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Horse Poisoning Alarms Venezuela’s Racing Industry

Rio Negro was the rising star of Venezuela's racing season, but now this rail-thin race horse is fighting for his life after being poisoned by a gambling ring.

It sounds like a page-turning novel: Venezuelan authorities say a gambling ring poisoned one of the country's most popular race horses ahead of a key derby, nearly killing the animal and shining a light on an underworld where millions of dollars in bets are made under the table.

But the attack on 4-year-old Rio Negro as he prepared for the Army Day derby was real, and just the latest grim milestone in a wave of lawlessness and violence that has made Venezuela one of the world's deadliest places.

In the photo above, Rio Negro calls for food at his stable at La Rinconada racetrack in Caracas, Venezuela, on Aug. 26, 2014. The horse is still struggling to regain his strength after almost dying.

Fernando Llano / AP

There have been other cases of using poison to "sleep" a race horse in Venezuela, including three in the last year. But the attention thrust on Rio Negro's dramatic plight by the media and top level government officials has underscored the growing brazenness of well-organized betting rings that many say threatens to destroy a sport nearly as popular there as baseball.

Above, gamblers watch the horses walking around the paddock prior a race at La Rinconada racetrack in Caracas on Oct. 5.

Fernando Llano / AP

Authorities have arrested nine people, among them former police officers and a horse owner linked to betting rings. But it's unknown if the investigation, an outcry from top government officials and beefed-up security at La Rinconada track in Caracas can control the rings that some racing officials call "mafias."

Horses cross the finish line during a race La Rinconada racetrack in Caracas on Oct. 5. While gambling on horse races is legal in Venezuela the real money is in illegal betting as Venezuelans try to boost the value of their rapidly-devaluing bolivars.

Fernando Llano / AP

A jockey with his face soiled with sand is weighed after a horse race on Oct. 5. Gambling rings have been known to kidnap and threaten jockeys in order to fix races.

Fernando Llano / AP

Rio Negro had been heavily favored to win the derby until criminals injected him with a near-fatal overdose of cortisone sometime in June - police aren't exactly sure when.

His caretakers say he nearly collapsed and began urinating frequently during a training session four days before the June 22 race. He lost almost a fifth of his weight, his black-colored skin broke out in welts and he was diagnosed with temporary diabetes.

"It was painful to watch," said Julio Lobo, one of his veterinarians. Above, Dr. Lobo examines Rio Negro a thoroughbred race horse at a stable on Aug. 27.

Fernando Llano / AP

Bodyguards sit in "Comediante's" stable, a thoroughbred race horse who has already been poisoned once, at La Rinconada racetrack on Aug. 28. After the attack, security for the horses has been stepped up to prevent further attempts at race fixing by injuring the animal.

Fernando Llano / AP

Gambling on horse races is legal in Venezuela, but the socialist government tightly controls betting at the country's four racetracks and 1,200 off-track betting houses. Illegal gambling is driven by the government's limit of 1,000 bolivars on bets, or about $10 at the black market rate. Last year, the industry in Venezuela handled about $120 million in legal bets, according to the Paris-based International Federation of Horseracing Authorities.

Above, a horse eats hay at his stable in La Rinconada racetrack on Aug. 26.

Fernando Llano / AP

Gustavo Campos, a foreman, applies a moisturizing serum to a horse after a training session on Aug. 26.

Fernando Llano / AP

According to Jaime Casas, who runs the Hipocomuto 2000 website that tracks race results, he points to betting rings in the involvement in the kidnapping and threatening of jockeys as another sign of encroaching violence on the sport. “You get the sense there’s a mafia involved,” he says.

Manuel Melean kisses his horse after he winning a horse race on Oct. 5.

Fernando Llano / AP

"Illegal betting has existed in every part of the world for a long time," Casas said. "But here it was allowed to flourish with so much freedom and impunity."

Rio Negro a thoroughbred horse leaves his box for a early morning training session on Aug. 27. Rio Negro is now kept in a dark, cold stable that looks more like a prison with iron bars and proliferation of security cameras to ward off intruders.

— The Associated Press

Fernando Llano / AP