New Mexico Racing Commission responds to governor’s call for increase in health and safety regulations

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SANTA FE, N.M. — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is putting her foot down on New Mexico’s horse racing industry. 

She sent a letter to the New Mexico Racing Commission demanding increased health and safety regulations for horses. The letter raises concerns after seven horses were euthanized at Ruidoso Downs between Aug. 11 and 13. 

The governor says the wide-spread use of performance-enhancing drugs has tarnished the industry and is demanding the following changes:

  • Pre-race evaluations for all horses
  • Blood draws with complete blood counts for all horses
  • Continuous monitoring of horses in their stalls, during and after training before a race
  • Pre-approving all medications and maintaining the dispensers for analysis
  • More robust requirements for home training horses to be onsite prior to races for observation 

The racing commission held a special meeting Monday where commissioners echoed some of the governor’s concerns. 

“We need to be really, really hard on this industry right now, or we are going to lose a big part of it,” said commissioner Billy G. Smith. 

The commission is implementing a new directive following the governor’s letter. It requires a private veterinarian, a racetrack veterinarian, and a state veterinarian to sign off on all horses before they can race.

The solution is meant to address health and safety concerns while commissioners figure out new, long-term regulations. 

“I think it’s a very good start, and it’s not like they haven’t been paying attention to this issue, but it highlights the urgency,” said Tom Goncharoff, president of the New Mexico Horse Breeders Association. “I think the governor highlighted that we better do something and get this right. And I think everybody heard that message loud and clear.” 

Goncharoff says New Mexico is not the only state facing a rash of horse deaths. He noted New York, California, and Kentucky’s racing industries have all faced similar scrutiny in recent years and suggests this is an industry-wide problem. 

The governor’s letter says 642 horses were euthanized in New Mexico between 2014 and 2022 and suggests those numbers are unacceptable.

One horse trainer says it’s important to remember New Mexico hosts thousands of horse races each year, and the total number of deaths referenced by the governor is a very small percentage of the total number of horses involved in New Mexico racing.

Regardless, Goncharoff says horse deaths are not uncommon in racing. He says some injuries – including a broken leg or back – are nearly impossible to fix because of horse physiology. He also noted some horse deaths are not connected to racing. 

“They could be an accident in the barn, for example, or it could be a horse that just succumbs to an illness,” he said. “You’re never going to be able to totally eliminate catastrophic injuries, but we can certainly do better.” 

Racing commission members spoke extensively about the issues performance-enhancing drugs have on New Mexico’s racing industry.

“When it gets seven figures, that’s when the cheaters show up, and, and that’s when the breakdowns start,” Smith said. 

Smith revealed there are many known cheaters in the racing community that are difficult to catch despite a robust, statewide drug testing program. 

“They have more sophisticated chemists than we have,” Smith said. “They’re way ahead of us, and every lab that I’ve talked to says the chances of catching them are very, very slim.” 

During the meeting, Smith suggested the commission should find ways to ban undesirable trainers from operating or competing in New Mexico.  

Other commission members stressed the need for more funding and resources from state lawmakers. The racing commission currently only has one veterinarian on staff – compared to seven in Kentucky.

Executive director Ismael Trejo believes hiring a team of veterinarians will help increase horse safety. 

“They’re the best advocates for the horses,” Trejo said. “We’ve lived with just one vet, and that’s only one person to try to do pre-race examinations and operate our test barn. They’re…They’re overwhelmed.” 

Some commissioners supported the idea of establishing a veterinary school in New Mexico to potentially increase the number of veterinarians in the state. 

One racehorse trainer believes racetracks can also work to improve horse safety. She says poorly-maintained tracks can also cause injuries that lead to euthanasia.