08/25/2017 3:20PM

Hovdey: Black and white consequences for medication rules in shades of gray

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Graham Motion does not consider himself a hero or a martyr. He is not taking a victory lap. Neither is he confident that the whole thing might not happen again, with another legal medication in another jurisdiction where hypersensitive testing and the absolute-insurer rule of Thoroughbred racing reign, and law-abiding trainers are caught up in the same flawed net intended to catch those who choose to cheat their way to success.

A Kentucky circuit court judge held earlier this week that Motion, trainer of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, should not be penalized for a miniscule overage of a legal muscle relaxer detected in the post-race test sample of the winner of a stakes at Keeneland in April 2015, and that the disqualification of the winner should be overturned.

Judge Thomas Wingate found fault in not only the scientific basis for the ruling by Kentucky officials, as well as their refusal to allow presentation of possibly mitigating evidence, but also in the constitutionality of the underlying absolute-insurer rule pertaining to trainers.

The initial ruling handed Motion a five-day suspension and $500 fine, plus forfeiture of the purse won by the filly Kitten’s Point, owned by George Strawbridge Jr. The suspension was later rescinded, but Motion and Strawbridge continued to fight the issue.

“A lot of people have congratulated me,” Motion said Friday afternoon. “But I have very mixed feelings. It’s such a shame it should have even gotten to that point.”

But it’s not a surprise. State commissions will fight tooth and claw to defend even the most obvious distortions of justice, often prompted by advances in drug testing that leap far ahead of prudent enforcement.

In California in the late 1980’s, six trainers – including Wayne Lukas and Lazaro Barrera – were eventually exonerated after having their names dragged through the public square on charges their horses tested positive for cocaine. A few years later, Richard Mandella and Ron McAnally were among a group of trainers forced to defend against accusations of scopolamine use, when in fact it was a contamination of straw bedding by jimsonweed.

“The large majority of trainers do not want to cheat,” Motion said. “We want to be rule followers. But we need guidelines we can trust, because if we are going to race and train horses, they are going to need medication. That’s the reality.”

That reality – which tends to fall on deaf ears – has been addressed comprehensively by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium in its recommended guidelines of administration and withdrawal times for an extensive catalog of legal therapeutic drugs, which includes a 48-hour withdrawal recommendation for the medication in the Motion case.

However, Motion produced evidence that Kitten’s Point was medicated seven days before her race – more than three times the recommended window – and a trace of the drug was still detected.

In the immediate wake of Wingate’s ruling, the RMTC issued a protest, insisting that its science was sound and that it has a really tough job.

“The decision by the circuit court to require the research to identify the point at which a therapeutic effect completely ends is short-sighted and over-simplifies the complexities of determining thresholds for therapeutic medications,” read the RMTC statement.

Sounds like a technical problem with shades of gray. But the application of the guidelines by various jurisdictions can be very black and white, and have human consequences.

“So the RMTC did that instead of coming out constructively and trying to work with us and realize why there are problems,” Motion said. “It’s the job of the regulators to protect us, not force a trainer to exhaust his resources fighting an accusation, or simply accepting a fine.

“The ironic thing is, this medication was prescribed to me by one of the vets on the RMTC committee, and the dosage, and the withdrawal. Where does that put you, as a trainer?”

The rules applying trainer responsibility in Kentucky read, “A trainer shall be responsible for the condition of a horse in his or her care,” and, “A trainer shall be responsible for the presence of a prohibited drug, medication, substance, or metabolic derivative, including permitted medication in excess of the maximum-allowable concentration, in horses in his or her care.”

There is not a trainer worth their day rate who would argue the point. And Motion, for one, is not certain the absolute-insurer rule should be on trial. In most jurisdictions, a trainer is allowed to provide compelling evidence that a penalty should be mitigated – in other words guilty until proven innocent.

“I’m not saying challenging that rule is the right thing,” Motion said. “It could open a can of worms. I do fault the Kentucky commission, though, of letting it go this far in the face of the evidence we were able to present.”

There are few things more disheartening that being falsely accused and having to defend your name.

“Dealing with it was very soul destroying,” Motion said. “And to me it’s a hollow victory, because it can happen again. To anyone.

“Ultimately, when it’s all said, the only conclusion is that we are crying out for a governing body in racing, so that we all know where we stand. If anything good comes from all this, I hope it would be to push us in that direction.”