10/05/2007 11:00PM

Biancone banned one year

Michael J. Marten/Horsephotos
Patrick Biancone with Breeders' Cup contender Irish Smoke at Keeneland. Biancone faces a loss of income if his suspension is upheld.
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Patrick Biancone, the trainer of several of racing's leading Eclipse Award contenders, was suspended for one year by Kentucky's racing stewards on Friday for the possession of three vials of cobra venom, a prohibited Class A substance that can act as a powerful painkiller.

Biancone, 55, will appeal the suspension, according to his attorney, who criticized the length of the penalty without disputing the stewards' findings. The suspension is the longest issued to a Thoroughbred trainer under Kentucky's tough new medication rules and penalty guidelines.

The guidelines prohibit a trainer who is suspended for a Class A medication violation from earning any money from horses under his care. If the suspension is upheld, Biancone would become the first trainer under the new guidelines to be required to transfer his horses to trainers with whom he does not have a financial relationship.

The suspension was scheduled to begin on Oct. 15, but the appeal will delay the onset until at least after the Breeders' Cup on Oct. 26-27 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Biancone trains several contenders for Breeders' Cup races, including Nownownow (Juvenile Turf), Asi Siempre (Distaff), Irish Smoke (Juvenile Fillies), Lady of Venice (Filly and Mare Turf), Slew's Tiznow (Juvenile), and Baroness Thatcher (Filly and Mare Sprint).

The suspension arose out of a search on June 22 at Biancone's barns at Keeneland Racecourse. During the search, investigators for the Kentucky Racing Authority found three vials of cobra venom in a refrigerator in one of the barns.

Alan Foreman, one of Biancone's attorneys, did not dispute that cobra venom was found in Biancone's barn but said that the three vials were found in the bottom of a cooler that was delivered to the barn on the morning of the search by Biancone's veterinarian, Dr. Rodney Stewart. Biancone had "absolutely no knowledge" of the contents of the cooler, Foreman said.

"If he's guilty of anything, he's guilty of letting this guy have access to his barn," Foreman said on Friday.

Stewart, an Australian, was suspended early in September for five years for the possession of cobra venom and two other illegal medications. He has appealed the suspension.

Trainers in U.S. racing jurisdictions operate under a general responsibility rule that holds them liable for any substance found in their horses or barns. Foreman acknowledged that Biancone should be punished under that rule but said that the punishment should be a fine, rather than a suspension.

"If you look at rulings for things like this in other states, these are fineable offenses," Foreman said.

Cobra venom, a neurotoxin, is a prohibited substance under Kentucky's racing rules, although no test exists to detect its use. The United States does not regulate its sale or use, and the crystalline form of the substance can be legally obtained through reptile specialists. The venom is believed to act as a powerful painkiller when mixed with saline solution and injected in small doses.

Foreman said that Biancone passed a polygraph test asking whether he had ever used cobra venom. His attorneys paid for the test, which was administered by a former FBI agent in New York.

Lisa Underwood, the executive director of the racing authority, said on Friday morning that the investigation of Biancone and Stewart is ongoing but declined to comment further, including when asked whether other penalties could be applied.

The Kentucky authority issued several other suspensions to Biancone but said the trainer could serve those suspensions concurrently with the one-year penalty. The penalties include several 30-day suspensions for a failure to properly label medications, plus a one-year suspension for failing to report that Stewart had cobra venom in his possession on June 22.

Just a few years ago, Kentucky was considered to have the most permissive medication rules in the country. The state overhauled its medication rules and penalties, however, in a contentious process that was frequently opposed by local horsemen.

Foreman accused Kentucky's stewards of attempting to make Biancone a "poster boy" for its campaign against drugs and said that Biancone had "absolutely no chance for a fair hearing" because of leaks to the media about the search and the discovery of the venom.

"They are under tremendous pressure to send a message," Foreman said.

Underwood declined to comment about the ruling, other than to say, "It speaks for itself."

Biancone has several high-profile horses entered on opening weekend at Keeneland, including Irish Smoke, who finished last as the favorite in Friday's Grade 1 Alcibiades Stakes. On Saturday, Slew's Tiznow is entered in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity, Lady of Venice in the Grade 2 First Lady Stakes, and Baroness Thatcher in the Grade 3 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes. On Sunday, Asi Siempre is entered in the Grade 1 Spinster Stakes.

A native of France, Biancone was suspended by the Hong Kong Jockey Club for 10 months in 1999 for undisclosed violations two years after more than 20 horses he trained tested positive for prohibited substances there, according to Hong Kong news sources. He was licensed in California in 2000 after the suspension expired.

Last month, Biancone was suspended for 15 days by the Kentucky authority after a horse he trained tested positive for a bronchial dilator that is prohibited on race days. Also last month, he was fined $10,000 by the California Horse Racing Board and received a stay of a 15-day suspension for a medication violation.

If the Kentucky suspension is upheld, Foreman said, he expected to appeal the ruling in the civil courts.

"That's really up to Patrick, but I know I'm going to fight very hard to save Patrick's reputation," Foreman said.