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Curious case of Sign shows drug rule flaws
How did a 2-year-old filly who had allegedly never been administered a drug inexplicably end up with that drug in her blood sample on raceday?
That was one of the questions at the heart of an appeal heard earlier this week at the offices of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission outside Lexington. The hearing, conducted on Monday and Tuesday morning, centered on the curious case of Sign, a filly owned and bred by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider who was disqualified from the Grade 2 Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs last Oct. 28 after a post-race blood sample revealed a prohibited level of the therapeutic medication methocarbamol, a muscle relaxant.
Sign’s trainer, Al Stall, was fined $250 for the positive test but was not suspended, a penalty that seemed to fit the crime – methocarbamol is considered a rather innocuous drug, and it was found in a concentration barely exceeding the allowable limit. However, under an interpretation of new rules that went into effect in Kentucky last fall that were designed to toughen penalties for just about any medication infraction, the filly was disqualified from the race and the purse was redistributed, costing her connections the $101,125 winner’s share (and the black-type for the stakes win).
One hundred thousand dollars is probably enough to entice any owner to contest a drug ruling. And it’s probably just as true that without the purse redistribution nearly all owners would have let the ruling lie. But not Seth Hancock, the no-nonsense head of Claiborne Farm, who did not appear to have money on his mind as he sat stone-faced through the hearing, often shaking his head in frustration when the legal maneuverings of the attorneys got byzantine.
“I’m keenly aware of what you are saying,” Hancock said during a brief break in the hearing, when asked why he was pursuing the case if a reversal couldn’t possibly cover the costs of the appeal and the transgression was so minor. “But I’ve only got the one reputation.”
To Hancock, the hearing had nothing to do with whether or not stewards correctly interpreted the law by ordering a purse redistribution. Rather, the hearing was a public forum in which Claiborne could make a case that its homebred filly should not be included in a category of horses who race with an asterisk next to their names.
In the end, the hearing became an illustration of the difficulties the sport is facing as it attempts to clear the air on its medication policies.
Methocarbamol comes in two forms: an ingestible pill that can be ground into a powder and dissolved into an oral solution, and an injectable solution. The pill is legal for trainers to administer while the injectable can be administered only by a veterinarian. It is one of 24 drugs that regulators have recently identified as having a legitimate therapeutic use in racing.
In Kentucky, methocarbamol is banned on raceday, like all other drugs except the anti-bleeding medication furosemide. To regulate its use, the state put in place a threshold limit of 1 nanogram per milliliter of blood plasma as part of a suite of regulations that went into effect on Sept. 4. The rules were designed, in principle, to ensure a level playing field and to keep horsemen and veterinarians from experimenting with therapeutic medications in the days leading up to a race.
For some perspective on how low that level was set, a recent live-horse study of the drug found that five minutes after administration, the concentration of the drug in blood plasma was an average of 23,000 nanograms per milliliter of blood plasma. Its half-life – the rate at which approximately half the concentration will be eliminated from the body – was measured at three to three-and-a-half hours, meaning that a 20,000 concentration will test at 10,000 nanograms three hours after administration; 5,000 nanograms after six hours; etc., all the way down to 0.3 nanograms at 48 hours, which is the withdrawal guideline in Kentucky for an intravenous administration of the drug. The pharmacologic effect of a drug declines as rapidly as the concentration.
But none of that in any way explains how Sign tested positive because, according to Stall and his longtime veterinarian, Dr. Kevin Dunleavy, the filly had never been administered the drug at any time in her career prior to the Pocahontas. Claiborne’s attorney, David Royse, produced the filly’s vet records during the hearing, and nowhere did the records indicate any administration of methocarbamol.
In cases like these, when trainers insist that a horse has not been given a drug that showed up in post-race tests, it’s typical for their connections to get the split of the sample tested at another lab, to order DNA tests of the blood sample, and to look for gaps in the sample’s chain of custody.
The split sample came back positive for a higher concentration than Kentucky’s lab found, at 2.8 nanograms compared with the initial finding of 2.1 nanograms. Stall and Sign’s owners also ordered the DNA test, and it came back positive: the blood sample tested came from Sign and no other horse.
So that left the chain of custody, a frequent target for attorneys seeking to introduce questions about contamination of a sample. However, Royce never questioned the handling of the filly’s sample, even though the commission’s attorney, Luke Morgan, in anticipation of such a probe, had witnesses detail the safeguards in place to determine that samples aren’t tampered with as they are collected, transported, stored, and tested.
Left with few options, Royse consistently cajoled testimony from witnesses in support of the character of Sign’s connections. The state’s chief steward, Barbara Borden, who was part of the three-person panel who unanimously approved the penalty, testified that she knew both Stall and Dunleavy to be honest and conscientious of the rulebook. Dr. Mary Scollay, the KHRC’s equine medical director who has served on advisory panels with Dunleavy, echoed those sentiments even more strongly. John Ward, the KHRC’s executive director, was asked if he agreed that Stall and Claiborne “are not cheaters or people who try to get away with things.” Ward’s answer, “That is correct.”
Royce also attempted to cast doubt on whether the horse could have been administered the drug by mistake, also by citing Sign’s connections. And here’s where the case gets tricky.
Ten days after Sign’s Pocahontas win, stewards notified Stall’s assistant trainer at Churchill that the filly’s blood sample had come back positive. The assistant, Trina Pasckvale, called Stall in New Orleans to notify him about the test at approximately 4 p.m. Eastern, one hour before Upon Reflection, another horse trained by Stall – one not owned by Claiborne – won a race at Churchill.
Following the win, Upon Reflection tested positive for an illegal amount of methocarbamol.
That left Stall and Dunleavy to defend their “barn management practices,” a euphemism for the care trainers and veterinarians take when administering medications. Under questioning from both sides, Stall testified that a number of horses in his barn received regular administrations of methocarbamol, although Sign was not one of them. He said that he was very careful with the administrations and that horses in his barn did not receive pills of the drug within five days of a race or injections with 50 or so hours of a race.
Dunleavy and Stall both testified that following the second positive test they immediately removed methocarbamol from Stall’s barn, and Dunleavy said he stopped administering the drug to any of Stall’s horses. Nevertheless, seven days after the second positive was reported, according to records produced at the hearing, the post-race blood sample from another one of Stall’s horses indicated that the horse had a trace amount of methocarbamol in its system, though at a concentration below the legal limit.
“We haven’t completely ruled out sabotage,” Stall said after the hearing. “But there seems to be a rash of these coming up [in Kentucky] since the rule change.”
The hearing appeared to be a partial victory for Sign’s connections. Royse was widely viewed to have skillfully demonstrated that the racing commission had not intended to make purse forfeiture mandatory in cases of Class C medication violations, and a hearing officer could very well void that part of the ruling. After resting his case following the maneuver, Royse turned to Hancock and winked. Hancock remained stoic, his arms resting across his chest.
Like others, Hancock seemed to still want an answer to his big question: How did a Claiborne horse end up with methocarbamol in her system?
“We’re just completely mystified,” Stall said.
After nine hours of testimony, so is everyone else.
Horse racing is no diferent than other sports. Stimulating the body's performance is as old as mankind. One can trace the history of both the ancient Olympics and modern Olympics to see how humans have attempted to gain a competitive advantage in sports and how science has tried to keep up in an effort to curtail the cheating. It wasn't until the 1950's that these practices began to receive increased scrutiny in international competition and scientists have been trying to keep up ever since. For human athletes the 21st century has brought with it the specter of genetic manipulation and for horse racing it will be no different. Unfortunately cases such as this one will continue to present themselves and cast horsemen in a negative light even when there was no intent to cheat. Like Seth Hancock said, he only has one reputation and I fully understand why he and Al Stall will continue to seek answers to the post-race positive results. Horse Racing Commissions will have to move forward too. My hope is that it will not be in an adversarial manner as this will not be in the best interests of horse racing.
I love how it's like, 'no, not Claiborne! they'd never do that!' I'm sorry, no one should be above suspicion...and whatever happened to a trainer (like the Captain of a ship) taking responsibility for everything that happens in his/her barn? and Stall admitted that other horses in his barn receive this drug, so he obviously doesn't have a moral problem using it, why can't he just admit that someone probably just gave it to her by accident (and the other positives prove that there may be mistakes being made at least about when the drug is to be given) and leave it at that? there doesn't have to be malicious intent