When I was little I lived in Newmarket, and my mum was the secretary at a trainer’s yard, so I spent a lot of time in the yard “helping” the farrier and – my favourite bit – siting in the jockeys’ enclosure at the racecourse and listening to all the gossip about who was buying and riding which horse. So I was very interested when it emerged that criminals are using horseflesh sales to launder their money – it makes sense really, as you can shift a lot of cash quite quickly, and, as with art, a horse has no fixed value but is worth simply what someone is willing to pay for it.
This laundering technique first came to light back in 2013, when three men working for the Mexican Los Zetas drug cartel were jailed in Texas for laundering drug money through buying, training, breeding and racing American quarter horses in the United States. (For the non-horsey reader, American quarter horses are a distinct breed who are speedy over short distances, with – according to the UK chapter of the American Quarter Horse Association – a “short body and head… heavily muscled body, powerful shoulders and hindquarters, and strong, sturdy legs [and] a flat profile with a wide forehead”. Heavens, it’s like looking in a mirror.] One of the three men, Jose Trevino, would receive cash from the other two and then use it to buy horses. The three also created straw purchasers and booked transactions worth millions of dollars in New Mexico, Oklahoma, California and Texas to disguise the source of the drug money and to make the proceeds from the sale of quarter horses or their race winnings appear legitimate.
It seems that the 20-year sentence that each man received did not deter others from backing the same horse. In June 2016, authorities in Texas and Oklahoma arrested and charged fifteen people on suspicion of laundering drug money through the quarter horse business. On six occasions in 2011, says the charge sheet, the defendants purchased horses from an auction house in Oklahoma using drug proceeds collected in San Antonio, paying just under US$10,000 each time in order to avoid currency transaction reporting requirements. When the individuals were arrested, the authorities also seized more than thirty horses along with US$500,000 in farm equipment, twenty vehicles, sixty firearms and $50,000 in cash, and are seeking the forfeiture of twelve properties worth $15 million in total, as well as $30 million in cash. That’s no hay feed.