The call them “Electric Jockeys,” riders who carry “buzzers” or “machines” that shock their horses. Patently illegal, this is a practice that has been going on for decades, used in small and prestigious races.
In the video above, the jockey in question, Roman Chapa, was riding Quiet Acceleration in The $50,000 Richard King Turf Stakes. When the gelding surged toward the wire, the finish was so close that Sam Houston Race Park stewards called for a photo finish. Jack Coady, the official track photographer also got a photo of the finish — not from the right side, which the officials review — but from the left. It clearly shows the buzzer in Chapa’s hand. The next day, Coady said that Chapa called and asked him to remove the photo, but the cat was already out of the bag. Among the people who’d received copies of the image was Ray Paulick, a reporter who has been covering horse racing since the 1970s and who runs the Paulick Report, who ran with the story.
In the wake of the scandal, Chapa has been banned from racing in Texas, given a $100,000 fine and indicted by a Harris County grand jury on unlawful influence of a horse race and lying to a Texas Racing Commission investigator. At the time of the investigation, Chapa denied contacting Coady about the photo and claimed it had been altered to look incriminating. However, Chapa’s record as a jockey was not unblemished: in 1994 he was suspended for nine months for using a nail on a Quarter Horse in a futurity trial in Texas and in 2007 he was banned five years at Sunland Park in New Mexico for using a buzzer. On a tape recording obtained by PETA, he is said to have hidden the buzzers in his mouth after races.
Another famous race where a “machine” determined the final standing was the 1999 Arkansas Derby. At this important prep race for the Kentucky Derby, a 30-1 longshot named Valhol broke his maiden. After video showed Billy Patin dropping a device after the finish line. Patin remained in racing after serving his suspension and continued to cheat. In 2015, he and his brother Joseph were arrested for using buzzers in races at the Evangeline Downs Race Track and Casino. And later that year, the two brothers, along with a third man, were charged in Louisiana for a race fixing scheme.
Why do jockeys resort to buzzers? Partly it’s because they earn so much more money if they win. Many people don’t know that a jockey is paid a flat fee for each race he rides — usually about $50-$100. That’s not a lot of money considering they risks they take. Jockeys often have to supplement their incomes by working as exercise riders, or with other jobs. However, if a jockey wins a race, he takes home ten percent of the purse. That’s a huge boost in earnings and gives some insight into why a jockey might take the risk of using a machine.
Another justification is that “everyone” uses one, making it difficult to win without one.
I rode a particular race with a field of ten horses and at the wire there was about a half length separating the entire field and no one was using their whips. It sounded like a colony of bees as we buzzed down the track.
There are other stories of high profile races where buzzers played a role. I didn’t include them, because the jockeys were not convicted. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; just that they didn’t get caught. Thankfully, the high quality video and cameras available today make it easier to see the buzzers and catch those who use them.
Note: no jockey would use a buzzer on a horse without know how it would react. These horses typically were trained with buzzers.