousands of dollars are levied against trainers.

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It is a system designed to to keep trainers from racing again. But it’s a system full of holes that can let enterprising trainers put off penalties for far longer than many consider fair or necessary.

“We have appeals that are right at two years old now,” said Ezzell.

A rancher who owns horses that have competed, Ezzell is familiar with the state’s racing industry. Along with State Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen – a Democrat who also has owned race horses – Ezzell is trying to patch up New Mexico’s rough reputation for racing.

In 2012, a series of national reports and a Larry Barker investigation revealed serious problems with performance-enhancing drugs at New Mexico race tracks. The national efforts cast a harsh light on the high rates of “breakdown” among race horses in the state. The racing term is used to describe a race in which a horse is either injured or killed during competition.

Among the drugs on the top shelf of leading-edge cheaters is dermorphin. The drug is far more powerful than even morphine. Because it came from the skin of a South American amphibian, the drug is called “frog juice”.

Carlos Sedillo was among the trainers whose horses tested positive for it. But despite that test on May 25, 2012, Sedillo can still race and still train. A series of appeals has delayed a final decision on his case.

For Jose R. Gonzalez, Jr., Sedillo’s delay is but a blink of an eye.

The NMRC sanctioned the trainer after his horse tested positive for cocaine and a related metabolite in May of 2009. But the case has bounced between a state hearing officer, the commission, and a state district court judge for the past five years.

The NMRC has twice levied a heavy penalty: a 6 month suspension, a 6 month probationary period, a $5,000 fine of Gonzalez and the forfeiture of the purse won by the horse in question, “Runawayslew”. Each time, Gonzalez and his attorney have appealed the decision.

Gonzalez’s attorney says he supports the measure to shorten the appeals process and that the trainer’s case is unique. The sanction imposed by the commission was unusually harsh, he says, and changes in the judge who handles the case over the years have slowed down the appeal.

Powerless to enforce its sanction in the face of a court order, the NMRC was forced to allow Gonzalez to renew his license while he fights the case.

Lawmakers like Papen are exasperated: “A license to be on the track and to race horses is not just a given. It’s not something you just buy; it’s a privilege.”

Papen and Ezzell have filed bills to dramatically shorten the appeals process and to make sure courts know the legislature wants horse tracks to be able to ban cheaters. But concerns about due process for accused trainers threatened to kill one bill until Ezzell removed a portion that would protect track owners from lawsuits filed by those sanctioned trainers. Jose R. Gonzalez, Jr.’s attorney says courts have struck down similar bans in other states.

The NMRC agrees with the scope of the problem and the reason for concern by lawmakers. But the commission has already taken one of the steps suggested in by one of the proposed laws. The commission – which is supposed to look out for trainers as well as tracks, horses, jockeys, and the betting public – has also stopped granting stays for accused trainers in an effort to speed up the process.

Once a commission decision is appealed to district court, though, the NMRC has little control over how quickly matters are decided.

And as a lengthy list of delayed decisions and appealed sanctions shows, some trainers have proven they are adept at finding loopholes not just   on the track, but in the courtroom.


Racing Commission Appeals

  • Jose R. Gonzalez, Jr.: D-202-CV-2010-03580 (2009 race) – Benzoylecgonine and Cocaine
  • Joyce D. Salisbury: D-202-CV-2012-04935 (2011 race)- Lidocaine
  • Gerardo Cano: D-202-CV-2012-06639 (2011 race)- Contraband
  • Juan Torres: D-202-CV-2011-11866 (2011 race)- Clenbuterol
  • Cal E. Martin: D-202-CV-2012-05499 (2011 race)- Valerenic Acid
  • Homero Gutierrez: D-202-CV-2013-02117 (2011 race)- Clenbuterol
  • Freda McSwane: CV-10-145 (12th Judicial District) 2nd place challenge

Record on Reviews Filed

  • Fred Ike Danley: D-202-CV-2012-09669 (2012 race)- Clenbuterol
  • Abraham Jaquez: D-202-CV-2013-05590 (2012 race)- Clenbuterol
    D-202-CV-2013-06078 (2013 race)- Zipaterol
  • Roberto Sanchez: D-202-CV-2013-05251 (2012 race)- Clenbuterol
  • Alonso Orozco: D-202-CV-2013-10621 (2012 race)- Clenbuterol
  • Chris A. Hartman: D-202-CV-2012-05018 (2012 race)-Clenbuterol
  • Paul C. Jones : D-202-CV-2013-06237 (2011 race)- Zipaterol
  • Judy Bachicha : D-202-CV-2013-01487 (2012 race)- Phenylbutazone and Oxyphenylbutazone
  • Damian S. Onsurez : D-202-CV-2013-06781- 2013 Possession of syringe
  • Henry Dominguez : D-202-CV-2013-03118 (2013 race)-
  • Eduardo A. Gonzalez: D-202-CV-2013-03844 (2013 race)- Clenbuterol

Record on Reviews to be Filed in February 2014

  • Carlos Sedillo : D-202-CV-2012-09672 (2012 race)- Demorphin *Due Feb 17, 2014
  • Juan Gonzalez: D-202-CV-2013-02648 (2012 race)- Clenbuterol * Due Feb 17, 2014
  • John D. Martinez : D-202-CV-2013-02648 (2012 race)- Zipaterol & Zylazine *Due Feb 27, 2014

Cases in Court of Appeals

  • John Stinebaugh : D-202-CV-2012-01864 (2011 race)- Clenbuterol
    Court of Appeals No. 32,840
  • Chris A. Hartman: D-202-CV-2012-06186 Contraband (Ventipulmin)
    Appealed to Court of Appeals
  • Cal E. Martin: D-202-CV-2012-05499 (2011 race)- Valerenic Acid
    Appealed to Court of Appeals
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