Thoroughbred racing saw a spike in unexplained sudden deaths when seven horses trained by Bob Baffert keeled over and died during or immediately after racing or training during a 17-month period from November 2011 until March of 2013.
Quarter horse racing, where Baffert began his Hall of Fame career in the 1970s, has seen it, too, most recently this week when 2-year-old Cartel Quick was stricken while pulling up from his victory in the $750,000 Ruidoso Futurity at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico on Sunday. Efforts to revive and stabilize the horse lasted until Monday, when trainer Alonso Orozco said Cartel Quick was euthanized because of “kidney failure.”
Vince Mares, executive director of the New Mexico Racing Commission, recently told the Paulick Report he is “absolutely” convinced the number of unexplained deaths of horses has increased in recent years at racetracks his agency regulates. Mares, a former police chief who was named executive director in January 2012 after serving as chief investigator for the commission, said he believes the abuse of the therapeutic drug clenbuterol and other banned concoctions, with names like “purple pain,” “oxygen shots,” “holy water,” and “Mexican clenbuterol” are responsible for many of the deaths.
The Baffert horses died from a variety of ailments, including cardiac arrest, pulmonary hemorrhage, and internal bleeding. The seven corpses were sent to a laboratory that conducts post-mortem examinations and toxicology tests on all deceased horses at California Horse Racing Board licensed facilities. The necropsy program is part of a long-standing CHRB policy. With the exception of trace elements of a rodenticide discovered in one of the Baffert horses, nothing unusual was found in toxicology tests, and CHRB officials have not suggested Baffert, his veterinarians, or staff were doing anything illegal or unethical that led to the deaths of the seven horses. So the cause of sudden deaths to seven otherwise healthy horses in one barn over a 17-month period will likely remain an unsolved mystery.
Cartel Quick was sent to a state lab in Albuquerque, N.M., where the body will be examined and toxicology tests conducted. The New Mexico Racing Commission began post-mortem examinations of what Mares called “suspicious” horse deaths in 2012.
In the meantime, Shaun Hubbard, general manager of Ruidoso Downs Racetrack and Casino, said Orozco will not be permitted to race at the New Mexico track until the investigation into Cartel Quick's death is completed. Orozco has one horse in a Derby Trial this Friday that was entered prior to Sunday's Ruidoso Futurity and will be allowed to compete. Orozco will be banned from the facility, Hubbard said, through the track's private property right of exclusion.
Orozco, who according to published reports gave up a career as an attorney in Mexico to train horses, has been leasing stalls at a private facility adjacent to Ruidoso Downs, Hubbard said. “That property had access to the track until recently,” Hubbard said, “but the gate is now shut.”
Mares said Orozco was suspended in 2012 for a clenbuterol violation but an attorney filed an injunction in district court to put the suspension on hold. “We have had his appeal hearing and the hearing officer's report is set to be on this month's commission meeting agenda,” Mares said.
Orozco has won with nine of his 26 starters in 2013, according to the American Quarter Horse Association. He has been leading trainer at Sunland Park, leading owner at SunRay Park, and one of his horses, Sea Ola Go, in 2008 set a world record over 350 yards of :16.946 while coming off a two-year layoff at recognized tracks. At the time of that victory, Orozco said Sea Ola Go had won “six or seven match races” in Mexico.
Hubbard recognizes Quarter horse racing has been tarnished by illegal drugging and deaths of horses at Ruidoso Downs and other tracks. In March 2012, Ruidoso was the focus of the first part of an award-winning New York Times series on horse racing called “Death and Disarray at America's Racetracks.”
“We've been front and center of doing things to better our sport,” he said after the Cartel Quick incident. “Ruidoso and the racing commission jointly are working together. We are making strides. It may be hard to see, but things are improving drastically. It is a process, however, and we are committed to continuing to do everything we can, and we will. We are doing something that I will not mention, for obvious reasons, but we are taking very stringent steps to cleaning this thing up.”
The New Mexico Racing Commission, for the time being, has moved its testing to the Kenneth L. Maddy Laboratory at the University of California-Davis after the Iowa State University laboratory with which it previously contracted said it was getting out of the equine drug testing business, Mares said. A new RFP process is in the works for other labs to bid on New Mexico's equine drug testing contract.
California's Maddy lab recently received a sample of what is known as an “oxygen shot” in order to develop tests, Mares said. Sources told the Paulick Report the performance-enhancing concoction, which acts similar to the alkalizing agent of bicarbonate loading (milkshakes), leaves a chlorine-like smell on horses.
Another example of a drug that has caused concern among regulators is a compounded substance that goes by the name of “purple pain,” which its distributors describe as being similar to dermorphin (also known as frog juice) in its pain-killing abilities. Though it's ingredients are unknown and its claims questionable, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium said in a bulletin to regulators that, because “purple pain” is unclassified, it should be considered a Class 1 drug under Association of Racing Commissioners International guidelines.
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