08/17/2006 11:00PM

In drug case, facts hard to pin down

After No End in Sight stopped badly March 24 at Evangeline, she tested positive for a nerve blocker, leading to a six-month suspension for her trainer, Steve Asmussen.

In the case of No End in Sight, everyone involved agrees that the 4-year-old filly was given an injection of an illegal nerve block on March 24, the day she stopped badly halfway through an at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana.

The drug, mepivacaine, is banned on race day in every jurisdiction in the country, a so-called Class 2 drug with a high potential to enhance performance because it can deaden pain in a horse's legs. The concentration found in No End in Sight's postrace tests was powerful - 750 times higher than another recent positive for mepivacaine - and resulted in a six-month suspension for Steve Asmussen, one of the country's most prolific and successful trainers and runner-up the last two years in voting for the Eclipse Award as top trainer.

Despite the lengthy suspension, which Asmussen did not challenge in court, critical questions about the case remain unresolved, including the identity of the person who administered the drug and whether the drugging was deliberate or an accident. According to people involved in the case, it is highly unlikely the truth will ever come out.

The drugging and resulting suspension have emerged as a case study in a litany of issues that have dogged the racing industry and its integrity: rumors of widespread illegal drug use, the lack of adequate security on backstretches, the degree to which trainers have come to rely on medications - legal and illegal - and the difficulties faced by racing regulators to investigate and hold accountable the people who break the sport's rules.

Asmussen, 40, was suspended based on the absolute insurer rule, which holds a trainer responsible for the condition of his or her horse regardless of circumstances. Asmussen was not at Evangeline Downs on March 24.

Asmussen appealed the initial stewards' ruling to suspend him for six months, and the case was heard by the Louisiana Racing Commission on June 23. Commission officials did not respond to requests for comment about the suspension for one month and did not provide a transcript of the hearing until late July, after being pressed because the transcript is a public record. Asmussen, who began his suspension July 10, declined to comment for this article.

According to the transcript, Asmussen claimed that a veterinarian mistakenly administered mepivacaine while treating No End in Sight four hours prior to post. But the veterinarian and her boss said that such a mistake would be highly unlikely, if not impossible.

In opening remarks to the commission, Asmussen's lawyer, Jerome Winsberg, acknowledged that his client would not dispute that mepivacaine was administered on race day, based on the postrace tests. Winsberg said that Asmussen's testimony would reveal facts that "are not too pleasing for himself or for others, and he is willing to admit that."

Indeed, Asmussen testified that he had actually asked the veterinarian to administer two other medications but not mepivacaine itself. The other medications are also illegal, although far less potent than mepivacaine, and Asmussen said he did not know they were illegal. His testimony was contradicted by the veterinarians, who said that Asmussen never asked for the other drugs and that they would never administer them on race day. Yet, according to records produced at the June 23 hearing, the two medications were billed to No End in Sight's owner, Bill Heiligbrodt.

Dr. Sonny Corley, a partner in the veterinary practice that billed Heiligbrodt, said at the hearing and again earlier this month that the billing may have been an administrative error, acknowledging that the details of the case were difficult to believe.

"From the beginning to the end, this was very bizarre," Corley said. He added that Asmussen no longer uses his clinic's services after five years of administering race-day medications for Asmussen's horses in Louisiana.

Bob F. Wright, the chairman of the Louisiana commission, said last week that the identity of the person who was responsible for the administration of mepivacaine "would likely never be known." In later comments, he acknowledged a fundamental problem for the racing industry in adjudicating cases where there is an incontrovertible finding of an illegal drug with little other evidence to back up anyone else's testimony. Put another way, if no one blamed anyone else, what would be the penalty?

"I would think it would merit a much harsher suspension than just six months," Wright said.

Asked to elaborate on how the commission arrived at Asmussen's six-month suspension - the minimum for a Class 2 violation under recommended penalties - Wright said, "I guess it just comes down to a question of credibility," adding that members of the Louisiana commission believed Asmussen to be an "honest, straightforward man."

No End in Sight was 2 for 8 in her career, with earnings of $57,200, when she was entered in a six-furlong $20,000 optional claiming race on March 24 at Evangeline Downs in Opelousas. In her prior start, on Feb. 8, No End in Sight had finished first in a second-level allowance race by 4 1/2 lengths at Sunland Park in New Mexico. As the 4-5 favorite at Evangeline, No End in Sight led briefly before tiring badly around the turn. She finished last, beaten 18 3/4 lengths.

Casey Fusilier, who rode No End in Sight that night, said he noticed nothing wrong with the filly in the warm-up or during the race and that she stopped without exhibiting any outward physical problems.

"She seemed okay to me," Fusilier said. "I couldn't tell you what happened, just that she didn't want to run anymore."

No End in Sight was retired after the race. A report filed with the Jockey Club indicated that on April 4 she was sent to Vinery farm in Kentucky and bred to Posse, a stallion owned by Heiligbrodt and the farm. Heiligbrodt did not respond to a request for comment.

In the June 23 hearing, Asmussen said that No End in Sight had been administered a cortisone injection in one of her knees on March 17, seven days prior to the Evangeline race. Cortisone is a powerful anti-inflammatory that is used to treat pain in joints.

Because No End in Sight was a badly beaten favorite, stewards at Evangeline ordered postrace blood and urine samples.

Both samples tested positive for mepivacaine and its metabolite; in the urine sample, the concentration was 1,200 nanograms per milliliter, according to Dr. Steve Barker, the director of the testing laboratory at Louisiana State University. That concentration, Barker said, left no doubt that the drug had been administered one to 10 hours before post time.

"It was certainly within 24 hours, which is enough of a violation for it to be a problem," Barker said.

Louisiana has a threshold level that allows for a postrace sample to have as much as 20 nanograms of mepivacaine per milliliter.

Other horsemen have had recent mepivacaine positives, but at levels far below the concentration in No End in Sight's sample. Todd Pletcher, the Eclipse Award-winning trainer, is currently fighting a 45-day suspension for a mepivacaine positive in New York that tested at 1.6 nanograms per milliliter of urine. (Pletcher says the horse was never given mepivacaine and the positive was a result of accidental contamination.)

According to the transcript of the June 23 hearing, Asmussen testified that he told Corley to administer Lasix to No End in Sight four hours prior to the March 24 race. In addition, Asmussen said that he asked Corley to administer two other injections, magnesium sulfate and calcium thiamine. Those medications are also illegal to administer on race day, and they are impossible to detect in postrace samples, according to chemists.

Asmussen testified that he believed the drugs were legal to administer in Louisiana as adjunct bleeder medications. Corley, testifying later, said that he was aware the drugs were illegal to administer on race day and that he "wouldn't do it" if a trainer asked him or one of his employees to administer the medications.

Complicating the matter are several contingencies. Corley did not actually treat No End in Sight on March 24; instead, an employee, Dr. Ann Davidson, treated the filly. Davidson testified that she administered only Lasix to No End in Sight, using one syringe that had been "pre-loaded" with Lasix at Corley's clinic.

Magnesium sulfate, which is believed by many horsemen to act as an alkalizing agent and increase endurance, and calcium thiamine, which is believed to mitigate the effects of bleeding in the lungs, are injectables that are administered intravenously through a horse's jugular vein in the neck. The same method is used to administer Lasix.

In a follow-up after the mepivacaine positive, No End in Sight tested positive for a typical dose of Lasix administered four hours prior to the race, according to Barker, meaning that it was highly unlikely that Davidson could have mistakenly injected mepivacaine instead of Lasix.

As to whether Davidson could have injected mepivacaine into the horse's neck instead of one of the two other drugs, mepivacaine is very rarely - if ever - injected intravenously. Instead, the nerve block is injected directly into a joint, to treat the area where the horse is feeling pain.

Veterinarians do not agree on what effect mepivacaine would have on a horse if injected intravenously, and some argue that it would have no effect. However, Barker said that if mepivacaine were injected intravenously at the dosage for either of the two shots of magnesium sulfate or calcium thiamine, "it's a very high probability that the horse would have gone to its knees" because of the impact on the horse's cardiovascular system.

"Going IV [intravenously] with that much of mepivacaine could be very deleterious to the horse," Barker said. "It would have been obvious."

In any case, Davidson testified that the mepivacaine and the pre-loaded Lasix shots are kept in separate drawers. She testified that she had not administered magnesium sulfate or calcium thiamine and that Corley had not instructed her to do so.

Corley said later that accidentally administering mepivacaine would be "nearly impossible," although he said that the medicine boxes that veterinarians bring to the track would contain the drug.

Dr. Scot Waterman, the head of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, an industry group that works on medication issues, said that injecting mepivacaine into a joint is difficult, but not for a veterinarian or someone else who had worked with horses.

"I'm sure there are assistant trainers out there that can do that stuff, but that's fairly specialized work," Waterman said. "It's not that easy. Finding the right landmarks to get the needle into the joint isn't the easiest thing in the world, and finding the nerve and knowing which nerve to block, that ain't the easiest thing in the world either."

When asked the same question, Barker said: "Some of these trainers and folks who work on the backside get to be very professional over time. You don't necessarily have to be a veterinarian to do it."

A reconstruction of the events leading up to the race reveals gaps when No End in Sight was left unsupervised, making it nearly impossible to determine whether someone surreptitiously administered mepivacaine.

No End in Sight arrived at Evangeline Downs at 3:30 p.m., approximately five hours and 15 minutes prior to the scheduled post time of her race at 8:45, according to testimony by Francisco Diaz, the groom employed by Asmussen. Davidson, the veterinarian who treated No End in Sight and another Asmussen-trained horse, Mr. Snee, arrived at 4:30 p.m., said Diaz, who does not speak English and spoke through a translator.

Davidson testified that Diaz was not present when she administered Lasix to No End in Sight, although he was in the stall when Mr. Snee was treated.

After Davidson left, Diaz also departed, leaving No End in Sight and Mr. Snee alone at approximately 5 p.m. "for eight to nine minutes," according to the transcript, to buy something to eat from the track kitchen. At 5:30 p.m., Diaz said, Asmussen's assistant, Billy Lopes, arrived. But the transcript does not make clear if Lopes was already at the barn when Diaz returned from the track kitchen.

Lopes did not appear before the commission as a witness. Asmussen testified that all of his employees are given strict instructions not to leave a horse alone.

Security measures at Evangeline are not unusual, and they fall well short of practices at some other racetracks. The New York Racing Association uses security barns to stop the administration of illegal race-day drugs, preventing anyone but a state-employed veterinarian from treating horses within six hours of a race.

According to David Yount, the general manager of Evangeline Downs, no employees are assigned to monitor the administration of medications to horses entered on any night's race card. Nor are there security cameras in any of the barns. A guard employed by Evangeline is posted at the track's receiving barn, a 55-stall unit that holds horses that ship in, but the guard is not charged with monitoring medications.

"You can only do so much," Yount said. "We have 24-7 security, and that security is supposed to sign in and out everyone who comes into the barn, but it's really up to the horsemen and the veterinarians that treat their horses. They have the responsibility to know which drugs are legal and aren't legal."

Jim Gallagher, the executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, said that backstretch security remains one of the most pressing issues in racing, in part because finding out who is responsible for a drug positive is so difficult. Gallagher stressed that he could not comment directly on the Asmussen case because he was unfamiliar with its particulars.

"Oftentimes in these things the only evidence you have is the positive, and you have everyone involved saying, 'I didn't do it, and I don't know how it happened,' " Gallagher said. "Unless you have someone like a veterinarian who steps up to the plate and says, 'I screwed up,' you have to hold the trainer responsible."

Wright said that the commission "felt sorry, but compelled" to issue the six-month suspension, citing the absolute insurer rule.

"It's a form of strict liability that we have to adhere to," Wright said. "We can't always catch someone in the act, and the absolute insurer rule relieves you of the responsibility of having to determine who was the culprit."

Asmussen is also facing a six-month suspension in New Mexico for a postrace positive of acepromazine, a sedative that is a Class 3 drug. Asmussen appealed the suspension, and a hearing is scheduled for Aug. 30, according to Pamela England, an employee of the New Mexico Racing Commission.

On the recommendation of the Louisiana Racing Commission's lawyer, Paul Bonin, the Louisiana ruling was approved so that any other pending suspensions could not be served at the same time. If the New Mexico Racing Commission upholds its six-month suspension, Asmussen could be out of racing for an entire year.

Asmussen, who has 3,430 races lifetime, has led the country's trainers in races won three of the last four years, including a record-breaking 555 in 2004. Winsberg, Asmussen's lawyer, after citing Asmussen's reputation and career statistics, asked the trainer at the June 23 hearing in front of the Louisiana Racing Commission, "How do you feel about this situation that you find yourself in now?"

"It's undescribably upsetting," Asmussen said. "I have a very good career going here and would not jeopardize it over a drug that is so obvious and so easy to detect."