Rillito Park, the famed Quarter Horse track loaded with history and lore in Tucson, Arizona became a classroom Monday afternoon, as investigators from around the United States and five foreign countries ran through a series of ‘stations’ meant to test their detective acumen.
With record attendance at 100, the Organization of Racing Investigators (ORI) annual three-day event brings together security personnel who protect horses and the people associated with them.
Equine investigators, like other branches of law enforcement, have an evolving set of best practices. That is where the Rillito training can help advance their own tradecraft. As founding member Don Ahrens of Sam Houston Race Park put it, “It’s simple, we are here to catch the bad guys because you never know when they’ll show.”
ORI began as a fellowship in the early 1990s where members could share ideas and call upon one another for help when they needed assistance. Developing into a full-blown organization, its 27th training conference continues to be about networking, but attendees also have the opportunity to hear presentations from specialists across the industry. Monday morning, a wide variety of topics were offered that ranged from how cartel money is building bush tracks in places where you would least expect it to how to efficiently identify medications dispersed by veterinarians who are attending to horses along shedrows.
In the afternoon, Ahrens and his fellow board members led the teaching exercises at Rillito by planting fake evidence, like syringes, electronic shockers and other related illegal paraphernalia in the Jockey’s room, around a trailer in the barn area and inside a pair of vehicles in the Rillito parking lot. A fourth location involved a practicum covering how to shakedown a rider just before they enter the gate in order to look for devices, like those electric buzzers, that could be used to hurt horses and give the jockey an advantage in the race.
In what was her first ORI Meeting, Kassie Creed, a Safety and Compliance Associate who works under Dr. Stuart Brown in Equine Safety at Keeneland said, “I am an extra set of eyes as we continually bridge security and safety every day at Keeneland, so knowing what to look for, especially in the unlikely places is great training for me.” Members of her group were given an SUV to search by seasoned investigators and ORI board members Jason Klouser of the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission and Mike Kilpack with Breeders’ Cup. Creed discovered a syringe that was made to look like an air freshener in one of the vents.
“What we are trying to illustrate are real-world situations that many of us have experienced time and time again,” said Klouser. “Best practices are only cutting edge if they work under extreme duress and that is why these searches help investigators develop their senses.”
Those ‘senses’ must be honed, especially when it comes to the backside of a racetrack, which as a world unto itself is a place seldom seen or understood by the public. There is a constant shifting of personnel during a meet, so investigators must know their territory. Tracking and tracing bad behavior comes with the job, and sometimes even the most minute tips can help.
Since COVID, ORI has expanded its membership, especially when it comes to international participation. Investigators stateside are realizing that if a problem exists somewhere else, chances are that it might not be far off.
John Burgess, the Head of Integrity for the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) is in Tucson for that exact reason. “We have challenges that are very similar and when we impart what we know to the Americans and then it is reciprocated, we are getting out in front. In other words, threats here are going to become threats there-it’s inevitable.” In Europe, there is not an organization like ORI that ties all horse racing investigative units together. “I am thinking that we need to start one because ORI has such an incredible network,” said Burgess.
Working as the Head of Security and Investigations at the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, Chris Gordon, who also serves as the international representative for ORI said, “We are seeing today how practical applications directly relate to issues of integrity, and that is what this organization is all about. People are always excited to come because the energy, like it is today, is something we will be directly using in our own stable yards and horse boxes.”
Back at the Rillito mock vehicle search station, Kassie Creed discovered two more planted pieces of evidence in the SUV. “I’m on a roll,” she said with a big smile. Afterwards, Klouser took the group through a debriefing session by explaining techniques and showing the group other hidden compartments.
With attendance climbing, the future looks bright for the Organization of Racing Investigators, who plan to meet next year at Parx Racing in Bensalem, PA. They are expecting an even larger contingent in the coming years, which could include Asian and South American participation.
In the meantime, once the conference wraps up its sessions on Tuesday afternoon, it will be time to pack up those heightened senses from the experience in Tucson and head home. These investigators know that if they need help there is a network behind them, which is probably the best practice of all.