Unsanctioned horse racing flourishing in rural Colorado

Hidden cameras capture doping, gambling, abuse of horses as regulators, politicians, and law enforcement turn a blind eye

It’s Easter Sunday outside the Deer Trail Rodeo grounds.

Armed teams of private security in flak jackets set up a road block searching passengers and vehicles. What they are looking for is unclear, but alcohol and beer are allowed to pass. An Arapahoe Sheriff’s deputy drove by slowly on the street outside the stadium, but did not stop.

By early afternoon, approximately 500 spectators are lined up along metal railings near a long, manicured dirt track.

They were drawn here by an online advertising push from a company calling itself Parejeras Racing USA.

A Spanish language flyer promised 10 “match-races,” with prize money in the thousands of dollars.

At first glance, the horse races looked much like the legal, sanctioned ones held at Colorado’s only licensed horse race facility, Arapahoe Park in Aurora.

Jockeys, in colorful silk, mounted muscular Quarter horses draped with matching blankets embossed with large numbers. Handlers helped guide the horses and riders to a metal starting gate.

As the horses charged down the straight-away, it became apparent, there were few rules.

Whipping of the animals was harsh and nearly nonstop.

In one race, a jockey veered his horse into another competitor. The high-speed ramming pushed the thundering beasts toward spectators standing within inches of the track, including children.

In two other races, jockeys lost their balance and went tumbling among the hoofs of other race horses.

Problem Solvers, working with knowledgeable insiders, acquired hidden camera footage of not only the races, but all the activities happening just off the track.

Gamble Broker

Audio and video recordings show plenty of cash being wagered on horses.

The largest bets appeared to be funneled through a “gamble broker” carrying a ledger.

Other brokers openly carried large wads of money in their hands, both accepting and paying out bets.

They pitched their services in Spanish, with some accepting wagers as small as $5, but most bets were in the $50 range.

State regulators handcuffed by lack of ‘statutory authority’

The gambling on horses, specifically, is illegal according to the Senior Director of Enforcement for the Colorado Department of Revenue, Ron Kammerzell. His agency oversees some 1,400 pages of racing regulations.

Ron Kammerzell:Racing Enforcement

“The race track and all the casinos we regulate are subject to IRS requirements, currency transaction reporting, suspicious activity reports filed with the US Treasury.” Kammerzell told FOX31 Investigative Reporter, Chris Halsne. “And the concern there is with money laundering and activities that are incident to gambling itself.”

Kammerzell’s division also spends full-time resources to monitor racing at Arapahoe Park during its season (which starts May 19).

His agents drug test horses and jockeys, make certain the races aren’t rigged, and focus on ensuring the safety of the equine athletes themselves.

Kammerzell said, “We’re really looking out for those horses that can’t speak for themselves, so we’re looking out for them through our rules and regulations on how we protect them.

Kammerzell told FOX31 the horse race organizers at the Deer Trail event, and a dozen other off-the-grid match races per year, don’t ask DOR for permission. They do the races in secret, without any oversight.

Halsne asked, “I think the public would say, even in those unsanctioned events, it should be your job to protect those horses too.”

To which Kammerzell replied, “Our authority kind of ends with the licensed industry – state and local law enforcement takes over when there’s a potential of illegal activities. That’s really a policy issue. Whether it be the general assembly or the evolution of the regulation over time – simply our statutory authority doesn’t really allow us to get involved there.”

DOR tells FOX31, it would welcome changes in the current racing regulations, which would allow racing enforcement to watch over, or disapprove, match-racing.

Banned drugs help horses run faster

Just prior to the start of the fourth race at Deer Trail, three witnesses working with the FOX31 investigative team, noticed a group of men struggling to calm a horse, wrapping their arms around it’s neck.

In front of hidden cameras, one of the handlers pulled out a large syringe, marked for veterinary use only. It contained a brown liquid. The substance or substances were injected into the race horse’s neck. Moments later that same horse entered the starting gates and raced.

An informant, with detailed knowledge of the match-race industry described the liquid in the syringe as “typically a cocktail of stimulants” to ramp up the horse’s heart – to get it to run faster.

Following the races, FOX31 Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne located and bagged a syringe and needle which still contained a small amount of a brown substance. There was no chain of custody as we lost sight of the original syringe and needle. However, based on eyewitness accounts and recordings, the set-up appeared similar, if not identical to the injection of the previous horse.

We hired a prominent horse-doping lab to test the sample.

The results, at first, documented three drugs contained in the needle and syringe. More detailed analysis of the trace materials eventually identified two of the three substances.

One “compound could not be verified in any mass spectral data base.”

The other two were a combination of the stimulant caffeine and an equine anti-inflammatory/painkiller Flunixin.

Equine veterinarian, Bruce Connelly, likened Flunixin to the human non-steroidal painkiller Toradol.

Connelly, who has sat on parimutuel race boards in the past, tells the FOX31 Problem Solvers both of the known drugs found in the set-up are banned from legal races.

“That’s what bothers me the most is that we don’t have regulation and so the horse becomes disposable. That’s what worries me,” Connell said.

He added, the doping of horses, even in closely monitored events, still happens, but without any veterinarian oversight at the unsanctioned match-races, the use of various performance enhancing drug cocktails can go unchecked.

Connelly told Halsne, “I always have the concerns about what they are putting into these horses. I’ve seen match-race horses run blind. Break themselves up because of stuff that was put in ‘em that shouldn’t have been.”

He added, “You’ve seen people on drugs. Their mind isn’t right. They do things they wouldn’t do on the drugs. Same thing happens to horses. They do things they wouldn’t do on the drugs and that may well be detrimental to their health and their life.”

Deer Trail mayor allowed unsanctioned races

Gambling, alleged doping, and mistreatment of horses may have been hidden inside the Deer Trail Rodeo grounds, but it seemed impossible to FOX31 that such a large event, widely advertised and attended by so many people could go unnoticed by local politicians.

It turns out, they more than knew.

Deer Trail Mayor Kent Vashus

According to state records, Deer Trail mayor, Kent Vashus is the “registered agent” of the Deer Trail Jockey Club.

The Jockey Club is one of the oldest non-profits in Colorado and owner of the Rodeo grounds where the unsanctioned Easter races were held.

Vashus admitted to the FOX31 Problem Solvers he had allowed Parejares Racing USA to use the Rodeo grounds for races in the past. Records show he approved at least fourteen “Mexican Horse Races” in Deer Trail since 2015.

He originally agreed to an on-camera interview to explain, but cancelled at the last minute citing “advice of legal counsel.”

Halsne instead approached Vashus following a public Deer Trail Board of Trustees meeting to question him on the record.

The following exchange occurred outside city hall.

Vashus: No comment, friend.

Halsne: Come on. You’re the mayor of this town.

Vashus: I am and it was an event held on private property, so it’s not a town issue.

Halsne: You’re also the president of the Jockey Club.

Vashus: I’m not the president of the Jockey Club.

Halsne: You’re the register agent. (Mayor heads out the door) You have something to do with this.

Vashus: I do.

Halsne: Both as a mayor and as a private citizen. Correct?

Vashus: Yeah. You ask anybody and I tried harder than anybody to try to get them to stop, so.

Halsne: So, are you going to put a stop to it?

Vashus: They’re already done. I told you that on the phone. There’s not going to be another in Deer Trail, Colorado.

Halsne: And why did you make that decision?

Vashus: Because of the stuff you brought to our attention.

During the town’s public comment session, Halsne informed the rest of the Board of Trustees of our findings, but none wanted to comment, including Judd Behrens,

Halsne: What do you know about it, if anything?

Behrens: I got no comment on it – no. no.

Halsne: From a town’s image standpoint, is it good to have some of the illegal activities that we clearly saw going on in the middle of your town?

Behrens: No – but like I said, no comment. I don’t feel like being on the news.

Halsne called Parejeras Racing for comment. The operators of that organization, on the phone, declined comment.

*For additional investigative reporting on unsanctioned horse races happening in Weld County, pick up a Sunday, May 21st edition of the Greeley Tribune. In early April, journalists from that newspaper were tipped about a race in the Fort Lupton area. FOX31 and the newspaper initially worked independently on different racing organizations and venues, but because we found a number of common ties, began sharing information as it was confirmed.

Here is a summary of what the Greeley Tribune will publish on Sunday:

In Weld County, horse racing is a common occurrence. And many race organizers even take steps to obtain a temporary assembly permit from county commissioners. But an assembly permit from the county doesn’t guarantee legal activity. After race organizers provide the necessary documents to get a permit, there’s little to no oversight of actual race operations, something some insiders and advocates say paves the way for illegal gambling, mistreatment of horses and an unsafe environment for spectators.

Please enable Javascript to watch this video