Horse racing, a sport that has fallen on hard times throughout much of the country, has enjoyed a resurgence in much of New Mexico. Tracks such as SunRay here in Farmington have brightened their spotlight, touching even the biggest venues in the sport such as the Kentucky Derby.
But a front-page story last week in the Sunday New York Times has exposed a darker side to what has been called the sport of kings, especially here in
New Mexico. Simply put, the state's doping laws are too lax, its punishment of cheaters too lenient and its testing too scarce.
The result has been an appalling number of racehorses breaking down on the track, requiring the horses to be euthanized and putting jockeys at undue risk.
While exact numbers are hard to come by because of inadequate reporting by the tracks, a computer analysis of data from more than 150,000 races, along
with injury reports, drug test results and interviews by the Times, estimates that 24 horses a week die at racetracks across America.
And New Mexico leads the nation.
An analysis of race charts showed that five of the six tracks with the highest incident rates last year were in New Mexico, led by Ruidoso Downs with 14.1 incidents per 1,000 starts. An incident does not necessarily mean a horse was inured, and track owners have disputed the newspaper's analysis.
But what seems indisputable is the state's inadequate doping laws. New Mexico is, according to the Times, "a place where most trainers who illegally pump sore horses full of painkillers to mask injury — and then race them — are neither fined nor suspended and owners of those drugged horses usually keep their winnings."
It notes that trainer Andres Gonzalez had 12 drug violations in four years. Gonzalez was the trainer of a gray 2-year-old colt named I Glance at Chicks, which was found to have been dosed with a large load of a powerful painkilling medicine called Flunixin when it broke down at Zia Park in Hobbs in 2010.
Most violations for Flunixin in other states are under 50 nanograms, according to the Times. In New Mexico, up to 50 nanograms are allowed. I Glance at Chicks carried 282 nanograms of Flunixin. For that violation, Gonzalez received a warning.
Racing Commission Executive Director Vince Mares said the state plans to beef up its testing and should have a new policy in place by July. Along with new testing, the state needs new penalties that will be strong enough to drive the cheaters out of the sport.
As things stand now, the smart money is on those trainers who ignore the rules and pump horses full of pain-masking drugs until they literally run themselves to death. The risks of getting caught can't compete with the rewards of victory.
We need to change those odds.