Who pays to clean up horse racing in New Mexico?

By Rob Nikolewski on February 27, 2013
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After a year filled with scandals and allegations of rampant drugging of racehorses, New Mexico is trying to clean up its image through legislation for stricter penalties and tougher drug tests.

But how much will it cost, and who might end up paying for it?

A (Seattle) slew of no less than five bills are galloping through the Roundhouse, trying to cross the finish line before the end of the 60-day legislative session.

AND THEY'RE OFF: No less than five bills have been introduced in the current New Mexico legislative session trying to clean up the horse racing industry in the state. Photo courtesy of the NM Racing Commission.

AND THEY’RE OFF: No less than five bills have been introduced in the current New Mexico legislative session trying to clean up the horse racing industry in the state. Photo courtesy of the NM Racing Commission.

Analysis of three of the bills show little or no projected price tag for New Mexico taxpayers, but two of the bills — each aimed at establishing a fund administered by the state’s Racing Commission to drug test horses — would cost the state’s general fund $350,000 in the next fiscal year and $700,000 in subsequent years.

In a state with a general fund budget of more than $6 billion in appropriations, that’s a miniscule figure. Still, there has been opposition in some quarters by people who think the horse racing industry should pony up the money instead.

“Why should taxpayers have to foot the bill to guarantee these industries operate legally and ethically?” the Albuquerque Journal asked in a recent editorial, arguing that the $350,000 to $700,000 should come from purses distributed at race tracks.

But Jack MacGrail of the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association, which represents the state’s five licensed race tracks, says that’s not fair.

“We’re already generating close to what the Indian casinos are generating across the state,” MacGrail said, pointing to the $64.3 million and 26 percent tax tracks paid the state in 2010. “It costs between $23,000-$26,000 to keep a thoroughbred in training, and when you factor in things like the rising cost of hay, most owners lose money. If you keep chipping away … you’ll start losing owners.”

Thus far, the two companion bills aimed at establishing a drug-testing fund have breezed through both chambers of the Legislature.

“We want that small percentage of bad trainers out of the state,” Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Chaves County, told New Mexico Watchdog. “We want the message sent that cheaters are not welcome. It’s putting our horses at risk, it’s putting our jockeys at risk and it’s affecting tourism in the state.”

Ezzell’s HB 187 passed the House floor 64-0 on Tuesday. The Senate version, SB 72, sponsored by Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, passed the Senate floor, 42-0.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, has introduced SB 292, which would revoke racing licenses to people who get caught drugging horses or using “an electrical or mechanical device” to prod a horse to run faster or try to slow it down during a race.

Another issue is the boom in illegal match races cropping up in rural areas. Often held on private property, the off-the-book races have drawn hundreds of spectators who pay an entry fee, gamble on horses who run with practically no oversight or safety procedures in place.

Amid reports of horses getting drugged and breaking down, Ezzell introduced HB 509, giving the Racing Commission the authority to investigate any “race meet for profit.”

A fiscal analysis of HB 509 says its passage would incur no cost to taxpayers.

In the past year, the Racing Commission passed a number of rules changes to crack down on the drugging of horses while a number of explosive stories featuring New Mexico made national headlines — including a New York Times exposé that claimed the state had the worst record in the country when it came to injuries.

Late in 2012, the Racing Commission handed a 21-year suspension to one trainer and a 10-year suspension to another high-profile trainer accused of doping horses with a powerful pain killing drug referred to as “frog juice,” which led to at least two horses being destroyed after breaking down during races.

“Cheaters like to go to any means to have that extra edge, Ezzell said. “It’s the Lance Armstrong effect.”

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