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New Mexico horse racing dispute spurs ethics complaint

February 28, 2022 GMT
FILE - In this Sept. 6. 2010 photo, horses leave the starting gate at Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and Casino in Ruidoso, N.M. An advocacy group that represents thousands of racehorse owners has filed an ethics complaint against New Mexico's racing and gambling regulators, claiming violations of their constitutional rights and multiple state laws. The New Mexico Horsemen's Association confirmed Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, that it filed the complaint last week against the Racing Commission and Gaming Control Board. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times via AP, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 6. 2010 photo, horses leave the starting gate at Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and Casino in Ruidoso, N.M. An advocacy group that represents thousands of racehorse owners has filed an ethics complaint against New Mexico's racing and gambling regulators, claiming violations of their constitutional rights and multiple state laws. The New Mexico Horsemen's Association confirmed Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, that it filed the complaint last week against the Racing Commission and Gaming Control Board. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times via AP, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 6. 2010 photo, horses leave the starting gate at Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and Casino in Ruidoso, N.M. An advocacy group that represents thousands of racehorse owners has filed an ethics complaint against New Mexico's racing and gambling regulators, claiming violations of their constitutional rights and multiple state laws. The New Mexico Horsemen's Association confirmed Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, that it filed the complaint last week against the Racing Commission and Gaming Control Board. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times via AP, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 6. 2010 photo, horses leave the starting gate at Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and Casino in Ruidoso, N.M. An advocacy group that represents thousands of racehorse owners has filed an ethics complaint against New Mexico's racing and gambling regulators, claiming violations of their constitutional rights and multiple state laws. The New Mexico Horsemen's Association confirmed Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, that it filed the complaint last week against the Racing Commission and Gaming Control Board. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times via AP, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 6. 2010 photo, horses leave the starting gate at Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and Casino in Ruidoso, N.M. An advocacy group that represents thousands of racehorse owners has filed an ethics complaint against New Mexico's racing and gambling regulators, claiming violations of their constitutional rights and multiple state laws. The New Mexico Horsemen's Association confirmed Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, that it filed the complaint last week against the Racing Commission and Gaming Control Board. (Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times via AP, File)

An advocacy group that represents thousands of racehorse owners has filed an ethics complaint against New Mexico’s racing and gambling regulators, claiming violations of their constitutional rights and multiple state laws.

The New Mexico Horsemen’s Association confirmed Monday that it filed the complaint last week against the Racing Commission and Gaming Control Board. The association claims the appointed members of the two regulatory panels are attempting to silence association members amid an ongoing battle over control of purse money and racetrack winnings.

The horse owners claim that over the past few years, New Mexico’s private racetrack-casino operations have been diverting purse money for track expenses in violation of state law.

The association in December 2020 asked a state district judge to stop the use of purse money to pay liability insurance on jockeys and exercise riders. According to the horse owners, the transfer of purse money to pay track operating expenses has cost them more than $8 million.

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The Racing Commission followed in May 2021 with administrative changes to clear the way for the racetrack-casino operations to collect, manage and disburse the purse money, instead of the association. The changes also meant the association would no longer receive voluntary contributions from members through a percentage of their winnings.

The court stayed the commission’s action, but the association claims regulators are violating the order and that the group is owed more than $300,000 in member contributions. The group also claims current oversight of the purse money is insufficient.

Gary Mitchell, an attorney representing the horse owners, said the case has broader implications for state government.

“What we have here are two state agencies that are refusing to obey a court order and refusing to follow the recommendation of its own hearing officer,” Mitchell said. “You can’t have state agencies that ignore the courts just so they can diminish those they don’t care for.”

Officials with the regulatory panels dismissed the allegations.

“The New Mexico Horsemen’s Association has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar by wrongfully taking money from purses and calling it member dues,” said Izzy Trejo, the Racing Commission’s executive director. “The New Mexico Racing Commission will always follow state statute, and that is exactly what we are doing.”

Trejo said officials were still reviewing the complaint and he could not speak to the allegations that regulators were ignoring the court’s stay related to the ongoing legal challenge.

In the complaint filed with the state Ethics Commission, the association argued that it has successfully overseen the collection and disbursement of tens of millions of dollars in purse money over the last two decades.

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The group pointed to independent audits, reconciliation statements and commission documents to show that “not even a penny has ever been lost or found out of place.”

As part of gambling pacts reached with Native American tribes, New Mexico legalized slot machines at racetracks in the early 1990s with the stipulation that 20% of the net revenue would go toward purses to bolster horse racing.

About $30 million a year is paid out to horse owners competing at the state’s five tracks, according to the association. The group has been funded by a portion of that through voluntary contributions from members who earn purse money when their horses place.

The relationship between the Horsemen’s Association and the commission has been contentious in recent years, as the advocacy group has objected to the shortening of race meets and has been vocal about conditions at the tracks.

The association also filed a federal lawsuit last summer, claiming the commission deprived racehorse owners and trainers of their civil rights as well as other related violations.