ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - Nearly every weekend, hundreds gather in the New Mexico outback for illegal horse racing that often includes big money, violence and animal cruelty.
And while law enforcement – who suspect Mexican drug cartels might play a role in the clandestine tracks – have tried to shut down the operations, they are often unsuccessful, according to a four-month investigation by News 13’s Larry Barker.
“Clearly drug organizations in New Mexico and Texas and other places are involved with these race tracks,” said Keith Brown, the DEA’s special agent in charge in Albuquerque. “Just as clearly, they are involved with the Sinaloa Cartel.”
On a typical Sunday afternoon, spectators travel hundreds of miles – often from across the Mexican border – to participate in the illegal horse racing. In fact, it’s not unusual to find more people in the crowd at unlicensed horse racing tracks than at The Downs of Albuquerque, a legal, regulated track at the State Fairgrounds.
The largest unregulated track in New Mexico is located six miles west of Los Lunas in Valencia County and features year-round horse racing. Another facility east of Grants in Cibola County runs weekend races. News reporters are not welcome at these tracks, so News 13 went undercover to document what goes on.
Admission is generally about $10 a head for a full afternoon of racing in which two horses try to outpace each other for a few hundred yards. However, the main draw of unlicensed racing is the money, not the horses. One jockey told state police he earned $500,000 moonlighting at one clandestine track.
News 13 tracked down a New Mexico horseman who’s been on the inside of several bush tracks. He is not being identified to protect his safety.
“You’re talking big money,” he said. “You’re talking thousands of dollars. On a popular horse, there’s a lot of betting going on – three or four thousand dollars. There’s a lot of people betting on it against each other.”
Hundreds of thousands of dollars changes hands on a typical day, according to sources familiar with these operations.
“Many of the bets are just mano y mano,” said Jack McGrail, who runs the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association, which represents licensed trainers and owners. “They’re a wager between the owner of one horse and the owner of the other horse, or the people who know that owner and they wager amongst themselves. And they can be very substantial wagers, which can lead to substantial problems.”
The New Mexico horseman said that if someone refuses to pay, fights often occur. In fact, four years ago, one man was murdered following a dispute at a bush track in Los Lunas.
Because activity at clandestine tracks is unregulated, horses are often drugged.
“I’ve seen them drug them,” said the New Mexico horseman who spoke anonymously with News 13. “They do poke them with the needle and then they get pretty crazy. They do hide it a little bit, but everybody knows it’s fair game to them that they drug their horses …”
McGrail said that shoddy track surfaces and inexperienced jockeys add up to dangers to horses and riders. News 13’s investigation even turned up one jockey who was just nine-years-old.
“I think those dangers are manifest when you have nobody regulating what can go into that horse, which may allow an injured horse to keep running, which could possibly throw the jockey,” he said. “(It) could injure both the jockey and the horse.”
Vince Mares, executive director of the New Mexico Racing Commission, agreed.
“There’s no regulations, so who knows what they are doing to these horses,” he said. “And when they bring them onto our tracks, they break down. They die. They have to be euthanized. So who knows what happens?”
Then there’s the drug cartel angle.
An underground track on Pajarito Mesa in Bernalillo County attracted as many as 1,000 people per weekend until the facility was shut down two years ago. The track’s owner, a horseman named Homero Varela , resurfaced earlier this year when he was arrested by the DEA on federal drug trafficking charges.
Varela is associated with the violent Sinaloa drug cartel and its notorious hitman, Jose Antonio Torres-Marufo, according to the DEA.
“These unlicensed horse racing operations are the perfect place for drug dealers to sort of infiltrate, become legitimate or quasi-legitimate and not stand out,” said Brown, the DEA agent. “We’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars generated as profit for these individuals that, in many cases, they turn and invest into these tracks.”
These underground racetracks operate brazenly, perhaps because they are so difficult for law enforcement to shut down. Following an investigation in 2009, state police arrested four people for violating New Mexico’s Racing Act at a covert track outside Roswell in Chaves County.
However, in court, the case rested on a legal technicality. And when prosecutors couldn’t prove the horses being run on the illicit track were actual racehorses, all charges were dropped and the case was dismissed.
The track reopened and continues activity today.
Mares said state statutes don’t address bush tracks. The law needs to be changed to give police more authority to bust the illegal operations, he said.
The Mommy McGyvers are talking all about how you can add a little to spice up your home during the holidays.
Sweet, crunchy and sometimes spicy popcorn make for a great snack and perfect holiday gifts. One local business is doing it just right with so many unique flavors! Jim Walker, owner of Walker's Popcorn Company, is here with some great …
The year is winding down, which means it's time to start thinking about your taxes if you want to minimize some of the pain of April 15. Financial advisor and vice president of Charles Schwab and Company, Mike Bonds, is here with some …