The New Mexico Horsemen’s Association filed a lawsuit against the New Mexico Racing Commission in federal court Monday night, accusing the regulator of stripping racehorse owners and trainers of their civil rights and other violations.
“The riders finally said, ‘Wait. How many constitutional laws can you continue to violate? How many statuses can you keep ignoring? said Gary Mitchell, attorney for the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association (NMHA). “The riders said, ‘That’s enough. We have no other place to go but the federal court. We need this to stop.
The NMHA, which represents approximately 4,000 Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse riders in New Mexico, already has two lawsuits pending in state court against the New Mexico Racing Commission (NMRC).
Instead of working with riders to resolve the dispute, the NMRC later barred the NMHA from communicating with the commission, contacting stewards or attending public meetings of the regulatory body. With no alternative after being denied any forum before the commission, the NMHA sought relief in federal court against the NMRC, along with the individual commissioners, under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act and the on New Mexico’s tort claims. A highly unusual step for a state riding association, the action creates the potential for individual commission members to be held personally liable.
Mitchell said the commission was trying to silence the largest advocacy group under its jurisdiction.
“The Stewards are deliberately trying to suppress the riders’ association,” Mitchell said. “We are ready to prove, in court, that this is done intentionally. They did not hesitate to do everything in their power to exclude the New Mexico Riders and ultimately shut down the NMHA.
The NMHA filed a lawsuit in Bernalillo County Second Judicial District Court in December to end the commission’s years-long practice of taking purse money from riders to pay for insurance liability of racetracks on jockeys and practice riders, in clear violation of state law. Transferring purse money to pay for track operating expenses has cost riders more than $8 million to date.
The Riders were back in court in May after commissioners ordered the tracks to immediately cut off the NMHA’s revenue stream from accessing funds Riders have earned through purses.
The funds in question are used by the NMHA to pay medical expenses for its members, the NMHA Political Action Committee, and administrative costs associated with proper accounting of all expenses. This includes the critical role of overseeing the purse account for riders and the state’s five racetracks.
“We have never taken any money from the scholarship funds for the benefit of our organization,” Mitchell said. “In fact, we took our own money to pay for the accounting, the collection, the management, the distribution and the annual audits of the management of this money. The taxpayer was not paying for us to do all of this. We used to do it for free, paying for it with contributions from our members, and the commissioners are now saying “stop”.
Mitchell also questioned the motivation of the commission.
“They want to get their hands on that money and use it however they see fit – which is basically paying for the costs of running the racetrack, allowing more money to go into the pockets of the casinos” , did he declare. “Unfortunately the commission, which is supposed to be fair and equal for everyone, sees no obligation to be fair to the riders.
“Allowing gambling at New Mexico racetracks was done to save racing,” Mitchell said. “Racetracks can’t have games unless they have races. The law is very clear on this. The gaming compact is clear on this. The Gaming Control Act is clear on this. The horse racing law is clear on this.
The NMHA disputes the commission’s claim that the riders’ organization takes purse money, pointing out that the money in question is passed to owners’ income based on race results.
“When the race takes place, the purse is paid and that now becomes the winning rider’s money,” said Roy Manfredi, longtime racehorse owner and NMHA president. “By their actions, the racing commission has taken away the ability of the NMHA to provide financial assistance to riders in need. This is like saying you can’t donate to March of Dimes, the NRA, or any other organization, just because your employer doesn’t like March of Dimes or the other organization. Once the money is paid to an individual who owns a horse, that money belongs to him and he can do with it what he wants. During the pandemic, the NMHA provided $100,000 in alfalfa and grain for riders when we were unable to race.
“All we asked them to do was follow the New Mexico state statutes, which are laws. This commission considers them as suggestions.
The Riders seek compensatory damages, legal fees and other relief as the Court may deem appropriate.
New Mexico Racing Commission Chairman Sam Bregman responds to the filing of a complaint:
“The New Mexico Racing Commission caught the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association in violation of the law by illegally embezzling approximately $700,000.00 annually in purses. We just enforce the law and they don’t like it.
“It is truly unfortunate that the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association has chosen to focus on litigation rather than the best interests of its members. The New Mexico Racing Commission insists that the New Mexico Equestrians Association obey the law and that scholarships be distributed to individual riders. The New Mexico Racing Commission has stopped the New Mexico Equestrians Association butter sauce of redirecting purses and the New Mexico Equestrians Association has now opted to spend the Equestrians’ money on legal fees. New Mexico horse racing will continue to thrive with or without the New Mexico Equestrian Association.
Bregman’s statement was accompanied by copies of orders from the New Mexico Racing Commission and the New Mexico Gaming Control Board.