March 25, 2005 – Horse racing has come back to St. Croix under the guidance of a new firm. The events at the Randall "Doc" James Race Track are attracting a lot of people. Indications are the stands will be full Monday for the Easter races. Divi Casino is taking advantage of its relationship with the track to open up simulcast betting areas at its casinos and other sites on St. Croix.
But what about the horses? Are they being drugged? Are they being abandoned as soon as their speed on the track is gone? Are they being treated inhumanely?
Raina Dodson-Eimer, researcher at the Animal Science Department at the University of the Virgin Islands, recently put her question this way, "Divi is going to make a lot of money, but what about the horses? Who is protecting the horses?"
Questions like hers, which are prompted by the sight of seemingly abandoned horses walking on St. Croix roads, are not falling on deaf ears.
Louis Hassell, president of the Horseracing Commission, said that the commission had met recently at Gertrude's Restaurant and was formulating a plan for identifying horses, so owners could be held accountable for what happens to the horses.
Hassell said that commission members had heard speculation that ex-race horses were being abandoned in pastures and members did not think that was a humane way to treat the horses, so they are looking into "micro-chipping" the horses, so they and their owner can be readily identified.
Dodson-Eimer is looking into a program where race horses can be retired to prisons. She said, "Both the prisoners and the horse benefit from this program."
She plans to meet with Becky Petri, of V.I. Community Cooperative Thoroughbred Retirement Effort. The St. Thomas organization raises funds to send mistreated horses to the Marion Country Correctional Institute in Lowell, Fla.
Petri in an e-mail to the Source said, "VICCTRE has been met with welcoming arms from many of the race horse owners including the president of the Horse Association and Lester Ashby (acting promoter). These people recognize the need for horse rescue and retirement. "
She said her organization has rescued or retired 12 horses since August. Five of these horses were sent to the Florida correctional institute in cooperation with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.
The St. Thomas group has another horse slated to be shipped on April 14 and is currently caring for a starved and neglected horse named Western Honors.
While VICCTRE and others are trying to solve the problem on St. Thomas, its problem might be spilling over to St. Croix. Petri wrote, "We are often told these horses are sent out "to pasture in St.Croix."
Lynn Denise Utech, another co-founder of VICCTRE explained, when St. Thomas horse owners are questioned what they will do with their horse if VICCTRE doesn't take it , they answer " I have a friend with a pasture who will take it"…and sometimes they specify a St. Croix pasture.
She added that VICCTRE has not been able to monitor the pasture situation either on St. Thomas or St. Croix.
Dennis Brow, general manager of Traxco, which took over operation of the St. Croix racetrack this year, said his company, which is owned by the same parent company as Divi Casino, being new to the track, was "not fully aware of the problem." He said it is Traxco's goal to create a "safe healthy environment for everyone involved at the track." He said as Traxco becomes aware of problems it will develop solutions.(See St. Croix Source story "Senate Gives OK to Race Track Deals").
One problem that is already knocking on Traxco's door is accusations that horses are being drugged on race day.
Hassell said there were reports that horses were so sick at the Jan. 20 races that they could not stand up.
Hassell said the commission was asking that Traxco set up a drug testing area before the races scheduled for Easter Monday.
Brow said, in the franchise agreement, Traxco is required to build a four-stable drug test area within the first two years of operation, if requested by the commission, and the commission has the proper equipment to do the testing.
Hassell said the commission has the equipment to do the testing now.
Brow said, "We want to make sure this sport is fair."
Dodson-Eimer said the St. Croix race track, "Was run like a third-world track before, and it will never attract the money and prestige it needs, if the horses can't be certified as clean."
Hassell said that the commission has hired Dr. David Martinez, as the lead veterinarian at the track. He has experience at the track and will be there on race days.
Dodson-Eimer said that is a start, but since horses are kept at the track, a veterinarian probably needs to be at the track more often.
Petri writes that one solution could be that VICCTRE has its own facility to care for horses. She has a question that begs a positive answer, "Wouldn't it be great if we had our own facility the Virgin Islands could be proud of?"
However, for that positive answers for the horse today she said she believes, "It is time the St. Croix and St. Thomas race tracks step up to the plate."
Utech advocates stronger oversight at the tracks and enforcement of regulations. She said Friday that everything presently is left up to the horse owner, "This type of individual accountability has failed and continues to fail some of the horses at the track."
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