- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 16, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Regulators who oversee New Mexico’s horse racing industry said Tuesday they are grappling with a significant enforcement backlog after adopting tougher sanctions and boosting testing for illicit drugs.

Racing Commission Director Vince Mares told members of the Legislative Finance Committee it could take until mid-2016 for the panel to clear its backlog of cases against owners and trainers accused of violating state racing and doping rules.

The bottleneck comes when cases are challenged in court, a process that can take a year, Mares said. Defendants are often granted the right to keep racing while the findings are appealed, and he said that has created the perception that the state isn’t doing anything to crack down on cheaters.

“These trainers and owners are still running their horses. The perception that nothing is being done is a valid perception, but it’s beyond the commission’s control,” he said.

Lawmakers and racing officials discussed the possibility of hiring a dedicated attorney to handle the commission’s cases rather than funneling prosecutorial duties through the state attorney general’s office. Another option would be classifying a first offense as a misdemeanor, which would clear the way for local district attorneys and judges to handle the cases.

Legislative staffers were directed Tuesday to consult with regulators and the attorney general’s office so a possible fix could be drafted before the Legislature meets in January for a 60-day session.

According to commission and court data, a total of 500 drug violations have been levied against owners and trainers since 2012. That spiked in 2013, when tougher sanctions were adopted in an effort to clean up the industry.

In 2012, an investigation by The New York Times found that New Mexico’s five racetrack-casinos collectively had the worst safety record in the nation and that lax rules allowed trainers to illegally drug their horses with near impunity.

Racing Commission Chairman Rob Doughty said the state has made great strides and is on the verge of doing even more drug testing when additional funding becomes available in January. However, he and others voiced concerns about the enforcement backlogs, the qualifications of trainers and the challenges of tracking horses that are trafficked between licensed venues and so-called bush tracks where unsanctioned races are held.

Rick Baugh, general manager at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, said bush tracks are the source for many of the industry’s problems. For example, horses will be doped for unsanctioned events and then collapse when they return to licensed tracks.

Baugh said the licensed tracks are stepping up as best they can but enforcement will come down to providing the commission with more resources.

Rep. Candy Ezzell, R-Roswell, said many states are now looking to New Mexico as it moves ahead with its reforms.

“It all boils back down to what the attorney general and the judges are doing to get these bad players out of our state,” said Ezzell, a horse owner herself.

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