Wives in Albuquerque fight over race horse used to launder money for Sinaloa-linked organization

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Wives in Albuquerque fight over race horse used to launder money for Sinaloa-linked organization


The entrance to Double LL Farm, where retired quarterhorse First Moonflash resides.

A Golden Horse-Wives of drug traffickers battle over fees generated by champion racehorse First Moonflash

Albuquerque Journal May 28, 2017-By Colleen Heild

In 2012 Borderland Beat reported on an Albuquerque based drug distribution network with links to the Sinaloa Cartel called the Homero Varela Organization.

Among those arrested were Steve Chavez, 32, a firefighter with the Albuquerque Fire Department,  who authorities said he told investigators that he spied on federal drug agents.

Gabriel Grchan, IRS criminal investigation assistant special agent in charge in Phoenix, said some of the proceeds from the millions in drug sales went into horse racing and purchase of horses, including eight found at a Torrance County ranch when search warrants were executed last week.

One of the horses, First Moonflash or Quematierras, set the world record for several quarterhorse milestones, including the iconic 440 yards.

One of his owners, Homero Varela, 35, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was sentenced in 2013 to 135 months in federal prison, followed by five years of supervised release, for his conviction on drug trafficking and money laundering charges. Varela also was ordered to pay a $150,000 money judgment and to forfeit his right, title, and interest in his Albuquerque residence.

But while First Moonflash is living the good life at Double LL Farms in Valencia County, a recent court case in Albuquerque showed how the fortunes of two of his former owners — Ramon Gonzalez Sr. and Homero Varela — have taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

Both were swept up in a massive federal drug investigation authorities tied to the Sinaloa cartel and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Both were sentenced to federal prison. And Gonzalez, a Mexican who was living in the U.S. legally, was later deported.

Meanwhile, their wives have been locked in a legal battle over the ownership interest they say passed to them from their husbands. A state district court jury in Albuquerque ruled May 18 that the two women each have 25 percent of the ownership of First Moonflash. Varela’s wife, Blanca Villegas Varela, was also awarded more than $836,000 in damages for failing to receive her fair share of the stud fees from Maria Gonzalez.

The evolution of the story from the racetrack to the courtroom is filled with twists and turns.

Pierre Amestoy, a successful Albuquerque drywall business-man and the horse’s manager, bought First Moonflash as a yearling in 2006 for $55,000. Two years later, he sold a 50 percent interest to Gonzalez, a veteran horse trainer in New Mexico. Gonzalez, in turn, sold half of his interest (or one quarter) to Varela for $25,000 in cash, the jury found.

On his way to stardom, First Moonflash flourished under Gonzalez, who spent about 13 months training the horse and helping him gain his confidence, Amestoy said.

Fast forward nearly two years. No longer the horse’s trainer, but still part-owner, Gonzalez in November 2011 was caught near El Paso carrying 26 kilos of cocaine and 550 pounds of marijuana — in a horse trailer.

Gonzalez was indicted on charges of participating from May 2011 to January 2012 in a major drug trafficking organization led by Homero Varela, a friend of Gonzalez’s and a fellow horse aficionado. Court records state that the men jointly owned six other racehorses before their convictions for their roles in what federal authorities described as a massive drug organization with ties to the Sinaloa cartel.

One of the allegations in the 29-count federal indictment, in which 15 people were charged, was that Varela used racehorse operations to launder drug money.

Varela is serving an 11-year federal prison sentence. Gonzalez resisted attempts to take his deposition in the ownership case while incarcerated and facing charges. He was deported to Mexico in 2016. Neither man testified in the four-day trial.

Wives join the fray

With their husbands out of the picture, the wives both claimed an ownership interest in First Moonflash. Neither woman has ever been charged or implicated by authorities in the drug trafficking investigation.

A jury took about an hour before ruling May 18 in favor of Varela’s wife, awarding her $627,000 in direct damages and $209,000 in punitive damages against Maria Gonzalez, the horse trainer’s wife. The jury validated Varela’s 25 percent interest in the horse, which means she can cash in on First Moonflash’s good genes in the future.

It’s unclear whether Gonzalez will appeal.

But another legal battle is still ahead.

Amestoy and his wife, Leslie, have filed claims against Maria Gonzalez for malicious abuse of process and interference with business relations.

Amestoy, who says he owned as many as 100 horses, including racehorses, in Kentucky in the 1990s, told the Journal last week that he never knew anything about Gonzalez’s illegal activities.

“When I knew him, he was a trainer at the racetrack. I had no idea he was doing anything illicit. I had no knowledge of it,” Amestoy said in an interview.

“I manage the horse, and I’m not going to let them tarnish the horse’s reputation, image and his ability for future breedings and future racehorses.”

Amestoy was called to testify in the recent trial in which Varela’s wife argued that she had proof her husband had an oral purchase agreement with Gonzalez in 2008.

Varela produced IRS 1099 tax forms she contended they received from Gonzalez reporting profits related to the horse. She noted that her husband took out an insurance policy in 2010 for their partnership interest in the horse. She also contended that from 2010 to 2014, Maria Gonzalez split her share of the breeding profits with her. Varela filed suit in 2015 after the payments stopped.

Maria Gonzalez fought back, insisting in court filings that was there was no such purchase agreement with the Varelas. She stated that she had “worked very hard and honestly her entire life.”

In court filings, she accused Blanca Villegas-Varela of threatening to turn her in to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration if she didn’t continue splitting the proceeds. In one pretrial hearing, Gonzalez noted that Blanca Varela visited her home in the past, and perhaps “pilfered” the IRS forms.

Varela denied the allegations in court filings.

Amestoy testified at a pretrial hearing that Gonzalez never mentioned that anyone else had an ownership stake in First Moonflash.

“The only thing that was a little weird to me was when she (Maria Gonzalez) started wanting two checks for the same amount of money.”

Great racehorse

Amestoy declined to discuss the recent ownership case or the pending legal claims against Maria Gonzalez.

He said he prefers to focus on First Moonflash, who he describes as “one of the greatest racehorses ever.”

He calls Ramon Gonzalez a “former friend” but does give him credit for helping a threeyear old First Moonflash get the confidence to “get out of the gate.” The horse could run well, but was hesitant initially getting out of the gate onto the track.

Just before retiring, First Moonflash broke the world record for the distance of 440 yards in April 2009 at Sunland Park Race Track and still holds that world record, Amestoy said.

Amestoy said he regrets his decision to sell an ownership interest to Gonzalez. He said he hasn’t had any business dealings with Gonzalez since early 2010.

Once the stallion was retired, Amestoy sold half of his 50 percent share to a leading breeder of quarterhorses, Mike Abraham. The horse’s stud fees, meanwhile, in recent years climbed from $5,000 to $12,500.

Of the first crop of offspring, one of First Moonf lash’s colts won the All-American Futurity, and another won the All-American Derby, Amestoy said.

So successful were First Moonflash’s progeny, Amestoy testified at trial, that he had the opportunity two years ago to syndicate the horse for $8 million — in a multiple ownership arrangement. But another of First Moonflash’s owners nixed the idea, he said, but wouldn’t elaborate.

Amestoy believes First Moonflash, now 12, has many great years of breeding ahead.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime horse,” said Amestoy. “We love him. He’s massive and muscular. But we can still pet him like a puppy. He’s got a great attitude.”

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