Cracking 'Downs' - By Eric Mitchell

Ruidoso Downs’ efforts this year to rebuild its reputation could be a model for racetracks throughout the U.S.

The New Mexico track, which is home to the world-renowned All American Futurity for Quarter Horses, has suffered body blows recently to the integrity of its marquee events.

Last June nine horses racing at Ruidoso Downs tested positive for three banned medications, including a powerful painkiller called dermorphin. At least five of the positives occurred during the trials for both the Ruidoso Futurity and the Ruidoso Derby, which are part of the Quarter Horse Triple Crowns for 2- and 3-year-olds. The other medications were ractopamine, a muscle-builder used to build mass in hogs; and stanozolol, an anabolic steroid formerly sold under the brand name Winstrol that New Mexico banned for use in racehorses in 2009.

The bad publicity motivated Ruidoso Downs to adopt new rules that beef up security and crack down on cheaters in the Triple Crown races. The goal is to restore the integrity of the racetrack and the sport of horse racing. These rules, which will be implemented this spring, include:

  • All horses must be on the grounds in the Ruidoso barn area 10 days before running in the trials for the Ruidoso Futurity and Derby, Rainbow Futurity and Derby, and the All American Futurity and Derby;
  • All horses that qualify for the finals of one of the futurities or derbys will be required to stay on the grounds throughout the running of the finals;
  • All horses will be subject to both “roll call” inspections or “spot checks” at any time during these periods. These inspections will be conducted by (but not limited to) the horse identifier and track security;
  • New surveillance cameras will be installed at the stable gate(s), test barn, and the barns and stalls of the 20 qualifiers to the futurities and derbys; and,
  • Any horse found not in compliance will be scratched from the trials and/or finals.

The track also recently announced the hiring of Dennis Monroe as its new racing integrity liaison. Monroe is a graduate of Auburn University and served two years on Ruidoso Downs’ horsemen’s committee, trained cutting and reining horses, and still owns a beef cattle operation in Alabama. Monroe also has been a manager for the largest animal health distributor in the Southeast and has been the leading real estate broker in New Mexico five times, according to Ruidoso.

“Dennis will oversee the surveillance, the security procedures, and overall how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together,” said Shaun Hubbard, general manager of Ruidoso Downs. “We are implementing a very stringent strategy; now we need to put resources behind it. Dennis will be accountable for our credibility and our integrity.”

The roll call and spot check are two of Ruidoso’s highest-profile deterrents. At any point, a trainer can be called and given a short period of time to present a horse for inspection. Also, racetrack officials will periodically visit the barns and spot check the identity of horses in the stalls. If a trainer has to relocate a horse from an assigned stall, the track merely needs to be notified in a reasonable period of time for the trainer to stay in compliance.

“We want to stress that there are boots on the ground, 24-hour surveillance, and stiff penalties,” Hubbard said. “It is also about trainers being in regular communication with the track. We all know the backside and know people talk. If anyone hears anything about a medication or personnel issue, they all will have Dennis’ cell phone number so he can follow up—with the labs if necessary. Our goal is to provide a very strong deterrent.”

The stakes have gotten higher with Ruidoso’s already popular Triple Crown series, with the total purses for the three futurities and three derbys now exceeding $12 million. The All American Futurity’s purse will be an estimated $3 million this year, making it the richest Quarter Horse race in the world. As the money rises, Hubbard knows, so does the temptation to cheat.

Ruidoso’s “boots on the ground” approach would certainly seem to address the biggest hole in racetrack security at most Thoroughbred tracks—the need to have people watching and also providing a way for potential whistleblowers to be heard.

“Most people just want clear guidelines,” Hubbard said. “For the small percentage that wants to do wrong, we just need to eliminate those opportunities.”

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