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It sounds like a page-turning novel: Venezuelan authorities say a gambling ring poisons 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.

The horse is still struggling to regain his strength after almost dying. There have been other cases of using poison to “sleep” a race horse in Venezuela, including three in the past 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-organised betting rings that many say threatens to destroy a sport nearly as popular as baseball.

Rio Negro had been heavily favoured 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-coloured skin broke out in welts and he was diagnosed with temporary diabetes.

“It was painful to watch,” said Julio Lobo, one of his veterinarians.

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.

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.”

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.

But Jaime Casas and others who follow the local horse racing industry say the real money is in illegal betting, especially now as Venezuelans try to boost the value of their bolivars in the face of 60 per cent inflation and a plunge in the currency’s value on the black market. The illegal operations known as “offices” can frequently be seen operating in plain view from inside the state-sanctioned gambling halls by so-called “bankers” who receive bets in person and by phone.

Venezuela’s state-run National Institute of Hippodromes declined to comment on the illicit operations.

Casas, who runs the Hipicomputo 2000 website that tracks race results, estimated that illicit betting rings move between 50 and 60 times the legal market for gambling. The state-run horse racing agency says that on any given Sunday the government’s take from wagers at La Rinconada can surpass $3 million.

Casas said violence has also increasingly encroached on the sport through the kidnapping of and threats against jockeys.

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

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