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Horse racing event that violated COVID rules loses special use permit


A special use permit for horse racing in the Warm Springs-Palomino Valley area was revoked Tuesday by Washoe County commissioners due to numerous instances of noncompliance, including confirmed reports that several hundred people were at events last summer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 40-acre property at 6205 Grass Valley Road is owned by Jose and Hilaria De La Luz. It has been hosting up to 20 single-day horse racing events from May to September annually since 2013 under a special use permit that allows up to 400 people, although county officials said conditions of the permit were consistently violated. Events began in 2009 but were held less often.

Staff from the Washoe County Health District, Emergency Medical Services, Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, Palomino Valley General Improvement District and Washoe County Code Enforcement supported revocation.

Last summer during the COVID-19 pandemic, De La Luz Horse Racing held one un-permitted event in June, then three additional un-permitted events on July 4, Aug. 14 and Aug. 22. The Palomino Valley GID and members of the public took photos, recorded videos, and provided social media links to county staff. Washoe County issued a stop activity order July 14, although the county alleges nobody from De La Luz responded.

“The property owner has consistently violated several of the conditions of approval, which in turn has led to events being conducted in a manner detrimental to the public health and constituting a public nuisance,” a February report from county planning staff to the Washoe County Board of Adjustments stated. “In addition, staff has evidence that the owner has held illegal events during the COVID-19 pandemic in contravention to the governor’s emergency directives prohibiting public events, thus endangering the public health and safety of the citizens of Washoe County.”

Video from the July 4, 2020 event at De La Luz Horse Racing, posted to Facebook.

Larry Chesney, vice president of the Palomino Valley GID, said the horse racing events have put constraint on the dirt roads, which are supposed to be watered. The GID has used a significant portion of its budget to pay crews to clean roads after events, he said.

“These events have consistently put pressure on our roads,” Chesney said. “They have not met the conditions of water trucks watering down the roads and clearing up roads in access areas prior to and after events.”

Sandy De La Luz disputed some of Chesney’s claims, noting event staff cleans the road and said she has invoices for watering trucks from previous years. She admitted the event has had some compliance issues but said she recently took over the venue for her sister and has been getting familiar with how things operate.

“We do water the roads,” said De La Luz, who called into the meeting. “Yeah, we might have failed this past year, but in the years before, we actually did water the roads.”

Washoe County planner Chris Bronczyk said De La Luz Horse Racing hasn’t maintained its business license, which expired in August 2020. Renewal has been available by mail, telephone and internet during the pandemic, he said. It first applied for a license in 2009.

If De La Luz wishes to hold future events, it can seek single-day permits. Although it could reapply for the special use permit that was just revoked, Bronczyk said past revocation is taken into account when considering applications.

“Through the time I’ve been reviewing this, the applicant has consistently failed to meet the agency deadlines for submission of contracts, communicate with reviewing agencies about upcoming events; and even when events are approved by agencies, the applicant consistently failed to follow approved agency conditions,” Bronczyk said.

Commissioner Jeanne Herman, the lone dissenter, suggested there could be a language barrier.

“I just want to make sure every effort was made to make sure they understood everything because sometimes you get misunderstandings…nodding your head yes but you’re not sure,” Herman said.

Commission Chairman Bob Lucey noted how articulate Sandy De La Luz was and said problems with De La Luz Horse Racing date back to 2009.

“Ms. De La Luz, who was just on the phone, obviously demonstrated they had the ability to conduct those conversations with staff and admitted they held events in 2020 when they should not have during the pandemic under the special use permit granted to them,” Lucey said.

According to a report from the Board of Adjustments to county commissioners, examples of past situations with the property were as follows:

  • In June 2018, code enforcement issued a stop order on the event after reports from the Palomino Valley GID reported permit conditions weren’t being met. The event came into compliance and was able to hold one event in September.
  • In 2016, the sheriff’s office responded to reports of gunfire. Security staff wrestled the gun away, but the suspect’s friend hid the .40 pistol in a portable toilet, which had to be drained for deputies to recover. The suspect was arrested.
  • In 2014, county staff said the event lacked a manure plan and had no contract with a waste hauler, which is required within 15 days of the event. It also lacked security, which is required within 30 days of an event. Event dates were also changed without communicating those dates to the county.
  • In 2012, the health district responded to complaints about dust control and the sheriff responded to a report of animal cruelty. Deputies found evidence of illegal rooster fighting, although organizers said it was a “rooster auction.” Injured roosters were in cardboard boxes and had lacerations consistent with fighting. The animals were taken to a veterinarian for treatment and a warrant was submitted. Washoe County Animal Services did inspections on the property in 2014 and 2015 and everything was in order.
  • In 2009, the health district found evidence of illegal food vending because the event lacked a temporary food permit and the concession stand was set up on a dirt surface. It noted a substandard food preparation area with no soap and water and inadequate portable toilets, garbage containers and hand washing.
  • Also in 2009, the sheriff’s office responded to the scene and were told the event was a “horse expedition” as riders were exiting the chutes in jockey apparel. Organizers then told deputies the race was for bidding purposes to purchase the animals and that nobody was paying admission. Deputies later learned organizers were charging $10 per person to enter the event.

The sheriff’s office indicated each call took considerable resources.

“It also appears the permitting requests for the events may not actually be what is occurring in respect to the number of attendees and the types of events being held,” a statement from Don Gil, WCSO patrol division captain, said. “It is the position of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Division to not allow this permit to remain in place.”

Carla O'Day
Carla O'Day
Carla has an undergraduate degree in journalism and more than 10 years experience as a daily newspaper reporter. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to the Reno area in 2002 and wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for 8 years, covering a variety of topics. Prior to that, she covered local government in Fort Pierce, Fla.