At a Georgia bush observe, horse racing with no guidelines

On-track drug injections, shock gadgets and a lifeless jockey: A “bush track” in Georgia is one in every of dozens that revenue exterior the attain of regulation.

Spectators take in a race at Rancho El Centenario in July. (The Washington Post)
Spectators soak up a race at Rancho El Centenario in July. (The Washington Put up)

Remark

MILNER, Ga. — On this population-800 city in rural Georgia, the place residents alongside winding nation roads fly the Stars and Stripes and Trump banners, there’s a horse observe on a pecan farm that raises just one flag: that of Mexico.

The spectators present up for race days each couple of weeks, Latino cowboys and their households arriving in late-model pickup vans with license plates from Georgia and Alabama, Guerrero and Monterrey. Admission on the door is $100 per head in money, collected earlier than a cadre of armed guards search autos. Inside, Norteño music blends with the scent of tacos, and an announcer calls the races in profane Spanish.

However the prerace routines at Rancho El Centenario are just a little totally different — or at the least extra clear — than at a mainstream racehorse observe.

One muggy day in July, when a younger horse coach in a patterned shirt and trucker hat sauntered onto the observe with a syringe in hand, followers crowded the rail to get a glimpse. A jockey guided 1 / 4 horse named Chiquibaby over to the coach, who jabbed the needle into the horse’s neck and pushed the plunger earlier than leaping away.

“Bring another for me!” cried out a Modelo-clutching railbird in Spanish, referring to the syringe stuffed with thriller substances, eliciting laughter from the opposite followers and the coach.

When requested in regards to the injection following the race, the coach stated the syringe didn’t comprise performance-enhancing medication however drugs to stop a horse from struggling a stroke or a coronary heart assault.

However earlier than one other race that day, a reporter for The Washington Put up watched a unique coach inject a horse named El Mago close to the tip of the 500-yard observe. After that coach tossed the syringe within the filth, the reporter collected it and later submitted it to Industrial Laboratories, an accredited horse racing testing facility in Colorado. Its findings: The syringe contained methamphetamine and methylphenidate, the stimulant bought as Ritalin.

A couple of hundred years in the past, match races like Rancho El Centenario’s have been a part of the genesis of the American quarter horse, a compact breed developed for its intense velocity on a brief, straight observe. After racing commissions introduced order to the game in states the place it was authorized, unregulated “bush tracks” remained the norm in Mexico, in style amongst cowboys and narcos alike. In the US, although, they existed solely as a wild however minor foil to the rulemakers.

However now, consultants and horsemen say, the bush circuit is quietly in a increase interval, one wherein animal abuse and doping go largely unchecked, hinting at deeper criminality and posing a doubtlessly severe risk to the integrity of the breed.

Since a disbarred legal professional named Arthur “Brutz” English IV had a purple filth observe pounded into the land of his fourth-generation household farm 9 years in the past, Rancho El Centenario has showcased the chaos and the profitability of such an operation.

English’s observe is a scavenger of professional racing, in horses and personnel. A champion quarter horse that bought at public sale for almost half one million {dollars} repeatedly races on the observe. A widely known jockey pushed out of regulated racing due to his serial use of banned electrical shock gadgets additionally discovered refuge at Rancho El Centenario — till he died following an accident whereas racing there.

For years, there have been hints that the horsemen of Rancho El Centenario are using practices that might incur severe self-discipline at a regulated observe. As an example: After deputies pulled over a horseman on his strategy to the observe in 2019, a police report reveals, they found containers of amphetamine and anabolic steroids at the back of his Mazda.

Different occasions it’s greater than a touch. On a go to to the races final month, throughout which journalists for The Put up witnessed horses being injected earlier than races, in addition they noticed the day’s winningest jockey carrying a shock system of the type banned in mainstream racing.

And although betting on horses is unlawful in Georgia, obvious bookies ambled alongside the observe, calling out bets earlier than races and distributing the winnings from stacks of money afterward.

Unbeknown to English and his Mexican cowboy clientele, nevertheless, there was since final 12 months a 3rd get together to the tradition conflict: animal rights activists.

Over eight visits to Rancho El Centenario between June 2021 and April 2022, undercover investigators for the Individuals for the Moral Therapy of Animals collected hidden-camera footage of all of this conduct and extra: playing, injections, shock gadgets, repeated whipping and horses dying on the observe.

The group’s investigators collected syringes following injections across the observe and had them examined on the horse racing laboratory at College of California, Davis, one other of the 9 services accredited by Kentucky’s Racing Medicine and Testing Consortium (RMTC). A few of them examined optimistic for cocaine, methamphetamine and methylphenidate, in accordance with a letter that PETA’s legal professionals despatched this week, together with 17 pages of supporting supplies, to the Lamar County Sheriff Sheriff’s Workplace and the native district legal professional’s workplace.

Within the letter, PETA basic counsel Jared Goodman alleged “systemic and repeated animal abuse, including whipping, electric-shocking, and drugging horses to push them past their natural limits, leading several horses to break down and be killed on the track, as well as extensive commercial gambling on every race.” He referred to as for a legal investigation of the ranch’s actions and a few of its horsemen.

When informed of the letters PETA despatched out about his observe, English criticized the group for “yammering to the DA and the sheriff” reasonably than coming to him so he might repair any issues they noticed. “It’s not about making it right,” English stated of PETA. “It’s about making a spectacle with them.”

He doesn’t tolerate shock gadgets, playing or doping, he claimed, including that he didn’t belief the lab outcomes supplied to The Put up as a result of he hadn’t examined the syringe himself: “My official position on whatever you claim that you found is I dispute that until I am given a chance to verify it with my own lab.”

At Rancho El Centenario and different tracks on the bush circuit, the horses are managed by stables they name cuadras. The handlers who injected El Mago have been from Cuadra Esquipulas. Contacted by way of its Fb web page and thru English, the steady’s horsemen didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark.

RMTC govt director Mary Scollay stated there was no cause to inject a horse instantly earlier than a race apart from to affect its efficiency. She stated the lab outcomes from the examined syringe constituted a robust, and doubtlessly unlawful, cocktail of stimulants for a horse. “I would imagine that methamphetamine in an injectable form would get the attention of the FDA, which is not always an easy thing to do,” Scollay stated. “It might get the attention of DEA as well.”

English stated he supervises almost each occasion at his ranch however missed the race day in query as a result of he had taken his household to Wales for a honeycomb exposition. Maybe, he posited, the horsemen have been performing up throughout The Put up’s go to as a result of “they knew I wasn’t going to be sitting there babysitting.”

Both method, English argued, the true cause he’s being singled out is similar cause close by residents have been complaining about his observe for years. The operation repeatedly attracts a whole bunch or 1000’s of Mexicans and Mexican People to a city that’s 80 % White and the place the newest census put the Hispanic inhabitants at lower than 4 % — for a complete of 29 folks.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if my customers were all White rednecks,” English stated.

Angela Pelzel-McCluskey’s first encounter with the bush circuit got here within the type of a bony 7-year-old quarter horse delivered to a veterinarian in Ocala, Fla., in 2008.

Pelzel-McCluskey is an equine epidemiologist on the U.S. Division of Agriculture charged with holding illness from spreading by the American horse business. The horse in Ocala, torpid and refusing to eat or drink, examined optimistic for piroplasmosis, an infectious blood illness uncommon within the U.S. however endemic in Mexico that sometimes dooms its carriers to euthanasia or lifelong isolation.

Investigators traced the an infection and located a cluster of 20 different quarter horses with the illness — all of them contributors in unsanctioned racing, in accordance with a research Pelzel-McCluskey co-authored.

Piroplasmosis sometimes spreads by way of ticks. On this case, although, investigators discovered the illness’s vector was unlicensed handlers utilizing contaminated needles and different tools to inject or blood-dope the horses. A 12 months later in Missouri, one other dying horse delivered to a veterinary hospital led to the same story, with investigators discovering a cluster of eight quarter horses related to the identical coach who raced them on unsanctioned tracks.

These instances led Pelzel-McCluskey to change into the USDA’s sole knowledgeable on unsanctioned racing. She has watched with alarm, she stated, because the phenomenon has steadily grown — and because the ailments she tracks have unfold.

There isn’t a official accounting of the scale of the bush circuit in the US, however Pelzel-McCluskey stated that, by utilizing social media, she has discovered 89 tracks in 27 states. Clusters of piroplasmosis are actually an everyday incidence within the U.S., and since 2008, Pelzel-McCluskey stated, 532 quarter horse race horses have been discovered to be contaminated with the illness.

Equine infectious anemia, which additionally has no treatment and ends in euthanasia or lifelong quarantine, has adopted the same trajectory. Final 12 months, 103 instances of EIA have been found — the very best whole since 2008 — and 84 of them have been quarter horse race horses, Pelzel-McCluskey stated. “Those are 100% preventable cases,” she stated. “They should never occur, because it’s a human causing the transmission.”

These numbers, together with the whole identified instances of each ailments since 2008 — 908 — are doubtless extreme undercounts, Pelzel-McCluskey stated, as a result of bush observe horses are hardly ever examined. In Could, 26 quarter horses in California, all of them linked to bush observe racing, have been found to have EIA and have been euthanized.

Pelzel-McCluskey warned that if piroplasmosis continues to unfold, the illness may very well be thought of endemic in the US, affecting the worth of equine exports. “This is a huge potential trade problem for us,” she stated.

The expansion of the bush circuit can also be problematic for horses on the regulated quarter horse racing circuit, the dustier cousin of thoroughbred racing in style within the American southwest and Mexico. Janet VanBebber, chief racing officer of the American Quarter Horse Affiliation, the official breed registry, stated a excessive share of the quarter horses racing on bush tracks wound up there after stints in regulated racing.

Amongst them are a few of the high horses within the sport, together with Trump My Report, which gained almost $800,000 as a 2-year-old gelding in 2019. After Trump My Report was auctioned to a Texan horseman for $460,000, VanBebber and others within the sport watched with dismay because the vaunted horse surfaced at bush tracks. “What I hear is that they made their money back in two match races just by the gate,” VanBebber stated of the horse’s backers.

Social media promotions present that Trump My Report has made a number of appearances at Rancho El Centenario and is scheduled to race there this month. Horsemen with Cuadra Cristo Rey, which races Trump My Report, didn’t reply to a number of makes an attempt to contact them for remark.

VanBebber stated the bush circuit cuts into the enterprise of regulated quarter horse racing, which, like thoroughbred racing, is dealing with dwindling recognition and income whereas reckoning with scandals of artificial dishonest and horse deaths. The tracks additionally make it unattainable for her affiliation to do its major job, which is holding tabs on earnings and pedigree.

“We have areas of concern for the horse, for the industry and for what we’re missing out on as a breed registry,” VanBebber stated. “It saddens us. It’s gotten to where a lot of our owners are hesitant to sell horses at auction because they can’t determine where the horse goes.”

The brazenness, and obvious deep pockets, of some horsemen on the bush circuit have led to suspicion that organized crime is concerned. Mexican drug criminals have a protracted historical past of obsessing over, and spending wildly, on quarter horses, each for personal match races in Mexico and on the largest phases of the American quarter horse circuit, which one drug household infamously dominated for a number of years final decade.

Talking typically on bush tracks, District Attorney Jonathan Adams, who oversees prosecutions in Lamar County and two others, stated that as a result of many avenues of potential illegality — together with playing, doping, cash laundering, and smuggling horses throughout the border — “this is exactly the kind of operation that the cartel gets involved in.”

“It’s not a local crime,” Adams added. “It’s absolutely a regional, if not multi-county, multi-state, multi-national kind of operation.”

There have been sporadic police raids of bush tracks over the years, such as the arrest of 100 people in Oklahoma in 2007 and syringes and shock devices being seized alongside a spate of arrests at an operation in Texas in 2019. In both cases, the charges against the track operators included that they had broken laws involving unregulated horse racing. But such statutes don’t exist in every state. A 2007 raid of a large bush track in Gillsville, Ga., roughly 120 miles northeast of Milner, ended with its operator being found not guilty of hosting illegal gambling.

Even English noted that the amorphous quality of the bush circuit makes it nearly impossible to police. “Part of the obstacle I face in doing this is … these folks disband, and then reassemble with different cuadras, different names and different people, regularly,” English stated. “There’s no practical way to keep up with that.”

VanBebber said she has attempted to convince law enforcement authorities to lead a wider takedown of bush tracks, with little luck: “I’ve had discussions before with different entities, and nobody seems to have the resources to pool their assets to go get ’em.”

Pelzel-McCluskey said the onus was on the quarter horse industry to agitate for unlicensed racing to become an illegal activity under federal law.

“You can sit here and say, ‘We have sanctioned legal sport with oversight and medications monitoring and track surface monitoring and safety and health,’ ” Pelzel-McCluskey said in describing the regulated industry’s dilemma. “ ‘And we have this other thing over here that does none of that.’ ”

She added, “The industry has to kind of save themselves on this.”

The start of a bush observe

When Brutz English said he first learned about the bush circuit from a hired farmhand over a decade ago, he happened to be in the market for a new way to make a living.

The Englishes are a local institution — and more recently a font of small-town intrigue. The 200-acre farm that is now home to Rancho El Centenario has been in the family for more than 100 years, dating from when, according to its website, the primary production was tobacco, cotton and pecans.

But in 2005, Brutz’s brother, John “Mac” English, was convicted of attempting to arrange for a friend to kill two game wardens so they couldn’t indict him for hunting violations. As detailed in court records, his pal was wearing a wire when Mac offered him some stolen four-wheelers as payment for the double murder, which was not consummated. (Mac English, who served 15 years in prison, told The Post that his banter was not serious and the case against him “wasn’t remotely true.”)

(Video: For The Washington Put up)

At the time, Brutz English was the top public defender for four counties south of Atlanta, but he had his own criminal trouble. The same year as his brother’s conviction, he was charged with vehicular homicide after he slammed his GMC Yukon into the back of a Ford Mustang, killing the former city manager inside. English, who recently blamed a “moment’s inattention” for the wreck, pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation and a fine of $1,000.

He also was charged that year after police found in his possession a stolen four-wheeler and other property given to him by his brother, according to court records. He resigned as public defender and was ultimately convicted of receiving stolen property.

English served two years in prison before being released in 2008, and he was later pardoned by a state board that deemed him “fully rehabilitated.” After researching his farmhand’s suggestion and seeing the lucrative potential of the bush-track business, he opened Rancho El Centenario in 2013. Because Georgia doesn’t have state-sanctioned horse racing, there are no corresponding laws banning unregulated races. “You can race butterflies and ostriches if you want to,” English said.

English initially devised a novel system for charging admission by sitting at his ranch’s front gate with a bucket of pecans. “I couldn’t sell tickets to the races because I wasn’t licensed as a commercial enterprise,” he said. “But I could absolutely sell you a $20 pecan, and you could absolutely come in and watch the races for free.”

Ultimately, he applied for and, over the objections of some neighbors, received an “agritourism” exemption that allowed him to turn his ranch into an attraction. Lamar County Commissioner Nancy Thrash, who voted for English’s exemption, claimed she and her colleagues were initially hoodwinked by English and what she described as his superior legal mind. “He said he was going to grow blueberries and bring schoolkids over and let them pick blueberries,” said Thrash, who acknowledged English “kind of caught us with our pants down.”

“The horse track was for training horses — that was the way it was originally presented,” said Commissioner Robert Heiney, who also recalled plans involving blueberries and strawberries.

English denied deceiving the commissioners. “In truth, they didn’t ask a lot of questions,” he said.

At a county commission meeting in 2013, after it was clear English’s primary business would not involve berry-picking, resident Julia Heidbrink described, in a warning that would prove prophetic, the hazards of an unregulated horse track. “He needs safety standards, ambulance support, insurance and a veterinarian,” Heidbrink said. “There are issues with drugging horses to make them run a little bit faster. … It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

In an interview, English insisted that the only reason some residents and public officials have turned against him is his client base. With Georgia’s rapidly growing Hispanic population having topped 1 million in the latest census, English — who doesn’t speak Spanish and refers to his stable hands as “my Mexicans” — said he has recognized a growing demographic that the less tolerant would rather ignore.

“A few of my neighbors don’t like the fact that I bring all of these Latinos to this town,” English said. “They’ve said to my face, ‘Hey, if you had a bluegrass event, I’d be there.’ But when they hear that mariachi music, it drives them crazy.”

A 911 call from a resident this spring supported that supposition. The resident, who said he lived a mile from English’s ranch, yelled at a dispatcher, “We can’t even sit down and enjoy TV or eat dinner with all that Mexican music banging around down here!”

It’s not only the horses that end up on the bush circuit after being cast off from regulated racing. It’s the horsemen, too.

Roman Chapa, a frenetic former bull rider with a knack for surviving ugly spills, was for years one of the most prolific, and scandal-plagued, jockeys in thoroughbred and quarter horse racing, racking up nearly $30 million in winnings for his horse’s owners.

But in 2015, he was suspended by Texas racing officials for five years following the third time in his career he was caught possessing a shock device. The devices are banned in regulated racing because they are considered cruel to the animals, can lead to accidents, and are deemed a form of race-fixing.

It was an open secret how Chapa, who owed a $100,000 fine to regulators, made a living while banished from legitimate racing. Social media posts and news reports documented he had suffered severe injuries while racing at a bush track in Tennessee.

In 2020, when Chapa attempted to regain his licenses, an Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission attorney asked him if he had participated in any unregulated races while suspended. “No, sir, I’ve been working horses,” Chapa replied under oath. But Oklahoma regulators denied him, as did those in New Mexico, and the premier quarter horse track in Texas said he was no longer allowed on the premises, state regulatory records show. So Chapa headed to Georgia.

On March 21, 2021, videos and social media posts from that day show, he was racing in a 250-yard match at Rancho El Centenario. His horse tumbled. Both the animal and Chapa lay still in the dirt.

An off-duty sheriff radioed in the accident, records show, but Chapa initially declined to be taken away in an ambulance. Then English, who was at the track, made a follow-up 911 call. “The guy refused to go but he is now losing consciousness again,” he explained matter-of-factly to the dispatcher.

In social media posts, Chapa’s wife described a litany of injuries he suffered, including a “broken jaw (both sides), broken clavicle, broken vertebrae, broken ribs, and multiple small brain bleeds.” His months-long struggle to recover included 45 days in a medical coma.

He was discharged from the hospital in July 2021 but died of his injuries a few weeks later, according to an obituary. He was 50. Chapa’s widow and his most recent agent did not respond to multiple interview requests.

It was one of several serious racing accidents and breakdowns at the track in recent years, according to social media posts, police records and footage compiled by PETA.

“We got a horse fall over on somebody,” English told an emergency dispatcher following an accident in 2017. Two years later, supporters of a jockey raised money for his “fractured spinal cord” after a horse rolled over him. Other 911 calls described a man who broke a leg while bull riding and another who got a finger cut off.

In their letter to the Lamar County authorities, PETA cited more than a dozen accidents resulting in the deaths of horses since 2018 that the group said were either witnessed firsthand by their investigators or discovered by scouring social media and track video. Footage captured in March and cited in PETA’s complaint showed a horse struggling to stand with a broken front leg before being shot in the head and dragged off with a tractor.

English said the incident was handled in the most humane fashion possible. “The PETA folks would rather you watch it writhe on the track until you can get the vet down there with an IV, but we’d rather put it out of its misery,” English said. “We have done that more than once and we will continue to do that, because horses get injured on the track all the time.”

English stated accidents and deaths are a truth of all horse racing. However, he acknowledged, “Definitely there are issues that might make racing a horse [at his track] extra harmful than elsewhere. We don’t have the services and infrastructure that a spot just like the Kentucky Derby does. Consequently, there’s much less safety and fewer well being and security stuff.”

He in contrast his observe to the funds environs of a minor league baseball membership. “And nobody wants to outlaw Triple-A ball,” he reasoned.

It wasn’t lengthy after Chapa’s accident, PETA investigators stated, that they obtained by way of electronic mail a tip about Rancho El Centenario, alleging unlawful playing and that horses have been being abused, uncared for and shot lifeless. The lead investigators — a husband-and-wife crew who requested to not be recognized out of concern for his or her security — arrived on the observe inside a couple of months.

The investigators, White vegans who used highschool Spanish to order elotes with out cheese or mayonnaise from the concession stand, acknowledged that they stood out. They described skulking round to look at injections after which scooping spent syringes off the bottom. Along with utilizing body-worn cameras, they stated, the male investigator leaned into his gringo persona and brazenly recorded with a camcorder — till English drove up and requested him to place it away.

“You’re scaring my customers,” they stated English informed them. “They think you’re ICE.”

English recalled the dialog equally, including that he was “pleasant as peaches” to the unusual interloper.

The PETA investigators later referred to as the operation “one of the most dangerous things we’ve ever done,” up there with infiltrating a crocodile slaughterhouse in Zimbabwe.

Within the letter that PETA’s legal professionals despatched to the native authorities, the group referred to as for legal prices together with cruelty to animals, unlawful playing, distribution of managed substances, public nuisance and racketeering.

PETA additionally despatched a letter to authorities in Whitfield County, Ga., making comparable allegations a couple of bush observe there, Rancho El Canelo, the place lots of the similar horsemen function. When a reporter dialed the quantity listed on its Fb web page, the one who answered the telephone denied any information of the ranch.

District Attorney Adams, whose jurisdiction consists of Rancho El Centenario, stated that even earlier than studying the letter from PETA, he knew of English’s bush observe by fame.

“I’ve not been to the ranch, but I’ve heard that there’s inappropriate and illegal and horrible things that are going on and I certainly don’t condone any of it,” Adams stated.

And members of the sheriff’s workplace have lengthy had a great view of the goings-on at Rancho El Centenario. English hires off-duty deputies to assist with safety, and on the race day noticed by The Put up, they have been on the property in division cruisers. Sheriff Brad White didn’t reply to repeated interview requests.

Adams instructed that he and the sheriff have been constrained from cracking down on Rancho El Centenario as a consequence of an investigation “above both our offices” — hinting that federal authorities have been concerned. Adams expressed some impatience with the scenario, remarking, “Sometimes you get really tired of waiting.”

A spokesperson for the Division of Justice’s Center District of Georgia stated the workplace “does not confirm or deny pending investigations.”

English stated he was unaware of any ongoing regulation enforcement investigation into his ranch, federal or in any other case.

And for the second, enterprise stays so good that he’s inspiring different operators on the town.

In January, one other Milner resident, former restaurateur Randolph “Rudy” Vaughn, held the primary races on a observe he constructed on his property, which he has named “Rancho El Caporal.”

Some neighbors complained in county fee conferences about Vaughn attracting crowds and loud music. Commissioner Thrash, who voted for a zoning exemption for Vaughn’s property, stated she once more felt duped — she believed he wished to host “birthday parties and family reunions” on his property.

However Vaughn denied deceiving anyone, being a nuisance to his neighbors or copying English’s enterprise mannequin: “It’s just like in any town: They got two McDonald’s, you know what I mean?”

English stated he’s not involved about his enterprise being undercut by the brand new man.

“Rudy Vaughn’s not the competition,” English stated. “He’s got a little itty bitty track and won’t ever have the facilities that I have. He’s just a copycat.”

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