A grand jury in Texas has indicted nine people for operating an illegal horse racing meet near Fort Worth. Animal health regulators report that illegal racing at so-called “bush tracks” is associated with the spread of serious horse diseases, such as equine infectious anemia and piroplasmosis, and puts horse welfare at risk.
Last October the Parker County Sheriff’s Office assisted the Texas Department of Public Safety Criminal Investigations Division, the Texas Animal Health Commission, and several others to investigate a bush track in Springtown.
Bush tracks are unlicensed makeshift racetracks that operate in rural areas of the United States and Canada. They are not sanctioned by state racing commissions, which regulate the number of times a horse can compete in a 24-hour period; prohibit the use of banned substances and devices to enhance a horse’s performance; and require current equine health certificates and proof of negative Coggins blood tests (which detect EIA antibodies in a horse’s bloodstream).
Said Sgt. Deputy Danie Huffman, Parker County Sheriff’s Office public information officer, the agency was called to investigate alleged violations of the state’s Horse Racing Act. The subsequent probe revealed most of the horses and jockeys were in direct violation of the state’s Horse Racing Act by racing twice in the same weekend.
Officials also found several syringes allegedly containing illegal substances used to increase a horse’s racing performance and related drug paraphernalia at the scene, she said.
On Dec. 19, 2019, a Parker County grand jury indicted Jessica Judith Davila, Yesenia Garza, Blanca Gonsalez, Edgar Valentin Mendoza, Juan Francisco Renteria, Ever Noruf Rodriguez-Rodriguez, Pablo Erasmo Solis, Ivan Raymundo Suarez, and Alonso Venzor in connection with the illegal horse racing operation.
Parker County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Swain said that, if convicted, each of those indicted could face penalties of two to 20 years in prison and fines up to $10,000 for every count of conducting a horse race without a license.
None of those indicted were available for comment, and the case remains pending.
Bush Tracks and Infectious Disease Spread
The indictments are significant because the rise in EIA and equine piroplasmosis cases in the United States is directly connected with the rise in the number of bush tracks operating here, said Joelle R. Hayden, public affairs specialist for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS).
Equine infectious anemia is a viral disease that attacks horses’ immune systems. The virus is transmitted through the exchange of body fluids from an infected to an uninfected animal, often by blood-feeding insects such as horseflies. It can also be transmitted through the use of blood-contaminated instruments or needles. There is no cure or vaccine for EIA. A horse diagnosed with the disease dies, must be euthanized, or must be placed under extremely strict quarantine conditions (at least 200 yards away from unaffected equids) for the rest of his life.
Equine piroplasmosis is caused by protozoal parasites that can be spread naturally to equids by ticks or, more commonly, when caretakers use contaminated needles, syringes, and treatment/surgical equipment and products among horses. It can take as long as 30 days for an infected horse to test positive for the parasite after exposure. Clinical signs include fever, anemia (a low red blood cell count), anorexia, depression, swollen abdomen, labored breathing, jaundice, and digestive problems including colic, constipation, or diarrhea. Some infected horses can carry the causative parasite without showing clinical signs. Horses that test positive for the disease are quarantined and could ultimately be euthanized.
Animal health authorities are finding cases mostly among racing Quarter Horses, specifically those moved illegally to the U.S. from Mexico, where EIA and piroplasmosis are common and there are no control programs, she said.
“These illegally moved horses serve as reservoirs for transmission of these diseases to the other horses participating in both sanctioned and unsanctioned racing,” Hayden said. “While we can identify and deal with disease in sanctioned racing due to more strict testing and hygiene practices, it is difficult to do the same within the unsanctioned racing circuit where some animals move between the two different circuits.”
In response, states are taking steps to find and catch these cases before they move into and potentially infect other horse populations, she said.