Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

Governor fires racing commission, appoints five new members

 

April 24, 2019



The New Mexico Racing Commission on Thursday morning abruptly canceled a planned April 30 special meeting to discuss awarding a sixth horse-racing license and, by afternoon, a new racing commission was appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham.

The commission sent out an email Thursday morning, stating the planned April 30 meeting had been canceled “under further notice.” Commission Executive Director Ismael “Izzy” Trejo declined comment when contacted by phone Thursday morning but said he might make a statement later amid “fast-moving developments.”

Those fast-moving developments became five new commission members, announced early Thursday afternoon by the governor’s office.

The new commission members are:

• Beverly Bourguet, a racing commission member from 2011 to 2015. She races and breeds racehorses and is a board member and founding member of the Downs at Albuquerque Chaplaincy.

• John Buffington, a former chief operating officer of the San Juan Regional Medical Center with more than 40 years as an owner and breeder.

• Freda McSwane, a Lincoln County attorney and a racehorse owner and breeder.

• David Sanchez, a racing commission member from 2003 to 2009 and owner of San Bar Racing LLC, a horse-breeding and racing program. He owns an investments company and construction company and has served on the State Fair Commission since 2009.

• Billy G. Smith, owner of Smith Enterprises LLC, a construction firm. He has been involved in the racing industry since the 1970s as an owner and served on various boards for the American Quarter Horse Association.

According to state statute, at least three members of the commission must be practical breeders of racehorses within New Mexico, and no more than three may be members of the same political party.

The governor's director of communications said Thursday afternoon that Lujan Grisham would not interfere with the new racing commission's direction on whether it would award a sixth license.

“The governor's role is to appoint objective, qualified and fair-minded commissioners, and her expectation is they will make researched and well-advised decisions in the best interest of the industry,” Tripp Stelnicki wrote in an email. “Where, when and whether a sixth license will be awarded are all questions for the new commissioners.”

Lujan Grisham in January wrote a letter to the old commission, expressing concerns about the license process. She stated in the letter “additional study would be prudent.”

The commission's next regular meeting is May 16.

Now-former chairman Ray Willis said by phone Thursday morning Lujan Grisham sent him an email late Wednesday, informing him he’d been relieved of his duties with the agency. Willis also said “it’s my understanding the entire commission has been relieved.”

“I’ve never been fired before, especially by email,” Willis said. “Evidently, the governor and her people have different ideas on how to proceed.”

Willis said the commission’s now-aborted April 30 special meeting was meant to “review all options” on whether to issue a license and, if so, to which of the five applicants.

The commission had planned to issue a sixth license in early December, but an injunction request by the Lordsburg applicant, Hidalgo Downs LLC, in late November derailed that. Hidalgo said an independent feasibility study commissioned by the agency was flawed, and it alleged Willis had a conflict of interest with one of the Clovis applicants. The attorney general’s office instructed the commission to not award a license until the legal dispute was resolved.

The other four license applicants objected to an announced settlement earlier this month between Hidalgo and the commission, saying they didn’t have any input with the agreement. Judge Carl Butkus refused to approve the settlement until hearing out their complaints. No new court date on the proposed settlement had been set.

Willis said he wasn’t sure which applicant his fellow commissioners had favored for the license. He said two of the applications were “weak,” two were “strong” and one was “somewhere in the middle,” but he declined to specify which applicants fit which descriptions.

Warren Frost, one of the principals of Coronado Partners that wants to build an $80 million racetrack and casino on Tucumcari's east side, declined comment Thursday morning, saying he wanted to get more information about developments within the commission before speaking. Frost had been critical of the old commission, the feasibility study and its proposed settlement with Hildalgo Downs.

 
 

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