Evans Accepts $15,000 Fine for Horse Tattoo Mix-Up

New Mexico trainer Justin Evans has accepted a $15,000 fine he received from the Sunland Park stewards as the trainer of record on two horses that were given incorrect lip tattoos after they were purchased at auction in 2018. The trainer let the deadline to appeal at noon Jan. 24 pass without taking any action.

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

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

Thoroughbreds are required by most state racing commission rules to be lip tattooed before they can start in a recognized race. The tattoo serves as an additional means of identification for the Thoroughbred while racing and consists of a letter, corresponding to a horse’s year of birth, and four or five numbers.

Photo: Coady Photography

Horses break from the gate at Sunland Park

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The mix-up in identification carried through the fillies’ racing careers. Aim Happy—racing as “Spirita”—made only 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 initially raced by Dyer with trainer Bart Hone saddling her for two starts and trainers Cesar Cornejo and Curt Ferguson saddling her for two races each during 2019. UKUSA became the owner of record in 2020 and Gale took over training duties.
The error was discovered after the Nicholses bred “Spirita” to Hollywood Don and tried to register her 2020 filly named Louella. It was discovered that the dam was actually Aim Happy.

“The registration of foals involves DNA testing and it did not come up correctly with the other identification and The Jockey Club threw a flag on the play,” said Ismael “Izzy” Trejo, who is executive director for the New Mexico Racing Commission. “The owner looked into it and then tossed it to the commission that did its own investigation and found out something happened at the time of tattooing with 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.

Because the Nicholses saw more value in Spirita because she is a daughter of Ghostzapper, they went looking for her once they realized the mare they had was actually Aim Happy.

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

Spirita never raced under Evans’ name but evidence presented during a Jan. 11 hearing at Sunland Park showed Evans was present at the sale when both horses were purchased and was managing them at the time they got their tattoos.

“There was evidence presented during the hearing that the horses were shipped to Justin Evans and records that showed at the time of the tattooing, these two horses went together and Evans, through evidence, had the horses in his custody and control and was deemed the trainer of record,” said Trejo.

When contacted by BloodHorse, Evans declined to comment on the penalty he’d received or the circumstances surrounding the tattooing mix-up.

This is the second horse misidentification case in which Evans has been involved in the last year and a half. In August 2021, he was fined $5,000 and suspended for 15 days after two horses he ran at the Downs at Albuquerque ran with the wrong saddle cloth numbers. Evans entered Extremely Wicked and Square root in an Aug. 14 maiden special weight for 3-year-olds and up. The chart immediately following this race showed that No. 9 Extremely Wicked won by 6 1/4 lengths and No. 6 Square Root finished third.

When these horses got back to the test barn, however, it was discovered that the horse wearing No. 9 was actually Square Root. These horses were later disqualified with Square Root placed eighth in the field of nine and Extremely Wicked placed last. Their saddle cloth numbers have been corrected in the Equibase chart for this race.

The Downs Racetrack &  Casino at Albuquerque
Photo: Courtesy of The Downs at Albuquerque

The Downs Racetrack & Casino at Albuquerque

At the time of the mix-up in 2021, Evans told BloodHorse he understood that trainers are ultimately responsible but he felt the horse identifier, Kenneth Larue, was as responsible and he was only fined $1,000. As evidence of what he felt was inequitable treatment involving other horse identification mix-ups, Evans cited a chestnut mare named McMissy who had raced twice at the Downs at Albuquerque as “McCirca” without any 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 bay or brown.

Yet, on Aug. 22, 2020, and Sept. 16, 2020, McMissy raced at the Downs at Albuquerque as “McCirca” for Judge Lanier Racing and trainer Sherry Armstrong. This mix-up came to light when McMissy was offered for sale through internethorseauctions.com with the following update: “Due to a paddock identification error, McMissy ran 8/22/20 and 9/16/20 at The Downs at Albuquerque, not McCirca. McCirca was not at the racetrack on those dates and did not race.”

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

“Vanessa told me, ‘We got fined so other people should be fined,’ and I couldn’t agree more,” said Trejo. “This was not only a trainer matter but a horse identifier matter in the paddock.”

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

“It also looked like the owner (Tom McKenna) was somewhat at fault due to the testimony, so the trainer, the owner, and the identifier were all sanctioned by the commission and did not appeal, and now we’ve moved on,” said Trejo.

Armstrong received a 15-day suspension and a $2,000 fine for racing McMissy as the wrong horse, while McKenna was fined $2,000 following a hearing Dec. 4, 2021, at Zia Park. McMissy was disqualified from both races and the purse money was redistributed. Larue was fined $5,000 and is now prohibited from ever being licensed as a racing official in New Mexico, according to Trejo.

In the case of horse tattooing, horse identifiers are not part of the process. Trainers bear the responsibility to ensure the correct horse is in front of the person stamping the tattoo, according to Trejo.

“Cases like this are very, very rare,” Trejo said of the tattoo mix-up. “We have seen tattoos that have to be corrected by the technicians but to discover it’s wrong after a horse’s career, this is the first I’ve seen like this in my career.”

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