07/17/2009 3:06AM

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.