One of the five commissioners responsible for overseeing New Mexico’s horse racing industry has been ousted over comments she made regarding changes in the way horses are tested for certain medications.
The governor’s office confirmed Friday that Freda McSwane was removed from the Racing Commission earlier this week after she refused a request to resign. McSwane did not return messages seeking comment.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press indicate state attorneys were concerned that comments McSwane made in May during a public meeting implied bias that could potentially prompt more legal complications in the ongoing fight over testing.
An attorney and active owner and breeder of racehorses, McSwane was appointed to the commission in April along with four other new commissioners chosen by first-year Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
McSwane said during the meeting in May that she had been concerned for a long time about the way the testing was being done.
“We basically perpetrated a fraud, in my opinion, on our veterinarians and on our trainers and patrons and everyone else, because we led them to believe that they can trust in what we were doing,” she said.
The commission is wading through numerous appeals after some owners and trainers complained they should have been given a grace period to adjust their medications once the state contracted with a new lab to handle urine and blood samples as part of New Mexico’s testing regime.
After the change last year, more positive results for corticosteroids began turning up. The medications are used to treat swelling and joint pain, which critics argue could lead to the horses being run more than they should be.
Oversight of the horse racing industry has been thrust into the spotlight nationally in recent months due to the string of horse deaths at Santa Anita in California. That sparked a flurry of abrupt changes in medication and safety rules that are reverberating throughout the industry.
Legislation also is pending in Congress that would create a private, independent authority to develop and administer a nationwide anti-doping and medication control program for the sport.
State legislative analysts in a recent brief noted that New Mexico has historically seen high rates of racehorse injuries and fatalities. They pointed to a 2012 New York Times investigation that found five of the seven tracks with the nation’s highest incident rates were in New Mexico, and four of the state’s five tracks had incident rates double the national average.
According to the brief, New Mexico’s racehorse fatality rate was 2.45 per 1,000 starts in 2018, compared to a national average of 1.68. Four of the state’s five racetracks still had rates higher than the national average.
Depending on the number of offenses, penalties for over medicating horses can range from a one-year suspension for trainers and fines from $10,000 to $100,000. Owners can also face fines and the loss of purse money.
Officials with the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association testified during the meeting in May that any enforcement actions or sanctions against those owners or trainers whose animals tested positive after the change should be barred or dismissed.
They accused officials of misleading them last year, saying there would be no changes in procedures under the new lab contract.
State officials voiced concerns about the possibility of the commission entering into settlement agreements to keep owners and trainers from suing the Racing Commission over the change, suggesting those deals could be challenged in court.
The commission also indicated during the meeting that it wanted to change the way it dealt with disputes, taking up matters directly rather than using hearing examiners to gather evidence and make recommendations to the panel. Lawyers suggested that could result in more procedural and legal issues for the commission.
It has been more than two months since the commission last met. Despite its online schedule being blank for weeks, officials announced Friday the next meeting will be Aug. 1.
Ken Corraza, who served on the commission previously, will replace McSwane.