HOUSTON (AP) — The Texas Racing Commission says as many as 50 illegal horse racetracks operate in the state, fueling concerns about illicit gambling, the safety of jockeys and horses and unfair competition for registered racing venues.
Authorities recently raided at least two tracks where betting occurred and say the wagers were at least partly fueled by drug money, the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/18VfQS6) reported. Also, in October they raided an illegal racing business in Rockwall County, east of Dallas, where they found anabolic steroids, stolen cars and stolen guns.
The commission oversees the state's five registered tracks, while the Texas Department of Public Safety is in charge of investigating illegal activity. Operating a racetrack in Texas does not require special permits, but must pay a licensing fee that ranges from $70,000 to $500,000.
The Texas Legislature created the Racing Commission to regulate the industry in the 1980s but there are still unlicensed tracks; about two are reported to Texas DPS every year.
Authorities fear illegal tracks siphon customers from registered venues and evade taxes. They also say lack of oversight may be dangerous for jockeys and racehorses.
Some of the unregulated facilities are accused of selling alcohol without permits, animal cruelty and drug trafficking, the newspaper reported.
"A lot of traffickers go there with a lot of money," said Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations with the Drug Enforcement Administration. "They can bet hundreds of thousands of dollars."
At one of the raided tracks in March, called "Los Ladrilleros" in Liberty County, the owners were charged with money laundering. Dennis Yates, the attorney for the family that owns the track denied the charge, saying the family bought the track to earn extra money.
DPS investigator Larry Pulliam said about 200 to 1,000 people showed up at the racing events, featuring a deejay, a finish line photographer, food and alcohol for sale. The track charged $20 per car at the gate.
"Spectators had about $50,000 in cash for betting on races," DPS investigator Larry Pulliam said. He provided few other details about the operation, citing an ongoing investigation.
Six months later, agents raided Rancho El Herradero in Crosby, near Houston, and arrested nine people, including the owner.
The crowd did not place bets at a window, but exchanged money among themselves before each race. There is no apparent connection between the tracks.
Experts believe that aside from the illegal activity, the tracks pose other risks to the racing industry. Horses that run on unregistered tracks gain race experience, but when they compete at legal tracks against horses with no experience, they have an unfair advantage.
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com