Horses shocked & likewise the public by exposés of “bush tracks”
MILNER, Georgia––Parallel investigations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] and the Washington Post on August 5, 2022 brought the existence of “bush track” quarter horse racing to public awareness, but the often violent and only sometimes illegal industry has openly thrived throughout much of the U.S. for decades.
Tracks show on Google Earth
Use of drones and undercover operatives is not necessary to detect “bush track” racing. Tracks can be found using Google Earth. Schedules are posted to social media.
But droning and undercover work might be necessary to discover and document the specific aspects of “bush track” racing that might bring criminal charges and prosecutions, including gambling and illegal drug use.
Operating a horse racing venue that is not affiliated with the official sanctioning bodies for thoroughbred, standard-bred, and quarter horse racing is not in itself illegal in many states. Even registering a race track with a state racing commission is not required in some states, including Georgia, where PETA and the Washington Post focused their efforts on Rancho El Centenario.
Rancho El Centenario
Rancho El Centenario, on the Liberty Hill Ranch near Milner, Georgia, is reputedly to “bush track” quarter horse racing what Rudioso Downs Race Track & Casino in southern New Mexico is to quarter horse racing of the fully legal variety: the biggest and best.
Those more familiar with thoroughbred racing might think of Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, and Santa Anita.
But quarter horse racing, rather than running in elongated ovals like Indianapolis 500 cars, is more like automotive drag racing: a flat-out sprint at varying distances up to nearly half a mile, with sometimes a curve near the end, and the participants and spectators make no pretense to affluent gentility.
Nobody drinks mint julips. Beer from the can or bottle, yes.
Rodeo crossed with cockfighting
The atmosphere at an afternoon of officially sanctioned quarter horse racing is much like that of a rodeo, with just as much dust and flying manure.
The atmosphere at a “bush track” is more like rodeo crossed with cockfighting.
At Rancho El Centenario and most “bush tracks,” the participants and spectators are overwhelmingly Hispanic, of Mexican origin or descent.
But as with cockfighting, there are also “bush tracks,” especially in Appalachia, where non-whites are scarce.
Recounted PETA, “Jockeys whipped horses relentlessly—often over 20 times in a row—and other team members even struck the horses from behind as the starting gates opened. Jockeys and handlers also whipped and hit horses before races, during loading, and in the starting gates, as punishment and/or to control fractious behavior in the drugged-up horses.
“Jockeys did not limit themselves to whipping,” PETA continued. “Investigators’ close-up footage revealed electric shock devices held in jockeys’ hands or taped to their wrists. They use them to shock the horses in the neck during races, even the many jockeys who also race at mainstream tracks, where using or possessing these devices would result in a multi-year suspension.”
Seven jockeys named
PETA photographed and identified by name seven jockeys at Rancho El Centenario allegedly using electroshocking devices, including, PETA said, “2022 leading money-winner on regulated tracks, Bryan Candanosa; the U.S. Quarter Horse jockey with the most wins in 2021, Everardo Rodriguez; and Sammy Mendez, the leading jockey at Indiana Grand, who was suspended for 20 years for possessing a shock device.
“Jockey Eduardo Nicasio, with over $19 million in career winnings at regulated tracks, doesn’t even bother trying to conceal his shock devices,” PETA said.
PETA also named jockeys José Beltran, Patricio Aguilera, and Alex Carrillo.
“PETA was able to collect 27 syringes and/or needles in total, on six different dates,” PETA mentioned. “Testing by a Racing Medication & Testing Consortium–accredited lab revealed that syringes contained cocaine, methamphetamine, methylphenidate (Ritalin), and caffeine, sometimes in combination.”
Sheriff’s deputies on site
Gus Garcia-Roberts led the Washington Post probe.
Admission at Rancho El Centenario, Garcia-Roberts reported, “is $100 per head in cash, collected before a cadre of armed guards search vehicles.”
The guards include off-duty deputies, Garcia-Roberts noted.
“On the race day observed by The Post, they were on the property in department cruisers. Sheriff Brad White did not respond to repeated interview requests,” Garcia-Roberts mentioned.
Like the PETA investigators, the Washington Post team collected syringes discarded by trainers at Rancho El Centenario and sent them for independent testing by accredited testing companies. The tests done for the Washington Post discovered traces of methamphetamine and methylphenidate, sold as Ritalin.
Arthur “Brutz” English IV
“Since a disbarred attorney named Arthur “Brutz” English IV had a red dirt track pounded into the land of his fourth-generation family farm nine years ago,” Garcia-Roberts wrote, “Rancho El Centenario has showcased the chaos and the profitability of such an operation.”
“Brutz” English became involved in “bush track” racing,” Garcia-Roberts recounted, after his brother, John “Mac” English, was convicted in 2005 “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.”
“Brutz” English, at the time, “was the top public defender for four counties south of Atlanta,” Garcia-Roberts continued, but “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.”
Legal in Georgia
“Brutz” English “pleaded no contest and was sentenced to probation and a fine of $1,000,” Garcia-Roberts said.
“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.”
Serving two years in prison, “Brutz” English was released in 2008, was later “pardoned by a state board that deemed him ‘fully rehabilitated,’” according to Garcia-Roberts, and “opened Rancho El Centenario in 2013. Because Georgia doesn’t have state-sanctioned horse racing, there are no corresponding laws banning unregulated races,” Garcia-Roberts explained.
Except when illegal
But––as with cockfighting––local authorities sometimes find reasons to close “bush tracks” when they want to.
Only five miles west of Rancho El Centenario, Meriwether County sheriff Steve Whitlock on November 27, 2011 raided a “bush track,” finding “38 horses, trucks and horse trailers, and concession stands selling beer and liquor,” along with 300 spectators and participants, according to news reports. Sixteen people were arrested; property, including $50,000 in cash, was seized from 23 people.
“There was an elaborate race track for these horses to run on, consisting of fencing, sand, and a starting gate, much like the ones you would see at the Kentucky Derby,” Whitlock told media.
But no one was indicted, let alone convicted. Superior Court Judge A. Quillian Baldwin in November 2012 ordered that all of the confiscated property be returned to the owners.
“I believe this occurred because Sheriff Whitlock was running for re-election and the hot button issue was illegal immigration,” said defense attorney Jason Smith. “I believe the sole purpose they pursued this horse racing facility was in order to gain political points on the issue of illegal immigration.”
Whitlock was defeated in his bid for re-election in July 2012.
Closing the Meriwether County track left an opening for Rancho El Centenario.
“There have been sporadic police raids of ‘bush tracks’ over the years,” acknowledged Garcia-Roberts, “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,” Garcia-Roberts said, “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, Georgia., roughly 120 miles northeast of Milner, ended with its operator being found not guilty of hosting illegal gambling,” Garcia-Roberts recalled.
Cross-over owners & trainers
Horse owners and trainers, as well as jockeys, cross over from regulated racing to the “bush tracks.”
Among the nine people indicted on December 19, 2019 by a Parker County, Texas grand jury “for operating an illegal horse racing meet in Springtown, Texas, located 30 miles northwest of Fort Worth,” disclosed Autumn Owens of the Weatherford Democrat, was local ranch owner Yesenia Garza, reportedly 41 at the time.
Garza trained horses who in five starts in sanctioned races, two in 2014 and three in 2019, won $18,149, with one first place finish and one third.
“The Parker County Sheriff’s Office assisted the Texas Department of Public Safety Criminal Investigations Division, as well as several other agencies, in arresting the individuals at the operation at 1377 Walnut Creek Drive in Springtown,” wrote Owens.
“Dozens of horses”
“Dozens of horses were found to be forced to race illegally in an unsanctioned race and numerous large syringes and drug paraphernalia were found on the scene,” along with shocking devices,” Owens reported.
Explained Parker County sheriff Larry Fowler, “The Racing Act was established in order to keep horses from racing more than once in a 24-hour period. Most of the horses and jockeys were found to be racing twice in the same weekend. These laws were created to protect them.”
Said assistant district attorney Jeff Swain, “Each of these defendants is charged with the third degree felony offense of conducting a horse race without a license. A conviction for this offense carries with it a punishment of two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.”
There seems to be no record of any of the defendants actually being convicted, to date.
None of the estimated 1,000 spectators were arrested, although five alleged illegal aliens were turned over to U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement.
The most recent big “bush track” bust apparently came on October 26, 2021, when “Washington State Gambling Commission special agents, deputies with the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office, and agents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture served a warrant on a suspected illegal horse racing operation” at a ranch near Burbank, Washington, according to a Washington State Gambling Commission media release.
The investigation began, the media release said, “in early January 2019,” in response to “a tip from another agency that illegal horse racing and other illegal gambling was taking place.
“Organizers would hold monthly match races between horses,” the media release explained. “Most were from Washington and Oregon, with some coming from other western states. The races were often advertised on social media accounts.
“As many as six people could face felony charges in connection with the activity,” the release added.
“The names of those suspects and the ranch where the races were held are not being made public pending a charging decision by the Walla Walla County Prosecuting Attorney,” the release finished.
Vector for horse diseases
The tip to the Washington State Gambling Commission may have come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service.
USDA-APHIS personnel have for years been trying to track down the sources of outbreaks of the horse blood diseases piroplasmosis and equine infectious anemia.
Both are incurable, yet entirely preventable through vaccination. Both occur primarily in clusters closely associated with quarter horse racing, both legal and illegal.
USDA veterinarian Angela Pelzel-McCluskey told Garcia-Roberts, he wrote, “that by using social media, she has found 89 tracks in 27 states.”
Pelzel-McCluskey has identified 532 quarter horses carrying piroplasmosis since 2008, Garcia-Roberts summarized. Among the 2021 total of 103 identified cases of equine infectious anemia, “the highest total since 2008,” Garcia-Roberts noted, 84 occurred in racing quarter horses.
Jockeys as well as horses suffer from “bush track” conditions and lack of regulation.
“Roman Chapa, a frenetic former bull rider with a knack for surviving ugly spills,” cited Garcia-Roberts, “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 horses’ 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,” Garcia-Roberts recounted.
Turning to the “bush track” circuit, Chapa was severely injured at a track in Tennessee, then reportedly broke both sides of his jaw, his clavicle, several ribs, and vertebrae in a March 21, 2021 spill at Rancho El Centenario.
Also experiencing “multiple small brain bleeds,” Chapa’s “months-long struggle to recover included 45 days in a medical coma,” his widow told Garcia-Roberts.
Chapa died in July 2021 at age 50.
The violence in “bush track” racing is not always accidental.
Reported Patrice Clark for WLBT on January 10, 2022, “The Yazoo County Sheriff’s Office is pleading with the public for help to find out who killed several horses and injured two others in a weekend shooting. One of the victims,” Eric Bolden Jr., “is now fighting for his life.
“My understanding, what led to the shooting is,” said Yazoo County sheriff Jacob Sheriff, “they had horse racing and they were betting on the horses. One was accused of illegal horse racing, crossing in front of another horse, and the other wanted their money back after the race and that led to dispute.”
If a shooting suspect has been arrested, a report of it has eluded ANIMALS 24-7.
Carril El Tarahumara
None of the alleged crime associated with “bush tracks” discovered by PETA and the Washington Post is anything new.
KLTV 7, of Anson, Texas, disclosed on July 21, 2014 that races at Carril El Tarahumara, a “bush track” in Smith County, Texas, were according to federal documents “attended by a number of high-level Mexican drug dealers from East Texas, Dallas, and Houston,” who wagered “up to $40,000 cash on a single horse race.”
“According to the Texas Racing Commission,” KLTV reported, “there are an estimated 50 illegal horse racing tracks in the state. The state misses out on $70,000- $500,000 per illegal track per year in licensing fees.”
In July 2007, KLTV added, “a North Texas man was murdered at an unlicensed horse racing track in East Texas. Authorities never arrested anyone for the murder.”
Carril El Tarahumara was eventually sold to Renault Kay, who renamed it L&K Downs. Kay, 55, was arrested on July 11, 2022 for hosting a public event without proper permits and for allegedly evading police.
“He was booked in the Smith County Jail on bonds totaling $3,500 then released the next day,” reported Oscar Saravia of TylerPaper.com.
Stock cars & dragsters
Stock car racing in the South, dominated by bootleggers, and drag racing in California, involving illegal gambling, were just after World War II at about the same level of participation and popularity as “bush track” horse racing is now, and were also often conducted at illegal venues.
As with “bush track” horse racing, most of the participants were nominal amateurs, but professional car-builders and drivers won most of the money.
The organization of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing [NASCAR] by Bill France in 1948 and the National Hot Rod Association by Wally Parks in 1951 cleaned up both sports by 1960, markedly improved safety, and brought in major corporate sponsorship too.
But automobile racing does not involve cruelty to animals, who are unwilling participants.
In that respect, “bush track” horse racing is much more like cockfighting.
American Quarter Horse Association has no visible influence
Further, the American Quarter Horse Association, headquartered in Amarillo, Texas, and already regulating legal quarter horse racing since 1940, appears to have little influence over the participants in “bush track” racing.
This is at least partially because the American Quarter Horse Association and state affiliates conduct their business in English, while “bush tracks”––much like cockpits in the U.S. Southwest––currently cater mostly to Spanish-speaking clientele.
Among the 271 individuals listed as “Directors, officers, trustees, key employees, and highest compensated employees” on the American Quarter Horse Association filing of IRS Form 990, just six have surnames generally recognized as Hispanic.
Nor is there much hint of this changing soon. A group photo of more than 150 participants in an American Quarter Horse Youth Association event, posted on the American Quarter Horse Association web site, shows very few people who may be Hispanic. There are some, even in the front row, but the crowd hardly resembles a “bush track” crowd.
Cultural assimilation and the cost of participation may eventually erode interest in “bush track” horse racing to the point of collapse.
Spectator and gambling interest in thoroughbred and standard-bred horse racing have already collapsed, for the most part; can quarter horse racing, either legal or illegal, be far behind?
Meanwhile, Arizona on September 29, 2021 introduced a law that classifies hosting unlicensed horse races as racketeering, a class 6 felony.
A first time offender might receive a sentence of from four months to two years in jail. An offender with two prior convictions might get up to 25 years in prison.
Whether the new law will actually change anything remains to be seen.
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