Raise the Stakes On N.M.'s Racing Industry

Albuquerque Journal Editorial, March 29, 2012

New Mexico tracks are bad bets for the horses that run their hearts — and sometimes their lives — out at the state’s racinos.

A recent New York Times investigation found New Mexico had the nation’s worst safety record in horse racing for 2009-11. The newspaper’s analysis of data shows that of the six tracks in the nation with the worst safety records, five were in New Mexico — and Ruidoso Downs topped the list.

Fact is, horse racing is a questionable economic proposition, at best, and casino gambling has been both savior and its curse.

In 1997, former Gov. Gary Johnson signed legislation allowing slot machines at New Mexico tracks so horse racing wouldn’t die out. Since then, racino slots have raked in about $2.2 billion in winnings. Tracks have to pay the state 26 percent of winnings in gambling taxes and set aside 20 percent more for horse racing purses.

Purse money in New Mexico is among the highest in the nation. From 1999 to 2011 it totaled $447 million. It now runs about $45 million annually, about five times what it was in 1999.

Those lucrative purses give owners and trainers plenty of incentive to race horses that are injured, ill, doped up or too young. And with the money infusion to racing from slot machines, the excuse that we can’t afford better drug testing procedures is ridiculous.

While racino gambling and the money it hauls in has upped the ante, doping on New Mexico tracks predates the racinos.

A Journal investigation in the mid-1980s found that stimulants and other drugs used to “hop” horses were readily available at tracks. While New Mexico has banned Clenbuterol, a steroid-like drug, other drugs allowed on race days to treat pain can mask injuries that can lead to breakdowns.

New Mexico has lousy testing, allows excessive medication amounts of some drugs and does pathetic enforcement for doping violations.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is co-sponsoring a bill that would require tracks nationwide that provide “simulcast” or Internet wagering to ban performanceenhancing drugs, test the winning horse plus one additional horse from each race and add penalties for doping violations, including fines and a “three strikes you’re out” rule.

Setting standards is an excellent idea, but enforcement should be left to the states rather than creating another federal bureaucracy to police the industry.

Meanwhile, New Mexico’s Racing Commission should step up and address this long-festering problem. While it says it lacks money to test more horses that race in New Mexico, why is the state paying for drug tests in the first place? That should be a cost of doing business for racinos and horse owners.

With purses averaging $45 million a year, the money is out there.

If only for humane reasons, the horse racing industry should not view the animals that make it money as commodities to be tossed aside.

Quarter horse racing may have arisen out of the Wild West days, but at least the iconic cowboy knew he had to treat his horse well. Otherwise he’d be afoot. Without courageous and spirited horses, New Mexico’s racing industry would be afoot as well.

Posted with permission from the Albuquerque Publishing Company.