A Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission official shook up its normally staid meeting Tuesday with a startling report of a large amount of contraband material seized from barn and racing offices at Parx Racing.
Tom Chuckas, the Thoroughbred Horse Racing Bureau director, said “a significant amount of contraband” was discovered at Parx Racecourse during a raid on the backstretch area last weekend.
His report lasted just 80 seconds, and Chuckas did not take questions. He oversees thoroughbred horse racing and wagering in the Commonwealth.
The report by Chuckas was delivered during a live-streamed virtual meeting of the board, which is still meeting remotely due to virus restrictions.
Unmentioned by Chuckas, a Parx Hall of Fame trainer, Richard Vega, is suspended as a result.
Racing Commission search now extends to Penn National
The Horse Racing Commission made good on a promise by conducting a pre-dawn raid Thursday on barn areas at Penn National Race Course, adjoining Hollywood Casino in Grantville.
Those entering the backstretch area were stopped, questioned, and searched.
According to Penn spokesman Eric Schippers:
“We have our major race of the year tomorrow night (PENN Mile). Pa commission has task force of enhanced security people come in a few days in advance and through the race date to provide extra surveillance and security for the participants.”
June 1 update: A spokeswoman for the Racing Commission said no contraband was found at Penn National during vehicle, barn, tack room, and veterinarian searches. Out of Competition Testing results are still pending from the lab.
The public information officer provided some details about the earlier action at Parx.
Details of the sweep at Parx
According to PA Agriculture Department spokeswoman Shannon Powers:
“Friday, May 21 and Saturday, May 22, Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission staff conducted the following actions at Parx Racing as part of routine enforcement work. Parx cooperated with officials conducting the searches.
Items discovered in the searches were characterized in the commission’s monthly public meeting as contraband. This was the first in-person visit to Parx by enforcement staff since teleworking safety measures were implemented in March 2020.
- 64 vehicle searches
- 7 veterinarian vehicle searches
- 3 veterinarian office searches
- 6 Barn searches
- 6 tack room searches
- 5 groom’s quarter searches
- 5 external tack room searches
- 66 Out of Competition tests
“An investigation by commission staff is in progress. Issues not under the commission’s jurisdiction will be referred to other legal authorities.”
“Similar enforcement actions were underway at Penn National yesterday, but I have no further information about whether yesterday’s actions prompted further investigation.”
On Friday, Powers confirmed a Parx trainer is suspended as a result of the enforcement action at the track. She added she could not release the name of the trainer, pending completion of the ongoing investigation.
However, Vega, the suspended trainer, was then reached by PlayPennsylvania later on Friday.
He said he was innocent, but could not speak due to the ongoing investigation and he added he would have his lawyer comment on his behalf. That has yet to happen.
Parx Hall of Fame Trainer Vega suspended
Vega is a Parx Hall of Fame trainer with more than 1,000 wins. His career wins place him at more than $19 million in earnings according to Equibase.
On Monday, three of his horses were steward’s scratches at Parx, according to the racing publication Thoroughbred Daily News.
Vega has been a trainer since 1992, according to the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (PTHA) which represents horsemen at Parx.
He emigrated to the US from Cuba in 1980 and lives near Parx in lower Bucks County.
Vega has trained horses for a PA racing commissioner
Among those Vega has trained for is Sal DeBunda. DeBunda, 77, has been the president of the PTHA for a decade and a member of the association for 20 years. He’s owned shares of horses for more than 30 years.
Also, he is a member of the board of directors and vice-president of the National Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association
DeBunda is also a partner in Archer, a politically connected New Jersey law firm. He co-leads their Philadelphia office. The firm recently added a Harrisburg public affairs office.
Adding a layer of complexity, DeBunda is also a PA racing commission member.
Typically, the commission would have the final say over enforcement actions taken by the staff, including license suspensions.
DeBunda said he currently has a share in just one horse, rehabilitating in South Carolina and not racing. Vega has not recently trained for him, though he freely said the suspended trainer has in the past. He said his shares in Vega horses have ranged from 5% to 20%.
“I’ve never seen or heard anything about him. And I have never had any purses taken” away in races in any state due to allegations of wrongdoing, DeBunda added.
The racing commissioner said he had a friendly relationship with Vega. He added he knows Vega has a reputation for being argumentative with track management.
DeBunda said while PTHA supports horsemen, that does not include “when they cross that line.”
PTHA makes a statement
Mike Ballezzi, the Executive Director of the PTHA, issued a statement:
“The PTHA supports the commission for undertaking its recent enforcement action at Parx racetrack. Regulations related to medications and other rules are vital to upholding the integrity of our sport, ensuring that all participants have a level playing field, and protecting the health and safety of horses and jockeys.
“Violators not only gain an unfair advantage over the vast majority of our members who follow the rules, and they also jeopardize the safety of our equine athletes. We fully support holding offenders and those who assist them accountable.”
All of this comes following a rocky financial year for racing due to COVID-19 restrictions in PA and elsewhere, as well as a spate of horse deaths at California tracks linked to drugs, and finally a drug-tainted Kentucky Derby.
Contraband shining a critical light on Parx
Two activist veterinarians, Bryan Langlois and Kathryn Rapp, critical of Pennsylvania’s oversight, took to social media with Chuckas’ report soon afterward. Racing industry publications soon followed up.
Rapp, from Harrisburg, referred to Parx as a “cesspool” when she posted a video clip of the meeting and the report.
Scant details from the Parx contraband report
Chuckas told the board:
“We went through the barn area and the tack rooms. We did six total barn searches, six tack room searches. In addition to that we looked at five grooms’ quarters and five external tack rooms and 66 out-of-competition tests were performed.
“In our enforcement action I can say without getting into too much detail, a significant amount of contraband was discovered, dealing with medications, unlabeled compounded or expired. I regret to say that they were contraband items that have no business on the backside with needles and syringes and some other things that we discovered.”
Chuckas also told the board he could not provide deep details because the investigation is ongoing. He added it would soon expand to other facilities. He also oversees racing at Presque Isle Downs and Penn National at Hollywood Casino.
Chuckas indicated oversight monitoring had dropped off due to COVID-19 restrictions but is resuming.
“But the fact of the matter is Parx was the first step in this process of going back to our actions that we were conducting pre-COVID and moving forward I think it’s fair to say that the other tracks will receive the same enforcement action.”
Chairman of Racing Commission Russell Redding has not commented on contraband
PA Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding, chairman of the commission, nodded as Chuckas concluded his report. But Redding did not comment then.
Parx has not made a statement. The course was hard hit by the virus.
Commission member weighed in
A racing commissioner, Russell Jones, who took part in the meeting, spoke to Thoroughbred Daily News:
“No names were given to us but I know they found a lot of (expletive). “They found a lot of evidence, syringes, whatever you call that stuff. Whatever it is they found, a lot of stuff that you might think is incriminating.”
Racing runs Monday to Wednesday at 12:55 p.m. at the track in suburban Philly adjacent to Parx casino.
On Tuesday, there were 25 scratches, including nine scratches ordered by stewards. Several mounts share trainers.
Scratches continued into Wednesday, with just five horses running in the fifth race.