07/17/2009 4:06AM

The 'Caine Mutiny


While following the Steve Asmussen lidocaine case from afar, primarily through Daily Racing Form's Mary Rampellini (http://www.drf.com/news/article/105544.html) and Texas colleague Gary West (http://startelegramsports.typepad.com/west_points/), I have been experiencing severe flashbacks. Despite credible testimony that some kind of contamination could have been the source of the lidocaine positive from 14 months ago, Asmussen has been fined $1,500 and suspended six months, with penalties stayed pending his appeal.

This is not the first time a racing commission has plunged ahead in the face of possibly mitigating chemical evidence. There are overtones in the Asmussen case of the California scopolomine scandal of 1994, when six trainers had horses test positive for traces of the drug used most commonly for motion sickness. Among the six were Richard Mandella, Ron McAnally and Bill Shoemaker. They were officially accused, with all the negative connotations that entails, and despite the fact that the executive director of the California Horse Racing Board acknowledged there was a danger of jimson weed contamination in some feed and bedding sources (jimson weed being a natural source of scopolamine). It was also admitted by the official lab that their tests could not differentiate between pharmaceutical scopolamine and jimson weed as a source. In the end, after dragging the trainers through the hearing and appeal process, token fines were imposed.

The Asmussen case echoes aspects of the spike of morphine positives in California from May and June of 2000. That one netted Bobby Frankel and Bob Baffert, who had the deep pockets necessary to wage long legal battles that proved, at least to the satisfaction of the courts of appeal, the levels of the drug were so low that contamination was the only logical answer. Baffert's accusation was dismissed in 2005, Frankel's in 2006.

The Texas case also evokes memories of the California cocaine wars of the late 1980s, when Lazaro Barrera and Wayne Lukas were among several trainers who had horses supposedly test positive for traces of  Bolivian marching powder. Since "Cocaine!" in a headline is guaranteed to sell newspapers -- a lot better than the more mundane, local anasthetic lidocaine -- you can imagine how long the story stayed afloat. Then, in June of 1989, it was announced that charges against five of the six trainers had been dropped, because the presence of cocaine and its two metabolites could not be proven to be present in test samples.

Roger Stein, the sixth trainer accused, already had lost an appeal of a $2,000 fine and a six-month suspension. Stein, a former standardbred trainer, had a checkered record to that point, and he was clearly on the racing board's most wanted list. But in spite of its ruling to cut loose the other five, the racing board allowed Stein's penalties to stand. Stein easily got a stay of the suspension, sued the board in civil court, and won a token, $500 judgment, along with an apology and a refund of the fine. In his official record, the original ruling has been dismissed.

Stein still trains horses, and although his health now prevents him from active participation around the barn, he maintains a prickly presence as host of his own weekend radio show, during which he comes off as racing's very own Don Imus--cajoling, caustic and complimentary by turns.

Stein has been following the Asmussen case with interest, especially the part where only one metabolite of lidocaine could be found in the accused test sample when two are necessary for conclusive proof that the substance actually went through the animal. Sound familiar?

"I can't believe it's been 20 years," Stein said. "The truth is, (racing commissions) really haven't learned a lot. And in some ways they've gone backwards."

It can be expected that in such cases at some point the accuracy of the testing itself is put on trial. This can be interpreted as a sleazy lawyer trick, especially by those who believe lawyers would do such a thing. But it is also a legitimate line of defense, since the trainers are often facing a zero-tolerance trainer insurer rule that has been modified only slightly over the past 20 years.

In terms of percentage of starters, Asumssen's horses do not fail post race tests at an alarming rate--unless you are among those who feel one positive is one too many. Because so many horses run under his name--an average of about 230 a month so far this season--the mathematical chances are greater that some kind of drug news will be made more often by Asmussen than anyone else. This tends to distort his operation as plagued by violations, just as Asmussen's astronomical numbers leave casual fans with the mistaken impression that he is miles the better trainer than anyone else. 

It can be argued that by running his hundreds of horses at a number of tracks with a variety of medication rules and test labs, Asmussen has left himself open to anything from overly zealous employees and honest mistakes to outright tampering or sabotage. And with more horses tested under the Asmussen name than any other in the land, chances are that if a testing error is going to be made, it will be made on an Asmussen horse. Perhaps this is the price he is willing to pay for his success.

This does not, however, give the Texas racing authorities a pass. Horseplayers and horsemen deserve reliable protection from cheaters, and racing commissions are obliged to bring air-tight cases against them. So get ready. Asmussen spent most of 2006 on a pair of lengthy suspensions, but look for him to fight this one tooth and claw.

Club Penguin Cheats More than 1 year ago
For far too long they have tried to excuse their inattention to their businesses buy trying to defeat the absolute insurer rule. It is the only way to make them responsible for their horses.
Russell Powell More than 1 year ago
Jay, great article. Enjoyed the comments, too. Especially, Irwin's comments about the inherent risks of running a large stable. I am a trial lawyer and handicapper. I love horse racing. I have reviewed the evidence in this matter and do not believe there is any way that Steve should have been suspended on this one. I am a big proponent of transparency in racing. Tell us every drug a horse is given. If a post race urinalysis turns up additional drugs that are performance enhancing, penalize the trainer and the owner. But a six month suspension on trace amounts of lidocaine is punitive. Punitive. This decision will ultimately be overturned. I will book all takers on this bet. I enjoy following the Crist medication debate and agree with much of what he has to say on the matter, but this Timber Trick case is an example of lack of due process, lack of meaningful standardized procedures, lack of understanding and lack of common sense jeopardizing one of the country's better horse trainer's livelihood. Anyone who thinks that Steve would jeopardize his future and his family by giving a three year old maiden at Lone Star lidocaine in his quest to keep his winning percentage high is either a sore loser or an idiot. It simply does not make any sense. Are there cheats in horse racing? Absolutely. Should they be penalized accordingly? Absolutely. But the good folks in Texas got it wrong on this one.
binky mcfadden More than 1 year ago
Octave: Your good authority must be the comic books you read. Actually Ronald McDonald is probably must more successful at what he does than you are at whatever you do. Since I don't know what you do, I cannot offer comments "on good authority", only what I know to be facts. I would however put my success at racing against yours anytime. Unless you are a top trainer or "bluenose" owner as described by another blogger masquerading behind a the modest name of Octave-the-Rave, I BET you come up as the loser. Clever boy.
Double Standard More than 1 year ago
Isn't Texas the same racing board that let Justin Evans run his horses at Lone Star? Evans was just suspended from Turf Paradise for multiple violations. How about a little consistency. Racing boards are a joke, I don't think anyone really takes them seriously which is why we have so many cheats. Drug your horse and you get suspended for a few months. No big deal, just go to a different state! Racing needs a National Board with members who have character. Not members who tell the trainers it's okay to juice their horses up on steroids.
Wayne80 More than 1 year ago
It would also be helpful is the racing commission members, appointed political hacks in most states, had some actual racing experience and preferably a veterinary background.
Rick Abbott More than 1 year ago
At a time when the betting public is clamoring for "hay, oats and water", to defend a drug positive is senseless. Let the due process work and see where it leads. Just because over the counter preparations contain lidocaine does not mean you can use them with impunity. Trainers, like all small businessmen, are ultimately responsible for what goes on in their place of business. For far too long they have tried to excuse their inattention to their businesses buy trying to defeat the absolute insurer rule. It is the only way to make them responsible for their horses.
Wayne80 More than 1 year ago
Mr. Irwin, thanks for adding some perspective. Assmussen is well aware of the trainer responsibility rule, and as you point out it is a management problem as well as a drug problem. If he is going to accept all these horses and run this widespread operation, he needs to hire extremely competant employees that employ the utmost care. There are two different issues at hand. First he is entitled to due process, and the racing commission should of course use common sense when considering contamination. Any number of over the counter products could cause contamination, and I am the last person in the world that would ask that someone be punished unfairly. But, after careful consideration of all arguments, if Texas convicts him in what essentially is a trial at this point, he should be punished to to the utmost of the law, with many appropriate suggestions in the Crist blog. All trainers are entitled to due process, in fact even more so IF the penalties are going to be severe, but if guilty the penalty should be significant enough to be a deterrent to others, not a slap on the wrist the transfer of horse to the assistants name. Accidents do happen, and if indeed this was only an accident, the mega stables need to seriously consider how they are doing business and consider downsizing their operations.
chris canfield More than 1 year ago
Jay, another high profile trainer has a drug positive and the response is for a kangaroo court in the media and general public to decide his culpability or innocence. All the more reason to establish a National Racing Commission with the power to set uniform penalties for serious medication violations. If the Industry cannot police itself from within, the next step is for government to get involved, and then everyone looses. The time is past that individual state jurisdictions should be intrusted to assess these penalties - this is based on antiquated decision making. A National Racing Commission, appointing an Executive Committee comprised of members with uninpeachable backgrounds in racing should determine the outcome of these cases. History should show us that current determents are not working, and the public perception of racing is damaged again and again. We need a positive reward system for horsemen that run an honest game - the remainder need to be shown the door.
Octave-the-Rave More than 1 year ago
"Your commentary is fence sitting drivel." J-Dey, I have it on good authority that Binky McFadden and Ronald McDonald are one and the same! Good on you, mate, for adding a measure of perspective to this whole much-ado-about-nothing issue. Since the dawn of time, every race track has had its share of resident Binky McFaddens. If it isn't trainers drugging horses, it's jockeys using batteries, or gate guys holding the favorite's tail. It's always the losers who cry the loudest ... in every sport. Excellent piece and a thouroughly enlightening and entertaining read. Thank you for sharing it.
binky mcfadden More than 1 year ago
Mr. Irwin's example is illustrative of the BS that some trainers pull. Lidocaine is injected into the joints to block the nerves. It is sometimes also INJECTED into tissue as a local anesthesia for minor surgeries. It is not used to "cool clippers", treat injuries, or for horse dentistry. We have used various media for lubricating and cooling clippers over the past twenty plus years. None contained lidocaine. Lidocaine does NOT "incidentally" contaminate feed, like scopolamine via jimsom weed in native grasses and is not administered orally.