09/17/2007 11:00PM

Biancone hearing scheduled

EmailLEXINGTON, Ky. - The Kentucky Horse Racing Authority has scheduled a stewards' hearing in the ongoing investigation of trainer Patrick Biancone, who was found to be in possession of cobra venom, a prohibited substance, during a barn search on June 22 at Keeneland.

Lisa Underwood, the executive director of the authority, said that she could not provide a date for the hearing, citing Kentucky racing rules requiring confidentiality in matters still under investigation. Biancone has been serving a 15-day suspension, scheduled to end Wednesday, for the finding of two stimulants in a horse he trains.

Underwood also confirmed that investigators had found three vials of cobra venom in Biancone's barns during the June 22 search, which was conducted by racing authority investigators. An anonymous source close to the investigation had earlier said that cobra venom was discovered during the search.

Underwood declined to provide any additional details about the Biancone investigation, but characterized it as "still ongoing."

Frank Becker, Biancone's attorney, declined to comment on the case on Tuesday.

On Monday, the Kentucky stewards suspended one of Biancone's veterinarians, Dr. Rodney Stewart, for five years for the possession of cobra venom and two other drugs, levodopa and carbidopa, which have previously been used to treat the tremors exhibited by persons with Parkinson's disease. Stewart's veterinary truck was also searched on June 22.

Stewart, a native of Australia, intends to appeal the suspension, according to his attorney, Karen Murphy.

No tests exist to detect cobra venom, levodopa, or carbidopa. Under Kentucky's rules of racing, all three substances are Class A drugs, defined as prohibited substances with high potential to impact racing performance and no therapeutic benefit to horses.

Levodopa stimulates the production of dopamine in the brain, while carbidopa is administered in conjunction with the drug in order to inhibit the levodopa from being quickly metabolized and thereby diminishing the drug's effectiveness.

A search of veterinary databases did not produce a single study of the drug's use in horses, although Australian researchers conducted a study in 2004 to determine whether a substance in urine could be used as an indicator of "dopaminergic manipulation" in horses. The substance administered to the horses in the study was levodopa, based on the researchers' claims that rumors of its use had cropped up in Australian racing circles.

On Tuesday, members of the U.S. horse racing veterinary community said that they were completely mystified at the discovery of the two drugs.

"I've heard rumors, but rarely, about its use, and obviously the people in Australia had heard rumors," said Dr. Scot Waterman, the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, an industry-funded research group. "But I've never heard a specific reason attached to it. I have no clue why someone would use it."

Dr. Rick Arthur, the equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board who is a former racetrack practitioner, said that he had never heard of the drugs in horse racing circles before Monday.

"I can say that I find it an odd drug to be using," Arthur said. "You'd have to be more imaginative than me to come up with a reason."

Because levodopa works to increase dopamine production, Waterman said that one of the possible effects would be a "sense of euphoria" that could have pain-killing effects. "But that is complete and utter speculation," Waterman said.

Dr. Steven Barker, the director of the Louisiana State University Equine Medication Surveillance Laboratory, cautioned that any conclusions about the effects of levodopa on horses would be at best a guess.

"There is nothing to hang your hat on as far as what it would do to a horse that would impact a race," Barker said, citing the lack of scientific studies. "Remember that horses sometimes metabolize drugs differently than humans. In some species of animals, a drug we might use as a sedative becomes a stimulant. A drug we might use that has no toxic effects can instantly kill another species."

Dr. Gary Norwood, a racetrack practitioner in Louisiana who is retiring after 40 years of practice, also said that he felt levodopa might have a "calming effect," but he said he had never heard of anyone using the drug on horses.

A similar drug is methyldopa, but that medication, which is used to treat horses that have trouble sweating, does not have the same pharmacological effects as levodopa. Methyldopa was once commonly used to treat hypertension in humans.