Updated on 11/11/2014 10:01AM

Indiana vet case draws scrutiny, debate


On Saturday, Sept. 20, a backstretch security employee at Indiana Grand racetrack walked into work and asked her supervisor what she should do if she saw a veterinarian in the stall of a horse that was entered to race that day. Though she had not reported it to anyone at the time, the employee, Jamie Kolls, who was hired by the track in July to work as a barn walker for $9 an hour, told the supervisor she had seen such an incident a day earlier, when making her rounds to check on horses entered to race on the Friday card.

“I told her about the severity of the allegations,” said the supervisor, Dee Thoman, in a deposition. “That is a very severe allegation against a vet, and that she needed to be a hundred percent sure that that’s, you know, that’s what happened. She said that she was.”

After the pair re-walked Kolls’s Friday route among Indiana Grand’s barns, they returned to the track’s security office to file a report stating that Kolls had found Ross Russell, a young veterinarian who does work on at least half the horses on the backstretch of Indiana Grand, in the stall of a horse entered to run on Friday’s card.

Later that day, based solely on the report, the Indiana Grand stewards suspended Russell indefinitely.

Now, six weeks after Russell was ruled off, at least six individuals have said that Kolls – who has acknowledged receiving no training for her job – was wrong. The individuals, all of whom have ties to Russell, have stated that Russell and two of his assistants were not in the stall of a horse that was entered to run that day when Kolls encountered his team, but that Russell was instead drawing blood from a horse located in a barn adjacent to the one where Kolls alleged the incident to have occurred.

The discrepancy between the two accounts is casting doubt on a central aspect of a case that has mushroomed far beyond the Sept. 19 incident. Kolls’s disputed report also has ensnared two other individuals, an assistant trainer who was ruled off based on Kolls’s account, and the assistant trainer’s wife, a former employee of Russell who was banned from the track after referring to Kolls with a crude epithet following the ban of her husband.

More ominously, at least for Russell, the Sept. 19 incident is cited in a report released by the Indiana Horse Racing Commission on Oct. 23 recommending that Russell be suspended for 20 years, a penalty that would be the largest levied against a Thoroughbred veterinarian in memory. The recommendation was based not only on the allegation of treating a horse on raceday, but on what the commission said was a pattern of behavior making him “unfit to practice in Indiana’s highly regulated pari-mutuel industry.” The charges in the report include dispensing illegal drugs to trainers, falsifying vet records, and lying to commission staff during the investigation.

“Dr. Russell is a veterinarian whose ethical compass is broken,” the report states. “He embodies the worst stereotypes of a race track practitioner.”

Russell, a 31-year-old son of a trainer who has had his own veterinary practice for five years and has been working at tracks all his life, denies many of the allegations in the report. Although he acknowledges that he sometimes has been sloppy with his paperwork and has administered some substances in the past that were not clearly legal or illegal, he blames most of the violations cited in the report on a former employee he fired in August and on a dragnet-style investigation by the IHRC that was designed to turn any of his small errors or misjudgments into a flagrant and significant violation of the state’s racing rules.

Disregarding the disputed allegation of injecting a horse on raceday – one of the most serious accusations that can be levied in racing – Russell is not being accused by the IHRC of administering potent painkillers or powerful performance enhancers to racehorses. He is instead being accused of playing fast and loose with the rules. The substances identified in the IHRC report that Russell either allegedly administered or provided to trainers to be administered are mostly substances available at Internet pharmacies and compounders that have dubious credentials. There is considerable doubt in the scientific community that any of them would have a significant effect on a horse, if any.

The report also does not cite the hard evidence that is usually associated with violations in Thoroughbred racing, such as positive drug tests or confiscated illegal medications. It is largely comprised of statements from trainers and the fired assistant, with those statements backed up, in some cases, by veterinary bills and treatment sheets obtained from owners, trainers, or Russell. None of the statements other than that of the fired assistant were taken under oath, IHRC officials acknowledge.  

Joe Gorajec, the executive director of the Indiana Horse Racing Commission, said that the commission is “confident” that the case against Russell will hold up, citing the wealth of statements from trainers alleging violations by Russell and the contradictory statements Russell provided to investigators regarding those allegations. Gorajec would not respond to detailed questions regarding many of the findings, citing the ongoing investigation into the matter.

“The commission staff is very confident in its findings in the administrative complaint against Dr. Russell,” said Gorajec. “We don’t take these allegations lightly, we have an impeccable record with respect to court decisions on disciplinary actions, and over 20 years in pari-mutuel racing in Indiana we have never, ever been overturned in court by an ultimate authority.”

Aligning regulations

Russell’s case is unfolding within a highly charged debate over the sport’s medication policies and the enforcement of its rules. Over the past five years, critics have attacked the patchwork of regulations in the U.S.’s 38 racing states as being outdated and inconsistent. They have condemned what they have called an out-of-control backstretch culture that turns to the needle for any minor malady or the perceived need to stay one step ahead of the competition and the regulators. And they have assailed state racing commissions for being lax with those that break the rules.

The sustained assault – which has notoriously included the preparation of a video by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals alleging that horses trained by Steve Asmussen were mistreated by veterinarians and his employees – has led many racing organizations to band together behind an effort to align all major racing states under one set of rules, with harsher penalties for those that violate them. It has also led many regulators, including Gorajec, to cast a more focused eye on backstretch practices, which has increased tension between horsemen and regulators.

In Indiana, Thoroughbred racing now takes place only at Indiana Grand, a small racetrack in Shelbyville heavily subsidized by casino revenues where the wagering pools are rarely double the purse of the race. With Gorajec’s full support, Indiana was one of the first states to fully adopt the new rules and penalties, putting them in place just after the start of the Thoroughbred racing season at Indiana Grand in early May.

The regulations allow for the use of 26 therapeutic medications, within limits, and they ban all other drugs from appearing in the post-race samples of horses. To help horsemen comply with the new rules, racing commissions have been disseminating information to trainers and veterinarians recommending when to stop using the therapeutics to avoid post-race positives.

It became clear this summer that horsemen in Indiana and elsewhere were having significant problems complying with the new rules – or that the withdrawal recommendations were inaccurate, or that testing protocols were not aligning with the new regulations – when a drug-testing laboratory in Lexington, Ky., LGC Sciences, began experiencing a massive backlog of tests this summer.

According to officials for the lab, which does work for Indiana, Kentucky, and Delaware, the backlog piled up after the lab started detecting positives in some runs of samples at a rate 100 times greater than a year earlier, with almost all of those positives for the newly regulated therapeutic medications. Because the positives would only be considered a violation if they exceeded a certain concentration, the backlog was exacerbated by the requirement to re-test the samples to determine the level of the drug in the sample.

The Indiana Horse Racing Commission was so frustrated by the backlog at LGC that in August it reached a short-term agreement to send its post-race samples to another laboratory in Denver, Col., for testing. In October, it seized some of its backlogged samples from LGC to send them to the Colorado lab. (The backlog has since been cleared, the IHRC says.)

During the time that the IHRC was attempting to deal with the backlog, Gorajec launched a project to test post-race samples from Quarter Horses, Standardbreds, and Thoroughbreds for the presence of cobalt, a naturally occurring mineral that was rumored to be in use in racing as the sport’s latest performance enhancer du jour. The commission tested 354 samples for the presence of the mineral, which can be toxic in large doses, and found that 21 horses, or 5.9 percent, tested above a level of 25 parts per billion, a threshold the commission wanted to consider in a new regulation. The threshold was the preliminary recommendation of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a racing advisory group.

The commission released its report on cobalt on Aug. 28. One week later, despite the reluctance of other states to adopt similar rules due to the lack of completed scientific studies on cobalt, the commission unanimously adopted an emergency regulation establishing the 25 ppb threshold, effective Sept. 30. Indiana remains the only state to have adopted a threshold for the mineral; other states are considering a rule.

The cobalt project, and the aggressiveness by which it was pursued, is emblematic of how Gorajec conducts the commission’s affairs. Over the past five years, Gorajec has been one of the most determined advocates in the U.S. of get-tough practices designed to rid backstretches of illegal and questionable practices. His efforts have drawn admiration from many in the racing industry who are supportive of a crackdown on racing’s backstretch culture.

But the efforts have also come at a cost. Many owners and trainers have criticized Gorajec for over-reaching and putting an excessive burden of proof on those the commission has accused of wrongdoing. Although many owners and trainers would not comment on the record, one prominent owner who runs regularly in Indiana, the attorney Maggi Moss, has been openly critical of the Indiana commission this summer.

In a recent interview, Moss, who has been outspoken in the past about issues she considers critical to racing, called the situation in Indiana this year a “disaster.” She explicitly cast the blame at the foot of the Indiana commission, claiming that it has botched multiple enforcement actions this summer and kept bettors in the dark about a raft of positives for therapeutic medications the commission has not yet publicly acknowledged. Several times this year she has found unanticipated money in her purse account at Indiana Grand because a horse that finished ahead of her own horse was disqualified in a race held months earlier, she said, without any notification about the ruling.

“The betting public doesn’t have a clue what is going on in Indiana,” Moss said, claiming that she had spent an entire week gathering information for a piece she had written about the situation in the state. “It’s all politics up there, and no one can even hope for a level playing field.”

Andy Roberts, a Standardbred veterinarian who does work in Kentucky and Indiana, was also critical of the Indiana commission at a meeting of the Kentucky Equine Drug Research Council on Oct. 14. Roberts is a member of the council, which recommends medication policies to the full Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

As the drug council was discussing cobalt research, the issue of Indiana’s threshold on cobalt was raised. A member of the council asked where Indiana received its data to set the threshold. Roberts answered: “Where they got all the other data that they’ve set all their levels with – they pulled it out of thin air, which is why they’ve got a lot of problems going on out there. That’s the fact of the matter. … The fact of the matter in Indiana is they fly by the seat of their pants.”

Although Holly Newell, the counsel for the Indiana commission, acknowledged that “more than a couple” of trainers have been fined for positive tests in the past several months, the commission has not published a ruling since July 31. Gorajec said that the rulings that have been issued since that date must first be reviewed by the commission before they can be published. The commission next meets on Nov. 17, Gorajec said, at which time the extent of the positives in Indiana this year will become known.

It was in the chaotic atmosphere of late August and early September -- as Indiana was attempting to deal with its testing backlog, as the state hastily putting together a new rule to regulate cobalt, and as horsemen were expressing widespread confusion about the new medication rules -- that Gorajec and the commission trained their sights on Ross Russell. It was also approximately the same time that Russell had dismissed his assistant, Libby Rees.

Conflicting accounts

Of all the allegations in the 38-page report detailing Russell’s alleged transgressions, the most serious is the accusation that Russell treated a horse illegally on raceday. In Indiana and nearly every other U.S. racing state, the only medication allowed on raceday is furosemide, the anti-bleeding medication more commonly known as Lasix. All other treatments are illegal.

Also under the new rules in Indiana, all Lasix injections must be done at least four hours prior to a race while accompanied by a so-called “vet shadower” who ensures that nothing but the anti-bleeding medication is administered. Russell often administered 40 to 50 shots of Lasix a day while being shadowed, according to depositions in the case.

Although the allegation of injecting a horse on raceday is the most damning in the IHRC’s report, information regarding the incident is limited to a single paragraph, referencing the report by “track security personnel” about finding Russell “with syringe in hand injecting a horse scheduled to race that evening.”

Kolls, the barn walker, said in her report and her deposition that she encountered Russell, two vet techs employed by the veterinarian, and an unidentified person in barn 6, in or just outside stall 61, sometime just after 10 o’clock. Russell was already in the stall, she said, with “two to three shots” in his hand, standing at the horse’s neck, with one female vet tech inside the stall and another vet tech, “a blonde-haired women,” just outside the stall.

Kolls said in her deposition that she did not inquire as to what Russell was doing in the stall. Instead, she asked the “blonde-haired girl” if they needed a “vet shadower,” the official who is assigned to accompany private veterinarians as they administer Lasix approximately four hours prior to their races.

After asking the question, Kolls testified that the blonde vet assistant “was kind of brushing me off,” and that the vet assistant’s answer to the question of whether they needed a “vet shadower” was that they did not because it was not yet the time to administer Lasix shots. Kolls then left without notifying anyone of the encounter, even though she had a radio that she could use to communicate with her supervisor. Nor did she make any note on her clipboard registering the incident, according to records.

“It was a very short interaction,” she testified.

The incident occurred between 10:00 and 10:15 in the morning, Kolls said. On Friday, the day of the incident, the first race at Indiana Grand takes place at 5:05 p.m., meaning Lasix work would not start until approximately noon, so as not to miss the four-hour deadline to administer the medication. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, first post at Indiana Grand is at 2:05 p.m., with Lasix work starting at 10 a.m., or approximately the same time as Kolls was making her rounds that Friday.

Later in her deposition, Kolls testified that she had never seen a vet on the backstretch without a vet shadower in her two months on the job. She also testified that she “had no idea” what a vet shadower does. Furthermore, she said she felt the interaction was suspicious because the vet assistant was “snotty with me.”

In separate depositions, the two vet techs both testified that the encounter happened just as Kolls described, with one critical exception – the encounter occurred in barn 7, at stall 31. In addition, the assistant trainer of the horse in barn 6, stall 61, said in an interview that Russell was not in the barn at the time that Kolls said the veterinarian was there. Furthermore, the trainer of the horse in barn 7, stall 31, Kim Hammond, has testified that she asked Russell to pull blood samples on two horses in her barn at the time the incident allegedly occurred. Those horses were not entered to race that day. However, Hammond testified that she was not in the barn when Russell was scheduled to pull the samples.

The blonde vet tech to which Kolls referred is Camille Ramey, a 22-year-old who began working for Russell this summer. Ramey, in her own deposition, said she was aware that no medication other than Lasix can be administered on raceday, and she identified the location where the encounter with Kolls took place as barn 7, stall 31. According to her deposition, she said Kolls asked her, “Where is your vet shadower?”

“My response to her was it’s 10 a.m. on a Friday,” Ramey said in the deposition. “And I said we don’t have to have a vet shadower until Lasix time. Lasix time starts at noon. And then she didn’t say anything else. We had no other words, and she walked away.”

The horse that Kolls alleged was being treated, Tam Tuff, raced that night because the incident was not reported until the next day. She finished second, was tested, and tested clean, according to the filly’s trainer, Tony Granitz, who is based in Chicago. Officials for the IHRC confirmed that the horse’s post-race samples were negative for any illegal substances.

If the incident was reported the same day, the horse would almost certainly have been scratched.

Granitz, who has trained for 30 years, was in Lexington at the time the incident occurred looking at horses in the Keeneland yearling sale, he said. In an interview, he said he has never asked Russell to administer any substance but Lasix on raceday, and that he has never asked a vet at any track to administer any substance other than Lasix on raceday.

After Kolls filed her report, Granitz’s Indiana assistant, Richard Estvanko, who was at barn 6 that day, was summarily ruled off as well. His wife Chrissy, who works in the barn and formerly worked for Russell, was suspended days later after she referred to Kolls using an epithet in Kolls’s presence. (Chrissy Estvanko maintains that she did not know Kolls was within earshot, because she had never met her and could not recognize her, while Kolls says that Estvanko was looking directly at her when she made the comment.)

While Estvanko was suspended because of the incident, Granitz was not, even though the trainer responsibility rule in Indiana and other states typically requires the trainer of record to be penalized. Gorajec said that IHRC officials could not comment on that aspect of the case while it was still before the stewards.

In interviews, the Estvankos both said that they were in barn 6 at the time the incident allegedly occurred and that Dr. Russell did not treat any of the horses there until 5 p.m. that night. Crucially, they point to a part of Koll’s report claiming that a male other than Russell was holding the horse being treated in the stall. The Estvankos have no grooms, they said, and the only worker they employ, a hotwalker, is female.

“One of us would have had to have been holding that horse,” Richard Estvanko said. “There’s no one else here that does that.”

“It is absolutely not possible that Dr. Russell was in one of our stalls treating a horse and that neither of us knew about it,” said Chrissy Estvanko.

The Estvankos were not questioned about the incident until Oct. 31, six weeks after being ruled off, when, after a stewards’ hearing, the stewards asked their attorney and an attorney for the state to file individual reports about the incident within 15 days. They remain ruled off the track.

One week prior to the Oct. 31 hearing, Granitz said that “he had never seen anything like” the situation surrounding the incident.

“This is crazy,” Granitz said. “You’ve got all these people ruled off and the IHRC hasn’t heard a word from any of them.”

Granitz said that the IHRC had offered to settle the case several weeks ago, with Granitz and Estvanko each paying a $1,500 fine. Estvanko would serve a 60-day suspension, with the time already served during his current ban counting toward the penalty.

Granitz said he refused.

“Why would I admit to something that never happened?” he said.

About the Sept. 19 incident, Russell said: “I remember it plain as day. I was pulling blood on the horse [when Kolls arrived]. The syringes were empty. I wasn’t even giving shots.”

Accusations and counters

According to Gorajec, the IHRC had already begun investigating Russell’s practice at the time of the Sept. 19 incident, though he would not specify a date. Nor would he provide specifics about what led the IHRC to start the investigation.

“There wasn’t just one trigger point,” Gorajec said. “There was more than one trigger, the details of which I am not predisposed to discuss.”

Russell said he believes that the IHRC began its investigation after he fired Libby Rees in mid-August. Rees, a licensed veterinarian who made her own rounds for Russell’s clients, had been working for Russell since April. In a letter he sent to the commission in early September, he described several personal-conduct problems that led him to dismiss her, including poor work habits and treating horses with the wrong medications.

The timing of the letter, sent nearly three weeks after Russell had dismissed Rees, is the most curious aspect of it. By Sept. 3, when the letter was sent, Rees was almost certainly already cooperating with the IHRC’s investigation. In the letter, Russell says he is writing to inform the commission of the details surrounding her dismissal “to provide awareness of Dr. Rees actions and agendas.”

The IHRC confirmed that they received the letter. Holly Newell, the IHRC’s counsel, said, “We reviewed it.”

Although Rees provides some of the more salacious allegations in the IHRC report against Russell – such as directing her to leave loaded syringes for trainers in out-of-the-way places in tack rooms and a harrowing account of a horse having a bad reaction to a cobalt administration – many of those allegations are also backed up by the statements of trainers interviewed by the IHRC. Several trainers said in their interviews that Russell either provided them with illegal medications or injected horses with illegal medications during the race meet, sometimes on raceday.

Ronald Raper, a Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred trainer, said in his interview with IHRC staff that Russell had provided him with injectable syringes containing ACTH, or adrenocorticotropic hormone, on at least 30 occasions during the meet. He said Russell directed him to administer the shot himself approximately six hours before post time.

ACTH is a naturally produced hormone that would not produce a positive in a post-race drug test and would likely have only minimal effects on a horse. Raper said he administered it to “calm horses down.” In Indiana, as in most states, it is illegal for a trainer to possess a hypodermic needle or any injectable substance. It would also be illegal to administer the substance on raceday, regardless of its efficacy.

In interviews with the IHRC staff and with DRF, Russell denied Raper’s claims of leaving loaded syringes. But he did acknowledge leaving “some vials of medicine” with the trainer. According to the IHRC report, Russell’s vet records show that he charged Raper for ACTH 23 times. The notation on the bills states “bottles.”

Raper also claimed that Russell sold him injectables of P-Block, a compounded product that purportedly contains a derivative of the pitcher plant that is marketed as a painkiller. Multiple scientific studies have shown that the product has no effect. Treatment records obtained by the IHRC include references to the sale of two bottles of P-Block to Raper on July 4, and another bottle of Sarapin (another name for the same product) on July 7. The IHRC claims that the records say that Russell injected two horses with Sarapin on July 4.

Russell denied providing the substances to Raper.

The IHRC report makes similar claims regarding two other products, Arnica, a purported painkiller derived from a plant in the sunflower family, and Stop Two, which is used under the belief that it mitigates bleeding in the lungs. Neither would show up on a post-race drug test; both are unlikely to have any significant impact on a horse at all.

In the report and the interview with DRF, Russell denied using Arnica at any time during the meet, even though the treatment records show notations to a substance called “ARC.”

Although he told IHRC personnel that he did not use Stop Two at all during the meet, Russell acknowledged in his interview with DRF that he used the substance “a handful of times” at the beginning of the meet. Stop Two is not FDA-approved, and therefore illegal to administer in Indiana, but Russell said he wasn’t aware that the substance was prohibited at the time he administered it. He continued to maintain that the substance doesn’t need FDA approval because “it’s a homeopathic medication.”

In her affidavit to the IHRC, Rees also said that she administered Stop Two to horses during the meet, acting at Russell’s direction. The IHRC also says that notations on Russell’s treatment records and billing statements show that he charged for the substance.

The IHRC also alleges that Russell deliberately altered some of his billing records to expunge notations to illegal products after the IHRC requested the records as part of its investigation. In one such case outlined by the IHRC, a billing record for a 30-day period in May and June obtained from an owner shows charges for “Stop2.” In the same record obtained from Russell, the entries that were listed as “Stop2” appear as “Sodium Iodide Jug.”

In his interview with DRF, Russell said that the record obtained from the owner is accurate. He said the entry appears different in the record he produced for the commission because his practice had dropped the code for Stop Two in its billing software after he ceased using the substance at the meet, replacing it with a code for the sodium iodide jug. When the record was generated again and printed out to hand over to the commission, the software generated “sodium iodide jug” for the same code, Russell contended.

He also said that many of the records cited in the IHRC report purporting to provide evidence for medication violations was a result of sloppy record-keeping.

“They got a thousand pages of my records and they’re coming up with maybe three problems,” he said. “We’re a young company. We’ve made mistakes in bills.”

The report also claims that Russell administered high doses of cobalt to horses when the substance was not yet being regulated by the IHRC, prior to Sept. 30. It said six of the 21 horses that tested above the 25 ppb threshold as part of the IHRC’s research into the mineral were trained by clients of Russell, including one horse that tested positive at a level of 1,127 ppb. Rees, in her affidavit, claims that Russell told her that cobalt “makes [a horse] run like a beast, but you only get one or two races out of them, and then they’re done.”

Russell said in the interview that the horses were testing for high levels of cobalt because the mineral is an ingredient in a wide variety of supplements he administered to horses. He said that after the IHRC conducted its round of tests, he changed the supplements he administers to avoid those that contained high levels of cobalt and did his own testing on horses to determine which horses were testing high and why.

The syringes Russell had in his hand during the Sept. 19 encounter with Kolls, he said, were to take blood samples for that exact purpose.

Focus on veterinarians

All of the statements from trainers cited in the IHRC report were taken as part of an interview process, and the trainers were not placed under oath, the IHRC said. Though they were not sworn in, “They have the duty to comply with the investigation and be forthcoming,” said Newell, the IHRC counsel.

The trainers quoted in the report all admit to breaking Indiana rules. Gorajec was asked if the trainers would be held accountable for any violations of their own.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s an ongoing investigation.”

Regardless of the outcome for the trainers, the case against Russell is demonstrating that the IHRC is taking a very different tack than many other racing commissions in the U.S. While most racing commissions remain focused on post-race drug tests and the responsibility of trainers over the condition and treatment of their horses, the Russell case is the fourth the IHRC has brought against veterinarians in the last 13 years, all under Gorajec. And the penalties keep rising.

In 2001, the commission suspended a vet for a year for administering a vitamin shot on raceday. In 2005, the commission banned another vet for two years on allegations of administering substances on raceday. In 2009, another vet was suspended for four years for providing an anti-clotting medication to a trainer. The horse, a Standardbred, died almost immediately after the drug was administered by a groom.

The report against Russell cites eight specific violations of Indiana’s rules. Even if the IHRC is unable to make the charges stick, the investigation will serve as a sobering shot over the bow of Indiana’s backstretches. It is already shining a harsh light on a culture that may not be playing with hard-core performance enhancers, but one that the IHRC maintains is playing with fire.

“The biggest story in all this is what’s going on on the backside with all these pre-race medications,” said Gorajec. “We want to make Indiana the exception in the racing world, rather than the norm. I think it’s clear that Indiana takes this very seriously.”