Mystery photo: NM horse racing officials review cheating allegations

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?: The New Mexico Racing Commission is investigating this photograph taken after the All American Futurity to determine if the two men are trainers who were supposed to be barred from the event.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

Officials at the taxpayer-funded New Mexico Racing Commission have been trying to clean up the perception that horse racing in the state is rife with cheaters who inject the horses with dangerous amounts of painkillers.

But a mysterious photograph of two men celebrating after the biggest event in quarter horse racing has led to an investigation and raises new questions about the depth of the rot.

“We are looking at it,” Vince Mares, executive director at the NMRC, told New Mexico Watchdog. “We’re trying to find the validity of (the allegations). I really don’t want to get into what we’re going to do but, yeah, we are concerned about it.”

Shortly after the running of the All American Futurity — the Kentucky Derby of quarter horse racing — a photo was circulated of two men holding the winner’s trophy in what appears to be the stables at Ruidoso Downs.

Some believe the two men in the photo are Roberto and Alejandro Sanchez-Muñoz, who each have been suspended for 20 years by the Oklahoma Racing Commission for allegedly drugging racehorses with dermorphin — a powerful painkiller that’s considered 30 to 40 times more potent than morphine.

Under the generally accepted terms of the suspensions, the Sanchez-Muñoz brothers are not supposed to be allowed onto the grounds of a licensed track in the U.S.

Mares said the commission’s investigation started last week into whether the two men in the photo are “program trainers” —horse trainers whose names are on the program for a given race but work under a false identity, often because they’ve been suspended.

“Program trainers are a real problem in New Mexico,” Mares said, “not only in New Mexico but across the country, and we want to find out if these (men) were in fact program trainers who had this horse.”

The All American Futurity, which is run each Labor Day, was won this year by a horse named JM Miracle, owned by Javier and Elsa Marquez of J & M Racing and Farms in Monahans, Texas. According to the program on race day, Umberto Belloc trained the horse.

CLEANING IT UP: The New Mexico Racing Commission has passed a series of measures in the last three years to try to root out cheaters.

New Mexico Watchdog contacted Javier Marquez on Tuesday morning by telephone, and he denied that the Sanchez-Muñoz brothers secretly trained JM Miracle.

“Those are just rumors,” Marquez said. “I have nothing to do with those guys.”

Marquez said he has no idea how the two men in the photograph got their pictures taken with the All American Futurity trophy, although he did say his son told him they are the Sanchez-Muñoz brothers.

“I’m mad on this, too,” Marquez said. “I see the picture, and how the hell did those guys get to the trophy?” Marquez said he welcomes the investigation by the New Mexico Racing Commission.

“If your license in suspended in one state, (race tracks) practice reciprocity and your license is supposed to be suspended in other states,” said Ray Paulick, a journalist who has covered horseracing for more than 30 years and edits the Paulick Report website. But, Paulick said, security at race tracks varies state to state and is oftentimes lax.

“A racing commission can ban somebody, but if the race tracks in charge of security aren’t doing their job, then it’s not a very effective ban,” Paulick said. “They have to work with each other. The race tracks have a lot of money because they all have casinos, so there’s really no excuse.”

The mystery photo is one of a number of questions surrounding this year’s All American Futurity.

After winning the race, JM Miracle pulled up, failed to make it to the winner’s circle and was taken off the track by van. A stablemate who won earlier in the day suffered a similar fate.

Blood was drawn, but both horses were pronounced to be in good health the next morning.

“The horse was so tired,” Marquez said of JM Miracle. “He gave 110 percent to win the race. But the next day when we were taking pictures with him, you couldn’t even hold the thing. He was jumping around and he was OK.”

There have even been rumors the horse that won the race really wasn’t JM Miracle but was a different quarter horse. Mares said the racing commission has found no substantiation to support the claim, but that hasn’t stopped rampant speculation. “I’ve even heard three times that the horse was cloned,” Mares said.

The latest controversy comes as the NMRC has passed a series of rules in the past three years to crack down on trainers suspected of drugging their horses, including instituting more frequent random drug tests and increasing the suspensions and fines against alleged violators.

“There’s always work to be done,” Mares said. “We’re going to stay the course and address these issues. The commission has made huge strides in cleaning up this industry in the last three years.”

Paulick gives the racing commission high marks but said the tracks need to do a better job beefing up security by installing and monitoring surveillance cameras to ensure suspended trainers and owners are kept off the grounds.

“I just feel that the race track casinos are not taking the racing side of their business nearly as seriously as they take the casino side of the business,” said Paulick.

In the meantime, the mystery photo only fuels more skepticism.

“It’s not a sport where you see a lot of Cub Scouts,” Paulick said.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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