The Jockey Club imposed the organization’s version of the death penalty on Lope M. Gonzalez a few days ago, denying the Florida Thoroughbred breeder "all privileges of The American Stud Book." The lifetime ban on registering Thoroughbred foals or submitting any documents relating to foal registration takes effect on January 1, 2011. The nearly 11-month lag between The Jockey Club’s decision to impose the ban and the penalty’s effective date allows the registration of foals conceived while Gonzalez still had access to the Stud Book.

The ban is the most severe sanction The Jockey Club can impose. It was the right thing to do, especially considering the anemic response from the court.

In October 2009, Gonzalez entered guilty pleas to 33 counts of animal cruelty after malnourished horses were found on his Marion County, Florida, farm. These were first degree misdemeanor offenses under Florida Statute 828.12(1), rather than more serious felony charges, and the court did little more than slap Gonzalez’s hand.

Gonzalez was sentenced to one year probation on each count, with the sentences to be served concurrently. He was required to pay a little more than $3,000, including a fine of $1,650 (that’s $50 for each count of animal cruelty) and an additional $1,320 in misdemeanor surcharges. Maximum penalty for a single count of misdemeanor animal abuse in Florida is one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Gonzalez received credit for time served—two days in the Marion County jail before he made bail.

The Jockey Club acted pursuant to Rule 19, which generally addresses "Deceptive Practices." Rule 19(A)(4) specifically gives the organization the authority to ban anyone who "killed, abandoned, mistreated, neglected or abused, or otherwise committed an act of cruelty to a horse." The penalty cannot be imposed on a whim, and requires either a criminal, civil, or administrative finding of guilt. Rule 19 also provides a right to appeal within 30 days.

The ban effectively ends Gonzalez’s business as a Thoroughbred breeder, because registration with The Jockey Club is required for a horse to race in the United States or abroad. The ban does not keep Gonzalez out of racing entirely, however. The Jockey Club lacks the authority to do that. The Jockey Club ban does not prevent Gonzalez from buying and selling horses registered by others and from racing those horses.

State racing commissions do have the authority to refuse licenses to a variety of undesirable individuals, and should exercise that authority when appropriate. In Kentucky, for example, Kentucky Administrative Regulations give the state racing commission the authority to deny a license to any applicant who has "abandoned, mistreated, abused, neglected, or engaged in an act of cruelty to a horse." Commissions in other racing states and the multi-state National Racing Compact have similar provisions.

While effective coordination between The Jockey Club and state racing authorities can result in meaningful punishments for neglect and abuse of horses, this is not necessarily the case for other breeds and disciplines. Although many breed registries have the authority to restrict an individual’s ability to register horses, shows and other competitions generally do not require a license for participation. Absent a court-ordered restriction on horse ownership with some teeth, a ban on registration alone may not be a sufficient deterrent to abuse and neglect.