The New Mexico Horsemen’s Association filed suit against the New Mexico Racing Commission and its commissioners in New Mexico District Court June 28, alleging civil rights violations in a funding dispute.
The NMRC counters it is following state law by denying the NMHA funding, leaving as much as $700,000 annually to go toward purses. During a commission meeting May 20, the commission unanimously passed a motion backing that move. It later produced an order that states that “throughout its history has never addressed or approved the diversion of gaming tax monies… away from purses and to the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association, essentially a private, not for profit corporation.”
Under the order, all five racetracks in New Mexico are to stop all processes by which 1% of purse money, $5 starter fees, and $2 Political Action Committee fees would go to the NMHA.
The NMHA, which represents about 4,000 Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse horsemen in New Mexico, already has two lawsuits pending in state court against the NMRC.
The June 28 complaint filed by Gary Mitchell, attorney for the NMHA, alleges that commissioners falsely claimed during their May 20 meeting that the NMHA took monies not authorized for them.
Sam Bregman, chairman of the NMRC, speaking in a phone interview June 29, reiterated the commission’s view.
“It was determined that the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association was violating the law by taking 1% of all purse money and giving it to themselves as an association. That money should be going to the individual purses,” he said. “They have been doing it for some time, but that doesn’t make it right.”
According to the suit, the NMHA has sustained damages exceeding $100,000, which could exceed $600,000 in a year. The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages exceeding $100,000 or $600,000 annually, depending on the length of the dispute, punitive damages, and attorney and court fees.
The horsemen’s group claims the NMRC has barred the NMHA from communicating with the commission, contacting any commissioners, or attending the regulatory agency’s public meetings. Mitchell said the commission is trying to silence the largest advocacy group under its jurisdiction.
“The commissioners are deliberately attempting to do away with the horsemen’s association,” Mitchell said in a release from the NMHA. “We’re prepared to prove, in court, that this is being done intentionally. They haven’t hesitated to do everything in their power to shut out New Mexico’s horsemen, and ultimately shut down the NMHA.”
“Any result in them not being able to communicate as well is because they chose to file suit,” Bregman said. “It has nothing to do with the racing commission other than we want to go through lawyers once they decided they took us to court as their regulator.”
In December, the NMHA filed suit over whether horsemen funds should pay the racetracks’ liability insurance on jockeys and exercise riders, which it considers a violation of state law. The NMHA claims the transfer of purse money to pay track operating expenses has cost horsemen more than $8 million.
“They wish to get their hands on this money and use it how they see fit—which is basically to pay the costs of running the racetrack, thereby allowing more money to go into the casinos’ pockets,” Mitchell said of disputes with the commission.
Racetracks in New Mexico also offer casino gaming.
Horses leave the gate at Sunland Park
The NMHA filed suit again in May after the commissioners ordered tracks to shut off the NMHA’s revenue stream.
“We have never taken money from the purse funds to benefit our organization,” Mitchell said.
“What they need to do is ask their members for dues, rather than taking it out of purse money,” Bregman said. “But they can’t do it out of purse money.”
The NMHA sees the funding differently, saying the money in question has transitioned into owners’ earnings based on race results.
“When the race is run, the purse is paid and that now becomes the winning horseman’s money,” said racehorse owner and NMHA president Roy Manfredi in the NMTA release.
“All we’ve ever asked them to do is just follow New Mexico state statute, which are laws,” Manfredi added. “This commission considers them suggestions.”
The commission’s order has the backing of the New Mexico Gaming Control Board, according to a June 21 letter signed by its executive director, Janice Maniaci.
“We’re very confident that any court will see it the same way we do,” Bregman said.