It’s Friday and it’s payday. Abuelo says that it’s good to bet a few dollars from time to time “to try your luck.” That’s why we are in a horse racing betting agency putting together a lineup, wearing a mask, our hands sticky from the hand sanitizer and a few “hints” on the table. I want to bet on a horse that hasn’t run for five years. His name is Cachupito and he is number 11 of the sixth race. The racing buffs here laugh when they see the horse’s name in the riding magazine. At the age of 12, Cachupito would be the classic “underdog,” because his last race was in 2016 and after Hurricane María he spent some time malnourished and abandoned in the racetrack’s stables.
It is not normal to see such an old horse on a racing schedule. Nor to see a horse reappear after five years of inactivity.
“But at the Camarero [Racetrack] you see everything,” says abuelo. “Of the seven races out there today, five are for the lowest claiming prize [$4,000], horses that aren’t doing well. I mean, it’s a Friday payday and five of the six races valid for the Poolpote big prize are for old or injured horses.” The “claiming horses” are those that, in exchange for a set amount of money, can be passed on to another owner who claims them during the horse races. In Puerto Rico, claiming horses are the order of the day.
Abuelo says that I’m throwing away my money with Cachupito. “You’re going to give away your money,” he said, laughing. “That horse shouldn’t even be in the lineup.”
He may be right. It is the second time so far this year that Cachupito appears in the lineup “ready” to run. The first time he was withdrawn at the starting gate, because the vet determined that he was limping. Here at the betting agency no one can explain how Cachupito is still active.
On April 13, Orlando Rivera Carrión, executive director of the Government of Puerto Rico’s Gaming Commission, signed an executive order requiring the Camarero Racetrack’s management, as well as owners and trainers, to submit an inventory of available pens and active and idle horses in the stables.
This information should have been available before the order was issued and updated in the government authorities’ files, as stipulated in the stable regulations. But the Government, legally responsible for regulating and overseeing everything related to horse racing on the island, has barely tracked the thoroughbreds for years.
According to the Horse Racing Sports Bureau, a flash count done by the Gaming Commission between February and March identified 615 imported horses and 583 native ones in the racetrack’s stables. Of those, about 200 thoroughbreds were inactive or had been out of competition for more than 45 days, as in the case of Cachupito, in violation of Article 16 of the stables area regulations. In other words, they had been locked in their cages for months or years.
I focus on my bet. I don’t say anything to abuelo and I keep reading the horse racing magazine. There is another horse that was inactive for more than a year in the racetrack’s stables area. His name is Reportero and before 2020 he spent 26 months in a cage, not competing in a single official race, according to Equineline records. Today he will start from the first slot when the gates open in the same event as Cachupito.
Reporter was injured in March. That day when he left the race, he got an “indefinite suspension” from the veterinarian on duty, which was documented in the report submitted by the Horse Jury, which supervises and manages the competitive events. But the horse is here, as an alternative for betting purposes this afternoon. He ran twice in April, but his legs weren’t strong enough and he ended a long way from first place.
“It’s that you have to fill in the races,” abuelo says. “In the sixth [race] you play the favorite online and that’s it.” Abuelo suggests picking the horse with the best chance of getting there first and forgetting about the rest. I ignore him. Cachupito runs, finishes last, distanced, almost walking, but he is still alive. Now that I know what goes on behind the gates, the idea of betting on a horse that is not fit to run is problematic for me.
Responsibilities don’t pay off
About 15 minutes from the betting agency, deep within the Camarero Racetrack, the president is in his office. Ervin Rodríguez was a banker for many years and today, in addition to being the chief executive officer of the operating company of the only horse racing circuit in Puerto Rico, he is the owner and breeder of horses that run here. He tries to explain to me how a horse that has not run for five years can be entered into a race.
“No, that does not happen. Never,” he exclaims and lets out a laugh. “To race, a horse has to pass an approval race [an unofficial test to certify that the animal is fit to compete officially]. That can never happen. That doesn’t happen, that can’t happen,” he insists, accompanied by the director of Camarero’s Facilities and Utilities, Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who nods his head.
Rodríguez admits that the racetrack does not make referrals to government offices “unless extraordinary events happen. And that’s by ear. They tell us to go to the stable and security goes and checks. If something happens, a report is submitted to the Horse Racing Sports Bureau,” he says. As for the monitoring of the thoroughbreds in the stables area, he said, “we have 24-hour guards who are watching over the operations or any illegality.” However, this has not prevented patterns of abuse in the stables or the abandonment of horses beyond the racetrack grounds, as happened earlier this year with the La Carmelita mare, from being reported on multiple occasions.
At the back of Rodríguez’s office is a trophy cabinet that complements the shine of his wooden desk. The painted walls pick up the lighting in this air-conditioned space. The scene contrasts with the atmosphere of the stables, where there are many who work for minimum wages give the extra mile among chickens, horse droppings, mud and pastures that are not tended to with the same care as this office.
Neither Rodríguez nor Hernández appear to know of Cachupito’s or Reportero’s background. Very few people remember the claimed horses, because there are too many. “Let me see how I can explain this to you,” says Rodríguez after showing him the example of the first horse. “The horses that are going to run today were inspected yesterday [by a veterinarian from the Gaming Commission]. A horse passed the inspection yesterday, but behind the starting gate they discovered that he wasn’t fit to run. What could have happened? He may have kicked while inside the cage or something happened while walking toward the track,” he says.
The racetrack’s administration also does not receive or request daily reports from the veterinary clinics located in the stables area. The Gaming Commission’s veterinarians evaluate the horses before and after racing. The racetrack assumes that each horse that arrives at the track does so in optimal conditions, “because that’s what it says in the regulations.”
Currently, there are two veterinary clinics in the stables area, one under the Horse Racing Confederation and the other under the Puerto Rico Horse Owners Association (PRHOA), the organizations that group some of the horse owners. There are also veterinarians who operate independently, and the Game Commission veterinarians who work in stable 11. Rodríguez said “we [Camarero] can ask the veterinarians for a horse’s record” even though this procedure is not mandatory. “We say: ‘Look, we have a claim here, I want you to give me the record of such a horse.’ But that [keeping records and the medical history of the horses] is their [the veterinarian’s] responsibility.”
In keeping with the racing regulations, during competition planning, the Racing Secretary is responsible for ensuring that the horses signed up to compete meet all the requirements. It is that official who is responsible for reporting any registration that is improper, negligent or with the intention of filling a race to prevent it from being declared deserted or incomplete. The regulation establishes that in these cases an investigation must be carried out to impose sanctions and penalties.
“We’re standardizing procedures to comply,” Racing Secretary Robert Taylor said during my visit to the stables area. “To achieve standardization, we have to stand firm and establish what the processes are. Everyone already knows and is aware, but sometimes because they are somewhat lax and certain things aren’t done [when signing up a horse in a race], the processes are streamlined. But we can’t rush without meeting the requirements,” said the official who took the position this year, although he has worked in that office for more than five years.
A few days after my visit, the mare Harlan Daisy raced in Camarero. She was inactive for over a year in the stables and was signed up without a single documented training session. The horse racing authorities ruled her out for betting purposes but let her participate. The government authorities’ oversight was limited to the economic aspect and did not ensure the welfare of the animal. She finished next to last, in fifth place, and her owners collected 4% ($240) of the race prize ($6,000), the corresponding share, according to the regulations.
Produce or live
All of the veterinarians who work at the Camarero Racetrack must get a license from the authorities that regulate horse riding. But they respond directly to the horse owners: those of the Horse Racing Confederation, the PRHOA group and independent owners.
“What governs or what we can do for the animals, deciding if they’re going to race or what medicine to give them, that’s pretty standard,” says Dr. Ricardo Loinaz, one of two veterinarians specializing in sports medicine who work at the racetrack and who heads the Horse Racing Confederation Clinic.
“There are horses with which more can be done [to provide better treatments] given the economic resources of their owners. If the owner’s limitations don’t allow for option A, then it’s about going for option B, and perhaps it’s necessary to go to option C. The financial value of all the horses in the racetrack isn’t the same. That is what determines the options and the conditions,” said Loinaz, who explained that keeping records and writing reports on what is done or not being done in his clinic or with any competing animal is not part of his routine, and nobody requires it.
“Clinics keep their own records,” he said. “When we have all come together to discuss how things are going at the racetrack, which is usually when there’s a bad streak of consecutive injuries, we see if there’s something different or beyond the inevitable risk. It’s information that we consistently keep, but it isn’t something that must be disclosed or that is a routine related to the Horse Racing Sports Bureau.”
Despite the regulations and oversight that the government and the racetrack’s administration are supposed to carry out, veterinarians are not required to report what they do and don’t do in clinics. The racetrack operates in its own bubble, the veterinarians in theirs and the Government in theirs. When something serious happens to animals, then they go look for the data they need. Meanwhile, everyone is on their own. There is no statistical universe that links all the industry components and government authorities in charge of regulating and supervising it.
According to reports obtained by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish), about 900 horses were euthanized between 2017 and 2020 at the Horse Racing Confederation Clinic. Additional documents show that horses were euthanized in the same clinic between 2015 and 2016. The total number of thoroughbreds subjected to lethal injection exceeds 1,400 between 2015 and 2020. In five years, more horses were euthanized than there currently are in the racetrack’s stables in condition to race (about 1,000 when adding native and imported horses, according to the information provided by the Horse Racing Sports Bureau).
The lists kept by the Horse Racing Confederation Clinic are prepared by the veterinarians on their own initiative and exclude the deaths of thoroughbreds that took place at the racetrack, and those that happen outside Camarero’s premises. They are the result of an initiative by veterinarians that is not part of any official protocol. The Horse Racing Sports Bureau says that to date, they do not have an official record of euthanasias carried out on the Camarero track when a horse fractures one of its limbs or suffers a serious mishap, either during an afternoon of races or during daily trainings.
“It was ordered that from this year on, one should be kept,” Bureau Director Richard Simmons, said. However, there is no administrative order from the Gaming Commission confirming Simmons’ statements. When I asked about where this instruction is documented, Alexis Berríos, the Gaming Commission’s head of human resources, confirmed that it was an internal communication directly with the veterinary clinic. There are no documents. The instruction was given in March, the same month that the interview took place.
According to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s (NTRA) Safety and Integrity Alliance Code of Standards, timely and accurate injury and death reporting is critical to tracking incidents and develop action plans that limit fatalities and improve conditions for horses and jockeys. NTRA-accredited racetracks, of which there are 21 in the United States, must establish protocols to monitor all injuries and deaths of horses while competing or training on a track.
The process should include a constant review of results from pre-race exams, post-parade observations of horses, post-mortem exams (in fatal cases), and any other information related to the horses. According to the racetrack’s president, Camarero is not part of the NTRA, “because it isn’t a requirement to belong to that or anything like that. It hasn’t been necessary.”
In the past two years the Santa Anita racetrack in California has been in the public eye precisely because of the number of horse deaths. In 2019, some 38 fatalities were enough to draw attention to controls and the dignified treatment of animals. If that number is compared with Puerto Rico, in just a few weeks — from January 2 to February 23, 2021 — more than 30 thoroughbreds had been sacrificed at the Horse Racing Confederation Clinic, 16 of them due to broken legs. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in March that among the three Pennsylvania racetracks, state authorities recorded over 1,400 horse deaths as of 2010, which has caused horse racing in that state to lose government economic support at an accelerated rate.
In 2020, the Horse Racing Confederation Clinic in Puerto Rico euthanized 232 horses, according to data provided to the CPI. At least 52% (120) of these horses were euthanized due to limb fractures. Six of the deaths were not justified by a physical cause in the report. A mare, named Strike Swiftly, belonging to Jaime Toro’s Establo Bulls Farm, was euthanized because the “owner doesn’t want to invest further in the horse. She doesn’t pay off. It was suggested that he try to put her up for adoption and he didn’t want to,” according to the report from veterinarian Loinaz. She was put down on December 1, within 48 hours of running for the 14th time in 11 months.
I asked the doctor if the lack of a supervisory structure and the absence of official files to follow up on the horses generate concern, when seeing the number of thoroughbreds in Puerto Rico, and in comparison to the United States. “Yes, of course,” he said. “When we’ve tried to establish a very rigid protocol as in other racetracks, the problem we have is the turnover of horses we have here. It’s completely different. It’s a turnover of horses that doesn’t happen in other racetracks. That makes it difficult to keep the information up to date,” he said about the effect of the constant in-and-out of horses at the racetrack.
According to the vet, Puerto Rico has an inferior racetrack in terms of economic value. He believes that the amount of money “that moves” is not what it was before and, so, “that leads to horses that don’t qualify at class A or class B racetracks in the United States end up here winning for a few years in a lower league until they have no more to give. This is coupled with the fact that the roster of horses is perhaps at its worst and that roster [of horses in conditions to run] must be constantly being inflated.”
Loinaz described his veterinary mission as “very draining, because we only have two veterinarians, one in each clinic [Confederation and PRHOA], who specialize in sports medicine [for horses], who work at a more advanced level and who perform surgeries. It’s draining because of the volume of work.”
In Puerto Rico, racehorse breeding has declined considerably. In 1999, for example, 650 births of native specimens were registered, according to the Jockey Club Fact Book, which is in charge for documenting everything related to the lineage of thoroughbreds in the United States. Of that number, 397 (61%) made it to the track. Meanwhile, 204 births were documented in 2018 and only 83 (41%) managed to compete. Bringing horses from the United States, most of them bought for cheap because of their poor performance on North American circuits, has been the “solution” to fill the race programs. These imported horses tend to be older than three years — thoroughbreds run as young as two — and with a track record of competition that raises more questions than answers about their physical condition.
“The main problem is the quality of the horses right now. They are buying horses in the United States for $500 or $1,000, and they bring them here to race for the lowest claim prize ($4,000). There are owners who plan to have those horses to run three and four times a month,” Antonio “Tony” Hernández, director of Facilities and Utilities of the Camarero Racetrack, told me. The current racing plan says that a horse cannot race again seven days after its last race.
Bringing thoroughbreds to Puerto Rico is done by sea or by air. In 2019, a catastrophic accident aboard a commercial cargo ship cost the lives of eight horses that were being transported in a heavy cargo container converted into a cage for more than five horses. The incident generated intense scrutiny of the practice of transporting thoroughbreds as merchandise for days on the high seas.
But there are many owners in Puerto Rico who choose the sea route, because it is cheaper than air transport. However, by boat, the horses are forced to remain standing and tied up for about 72 hours straight from the time they go into the wagon in Jacksonville until they are finally delivered in Puerto Rico.
More than a few politicians and public figures are familiar with the world of horse racing.
Edwin Mundo is one of those who has been linked to horse racing for years and has just gotten two horses that arrived by boat. He paid $1,400 for each horse to Lagos Transport LLC. He did not bring them by plane, a two- or three- hour trip, “because it’s very expensive.”
“The owners only have one option by air. A month ago, I made the same arrangement with the air transport company, and the horse cost me more than $3,000, and it didn’t arrive on time [the day I expected it]. And that’s bad, because every day that the horse isn’t trained, it’s getting out of shape,” said the alternate electoral commissioner of the New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) and also owner of the Establo Quintana, a stable that so far this year has earned more than $66,000 from the performances of their horses.
Mundo is not concerned that thoroughbreds spend around 72 hours standing and tied up when transported by boat. “They leave Jacksonville on Tuesday and arrive in Puerto Rico on Thursday night. They deliver them to you on Friday morning. As always, they will arrive with some setbacks, but nothing complicated,” said the former PNP lawmaker, who added that he uses both services. “If I have an expensive horse, I spend a little more and I bring it by plane. If I have a cheap horse, I bring it on the boat.”
In 20 years of operation, Mundo’s stable has generated more than $2 million in prize money at the racetrack.
A long distance race
Last year, at least 18 horses were euthanized at the Horse Racing Confederation Clinic because of multiple broken limbs. Mi Nieto Ryan, an imported reclaimed horse, died with two of his four limbs broken after winning his last race and earning his last owner $3,480 with the result. In total, he made $53,700 between 2018 and 2021 for his owners.
Mi Nieto Ryan was one of the first horses to arrive at the Caribbean Thoroughbred Aftercare (CTA) this year. The CTA is the only nonprofit organization dedicated to the rescue and retirement of racehorses in the Caribbean basin. Despite multiple efforts to improve the horse’s health, he was euthanized when he could no longer walk. All of its owners barely donated $300 for his recovery, the CTA confirmed.
Winning horses are not exempt from these problems. Don Carlos R is the only Puerto Rican-born thoroughbred who won an international race outside of North American territory. Today he is among the equines rescued by CTA, after he was retired at the age of 10 in 2019, following complaints arising from his forced participation in the races. He made $375,727 for his owners from his races. They have visited him once after retirement. They donated $225 and his coach, Ramón Morales, contributed $430.
El Gladiador, for example, is a four-year-old native horse that can barely walk. Whoever sees him would never imagine that a few months ago he finished second in a race. In two years (2019-2020) he generated over $13,500 for his owners. He is malnourished and injured. He was found abandoned in the town of Cayey after being removed from the stables in October 2020.
CTA placed 27 of 30 thoroughbreds rescued from the racetrack stables area for adoption in 2020. Annually, no fewer than 40 horses arrive at this organization, accredited by the US Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. CTA relies on donations and exceeds $270,000 in operating costs annually. Last year they received $5,580 from the Camarero Racetrack, $7,912 from the Puerto Rico Breeders Association and $27,977 from the Puerto Rico Horse Owners Association (PRHOA). During the last four years, the Horse Industry and Horse Racing Sports Administration (AIDH, in Spanish) — now the Bureau under the Gaming Commission — only allocated $60,000 for four years of operation.
The risk runs blindly
During the first four months of the year, veterinarians removed at least 86 horses from the Camarero Racetrack prior to racing for multiple reasons. Another 61 thoroughbreds were suspended, either because of fractures, limping, nosebleeds from straining on the track, or other physical mishaps during races. Suspensions, however, do not prevent a horse from racing again, as in the case of Reportero.
A horse’s physical condition is of great concern to jockeys. Javier Santiago, who has more than 20 years of experience between racetracks in the United States and Puerto Rico, said “one of the areas that needs improving most urgently is the quality of horses that come to race in Puerto Rico. Most of the horses that they bring [from the United States] aren’t up to par at the racetracks there or have problems that aren’t handled the same way here. In the United States, horses that have a lot of physical discomfort tend to be retired, they don’t usually deal with them for as long as they do here,” he said.
“In the past twenty-something years that I’ve been riding racehorses, I’ve been more selective with my races. If I know that it’s a horse that has multiple physical problems, I try not to accept that job,” he confessed.
According to the experienced jockey, it is normal to see many injured horses in Puerto Rican racing. “There are practically no healthy horses,” he said. “But in terms of quality it has dropped a lot, quite a bit. It’s no longer the same quality of horses and even more shown by those that come from the United States to our horse racing.” From Santiago’s perspective, this reality is very problematic, as it is paired with other factors, such as the conditions of the track, its maintenance and the vulnerability of the people who make their living riding thoroughbreds.
“The track is an area that also needs a lot of improving. There are certain parts that we jockeys worry about, because they tend to fail when it rains or when the sun is intense and dries the ground a lot. We’ve complained about that, because it tends to generate unevenness. All the negative factors are combined and not only is the animal injures, but the riders are harmed when accidents happen,” he said, adding that the concerns about track conditions “have been around for a while.”
“Lately we’ve had problems between the 1,500- and 1,300-meters posts. Before it was on the one mile and one eighth post. They’re not problems isolated to a specific part of the track.”
The CPI took a tour of the track with Antonio “Tony” Hernández, director of Facilities and Utilities of the Camarero Racetrack, who assured that work to fix imperfections is ongoing. “We work on the track every day. We prepare the ground with the tractors and when something additional needs to be done, it’s done. We’re painting the fences,” he told me as we rode a golf cart down the track and saw part of the remodeling work being done on the racetrack that was destroyed by Hurricane María.
In December of last year, the US Congress approved the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act of 2020, a measure that will take effect next year to establish national rules on horse medication and other safety controls on the tracks. The president of nonprofit organization Horse Racing Wrong, Patrick Battuello, an activist against horse racing in the United States, noted that horse racing in Puerto Rico is out of control.
Last month a complaint by Battuello before the horse racing authorities led to the retirement of Sequana, one of the many horses that have arrived in Puerto Rico by sea. After 37 races in the United States, he was sold at age six and arrived in Puerto Rico in January 2019. Since his arrival at Camarero, he has raced 33 times and his best result was a victory in April of that same year. In the last 23 races he finished, Sequana averaged more than 44 lengths (at least 105 meters) behind the winner, when his limbs were hurting, according to the Horse Racing Jury reports.
Battuello says that most racetracks in the United States report at least some data to the Jockey Club, which in 2008 launched the first racehorse injury database in the United States. “In Puerto Rico it doesn’t even come to that, because things are not properly documented, much less subjected to the most basic transparency in this regard,” he told me from his home in the United States.
The goal of the reports to the Jockey Club is to identify how often horses are injured, the types of injuries and how they are treated, to serve as a source for research to improve horse safety. More than 100 racetracks in the United States report to that database. The statistics include fatal injuries that occur during a race as reported by the veterinary officials at each racetrack. Furthermore, information is added on horses that succumb to a race-related injury within 72 hours of the day of the competition.
The executive director of the Government of Puerto Rico’s Gaming Commission, Orlando Rivera Carrión, admitted in an interview that there is no office to monitor racehorses on the island or what is done or not done with them inside or outside the stables. He said that, despite the fact that the horse racing industry has a centuries-old history in Puerto Rico, upon taking office four months ago “basically no one” was ensuring compliance with the law, as well as regulations and everything related to responsible treatment of the animals.
“I think that with a combination of more cooperation from the racetrack, the horse owners and ourselves, we can get the animals in better condition. And I say with cooperation because horse owners see them as an instrument to make money. I’ve noticed coldness on their part [the owners] when I talk about this issue,” said the executive director of the Gaming Commission.
“The treatment of the horses cannot be attributed to [the company] Camarero. Each owner treats their horse how they want. Those who have many resources treat their horses well. Those who have fewer resources, treat them with fewer resources,” Rivera Carrión said.
“One of the things I saw [when I took office in January] is that the groomers or stable boys [the staff who assist in the care and maintenance of the horses in the stables along with the trainers] did not have licenses or permits to be there [in the stables area] and they entered illegally through fences or in car trunks. And through an administrative order, I authorized giving everyone a license. Many of them have had legal problems, but they’re serving their probation, and nobody gives them a job. I made the decision, we have a vocational school with social workers, and they can contact their probation officer and tell them that from such a time to such a time, they’re at the racetrack. We were able to license 80 of them,” he added.
Horse racing bets in Puerto Rico have dropped from $298.2 million in 1994 to $111.2 million in 2020, a 63% reduction in 26 years. In 2019 the Government of Puerto Rico generated $6,471,864 through these bets. The Gaming Commission’s certified budget for fiscal year 2020-21 was $2,240,000, of which $1,070,000 corresponds to payroll and $283,000 to operating expenses.
Abuelo wants to go back to the betting agency in a few minutes. We have talked about Cachupito and Reportero for days. He is walking in circles in the living room of his house, wondering if it is really worth betting his money. “I’ve been betting on horses for years, since I was a little boy I’ve been an equestrian,” he says. Now he’s upset. “The gambler doesn’t know many things and when one is a fan, even less, man.”
José M. Encarnación Martínez is a member of Report for America