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The New Mexico Racing Commission on April 19 dismissed a five-year suspension and $5,000 fine against jockey Johnny Raul “J.R.” Valenzuela resulting from a Jan. 15, 2017, jockeys room shakedown at Sunland Park when investigators alleged the rider threw an electrical device into a trash can. Valenzuela was summarily suspended and, following a hearing, received a five-year ban and fine, which was then appealed.
The commission acted on a March 1 recommendation by hearing officer Becky A. Torres, following a Jan. 30, 2018, hearing into the matter. Torres recommended the stewards ruling against Valenzuela be dismissed because the state “failed to meet its burden and prove its case by a preponderance of the evidence.”
Torres cited what she called “conflicting testimony” of key witnesses for the racing commission, including Sunland Park director of security Johnny Paul Luna and security supervisor Martin Bustillos. Luna and Bustillos both were present during a surprise search that took place during the Jan. 15, 2017, live racing program, and each turned in written reports. New Mexico Racing Commission investigator Staci Wiseman and safety steward Cynthia Smith also participated in the search for prohibited devices. Electrical devices – commonly called batteries, buzzers or machines – can be used to stimulate a horse during a race and are illegal.
During the hearing, Luna said he was about 20 to 25 feet from Valenzuela and saw the rider move toward a trash can outside of the jockeys room and heard a noise he believed to be something falling into the can. Bustillos, according to the hearing officer's report, testified that he was standing “two to three feet” behind Valenzuela and “saw the rider remove a black object from under his sleeve or glove and throw it in the trash can.” Bustillos also said he heard a noise he believed to be something falling into the can.
Luna said he saw a prohibited device in the trash and Bustillos, using his cell phone, took a color photo of the contents of the inside of the can, which he said contained what he believed to be a battery wrapped in black electrical tape.
Photo of trash can submitted into evidence
However, the photograph presented to the hearing officer was black and white and was not time stamped and “does not thoroughly and accurately portray an electrical device inside a trash can,” according to the hearing officer's report. Furthermore, according to Torres, “the commission was unable to introduce an electrical device into evidence.”
Torres found inconsistencies in the testimony of Luna and Bustillo regarding “specific placement” of the trash can and on “which side of the hallway” outside of the jockeys room the riders were standing during the search. She also said that while Bustillo “did not see an object drop into the trash can,” he provided testimony that he saw Valenzuela “throw an object into a trash can.”
“The conflicting testimony of the commission's witnesses diminishes the credibility of said testimony,” Torres wrote.
Valenzuela submitted sworn statements from fellow jockeys Salvador Martinez and Mauro Salcedo, both of whom said they did not see Valenzuela drop an object into the trash.
A Quarter horse and Thoroughbred jockey who began riding in the 1970s, Valenzuela is the older brother of jockey Patrick Valenzuela. He hit a 1,000-win career milestone in 2016, his first year back in the saddle after a five-year absence.
Hearing Officer's Report
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