The photograph shows horse jockey Roman Chapa staring straight ahead atop Quiet Acceleration as he wins the $50,000 Richard King Stakes at the Sam Houston Race Park on Saturday.
But if you look closely, the photo also appears to show Chapa gripping more than just the reins. Chapa's left hand is clenched around what looks like a "buzzer" or "machine," a sort of performance-enhancing drug of the horse-racing sport. About the size of a cigarette lighter, the buzzer conducts an electrical current that jockeys use to shock a horse into running faster in the decisive moments of a race.
It's among the seedier practices of the sport, one that's been banned by both state and federal authorities and a practice the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have likened to animal cruelty.
The finish photo from Chapa's race on Saturday, first picked up by thoroughbred racing news site the Paulick Report, has now made it into the hands of the Texas Racing Commission, which has opened an investigation into whether Chapa should be punished for shocking horses at Sam Houston Race Park.
"You've seen the picture, you've seen what it looks like," racing commission spokesman Robert Elrod told the Press Tuesday. "It clearly looks like he had a device in his hand ... so he's been suspended for now." Elrod says Chapa has been taken off all of his previously scheduled races and won't compete until the commission finishes its investigation.
Chapa is certainly no stranger to buzzers. In a story on the practice last year, the New York Times reported that back in 1993, Chapa's first year racing, the jockey was suspended for 19 months for using a buzzer in Texas. Racing authorities in New Mexico handed Chapa a five-year suspension in 2007 after he was caught with a buzzer. (Sam Houston Race Park officials wouldn't comment when asked whether they knew of Chapa's disciplinary history.)
Last year PETA lodged several complaints with state and federal authorities accusing prominent thoroughbred trainer Steve Asmussen and his top assistant Scott Blasi of subjecting horses to cruel and unusual treatment, including the use of electric shocks during races. As part of its investigation, PETA secretly recorded a dinner party with racing bigwigs the week before the 2013 Kentucky Derby. On that recording, Blasi can be heard bragging about how Chapa, who still races for Asmussen, had hidden buzzers from racing officials.
"That silly-ass Roman Chapa put it in his mouth in New Mexico," Blasi says on the recording. "They came in to shake him down, he stuck it in his mouth, then he spit it out in his wash bucket."
While buzzing horses is strictly prohibited, it's also difficult to catch, says Elrod with the Texas Racing Commission. Racing officials sometimes find buzzers abandoned in the grass or dirt, by which time it's usually too late to connect the device to any particular jockey or trainer, he says.
"Here we've got a photo that appears to show it," Elrod says. "That photo really is the basis of the investigation."
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.