February 5, 2023

New Mexico coach Justin Evans has accepted a $15,000 fine he received from the US government Sonnenland Park Stewards as trainer of record on two horses given fake lip tattoos after buying them at auction in 2018. The coach let the appeal deadline pass at noon on January 24 without doing anything.

The horses involved are a astrology Filly out of Beau Happy (Beau Genius) named Aim Happy and a ghost zapper Filly by Cryptic Message (Cryptograph) named Spirita, both purchased at the 2018 Barretts Spring 2-Year-Olds in Training Sale held at this year Del Mar. Aim Happy was purchased by owner Mark Dyer through agent Brandi Goode for $10,000. Spirita was purchased by Larry and Denise Nichols’ UKUSA Stables for $18,000.

When these brown horses got their identification lip tattoos, Aim Happy was given the identification number for Spirita and Spirita was tattooed with Aim Happy’s identification number.

Thoroughbreds must be tattooed under the rules of most state racing commissions before they can compete in a recognized race. The tattoo serves as an additional means of identification for the Thoroughbred when racing and consists of a letter corresponding to a horse’s year of birth and four or five numbers.

The confusion of identification ran through the racing careers of the fillies. Aim Happy – racing as “Spirita” – made just one start for Evans and owner/trainer Sandy Gale, while Spirita – racing as “Aim Happy” – made 12 starts and won twice, including a debut win by four lengths at Zia Park. Spirita was originally ridden by Dyer, with trainer Bart Hone saddled her for two starts and trainers Cesar Cornejo and Curt Ferguson saddled her for two races each in 2019. UKUSA became the owner of the record in 2020 and Gale took over training duties.
The bug was discovered after the Nicholses bred Spirita to it Hollywood Don and attempted to register her 2020 filly named Louella. It was discovered that the dam was actually Aim Happy.

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“Registration of foals involves DNA testing and it wasn’t found correctly in the other identification and the Jockey Club threw a flag at the game,” said Ismael “Izzy” Trejo, executive director of the New Mexico Racing Commission. “The owner looked at it and then turned it over to the commission, who did their own investigation and found that something happened when they tattooed these two mares.”

The race records for these two mares have been corrected by Equibase and the charts for their races note that they each raced under the wrong name.

Seeing more value in Spirita for being a Ghostzapper daughter, the Nicholses went in search of her when they realized the mare they had was actually Aim Happy.

“Larry Nichols went looking for Spirita and found her in Washington state,” Trejo said. “He brought her back to his farm and we sent investigators there to verify her identity. Now he owns both horses.”

Spirita has never ridden under Evans’ name, but evidence presented during a January 11 hearing at Sunland Park showed Evans was present at the auction when both horses were purchased and she managed when she got her tattoos done got.

“During the hearing, evidence was presented that the horses were shipped to Justin Evans and records showing that these two horses were walking together at the time of the tattooing and Evans had the horses in his care and control based on evidence and as the was viewed as a record coach,” said Trejo.

When contacted by BloodHorse, Evans declined to comment on the punishment he received or the circumstances surrounding the tattoo mix-up.

This is the second horse misidentification case Evans has been involved in in the last year and a half. In August 2021, he was fined $5,000 and suspended for 15 days after walking two horses Descents in Albuquerque ran with the wrong saddle pad numbers. Evans entered Extremely evil and square root in a Maiden Special Weight for 3-year-olds and older on August 14th. The chart immediately following this race showed No. 9 Extremely Wicked winning by 6 1/4 lengths and No. 6 Square Root third. However, when these horses returned to the test stable, it was discovered that horse number 9 was in fact Square Root. These horses were later disqualified, with Square Root finishing eighth in the field of nine and Extremely Wicked finishing last. Their saddle pad numbers have been corrected in the Equibase chart for this race.

At the time of the mix-up in 2021, Evans told BloodHorse he understood the trainers were ultimately responsible, but felt horse identifier Kenneth Larue was just as responsible and would only be fined $1,000. As evidence of what he believed to be unfair treatment related to other horse identification mix-ups, Evans cited a chestnut mare named McMissy who had raced twice in the Downs in Albuquerque as “McCirca” with no penalties. In 2020, Judge Lanier Racing owned both McMissy and McCirca. Both horses were daughters of McKenna’s Justice but McMissy was a chestnut and McCirca was dark brown or brown.

However, on August 22, 2020 and September 16, 2020, McMissy rode the Downs in Albuquerque as “McCirca” for Judge Lanier Racing and trainer Sherry Armstrong. This confusion came to light when McMissy was listed for sale via internethorseauctions.com with the following update: “Due to a paddock identification error, McMissy ran at The Downs in Albuquerque on 08/22/20 and 09/16/20, not McCirca. McCrica was not on the track and not driving on those days.”

The McMissy case was brought to the attention of the New Mexico Racing Commission by Evans’ wife, Vanessa, after her husband was fined for the saddle cloth incident, and prompted an investigation.

“Vanessa told me, ‘We got fined, so other people should get fined,’ and I couldn’t agree more,” Trejo said. “It wasn’t just a trainer thing, it was a horse identification thing in the paddock.”

Trejo noted that McMissy’s investigation revealed that Larue was also the identifier in the paddock on both occasions McMissy drove as “McCirca.”

“It also appeared that the owner (Tom McKenna) was somewhat at fault based on the statement, so the trainer, owner and identifier were all sanctioned by the commission and have not appealed, and now we’ve moved on.” said Trejo.

Armstrong received a 15-day suspension and a $2,000 fine for riding McMissy as the wrong horse, while McKenna was fined $2,000 after a December 4, 2021 hearing Zia Park. McMissy was disqualified from both races and the prize money was redistributed. According to Trejo, Larue was fined $5,000 and is now banned from ever being licensed as a race director in New Mexico.

With horse tattoos, horse identifiers are not part of the process. According to Trejo, trainers have a responsibility to ensure the right horse is in front of the person stamping the tattoo.

“Cases like this are very, very rare,” Trejo said of the tattoo mix-up. “We have seen tattoos that have had to be corrected by the technicians but to find out after a career in horseback that they are wrong this is the first time in my career that I have seen something like this.”

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