09/23/2010 3:17PM

Judge upholds vet's suspension for venom possession


A judge in Kentucky’s Franklin Circuit Court has upheld the legality of a four-year suspension issued by the Kentucky Racing Commission to a veterinarian, Dr. Rodney Stewart, after he was found to be in possession of a powerful neurotoxin, but the judge also overturned an additional one-year suspension for the possession of drugs that are used to treat Parkinson’s disease.

In a ruling issued Sept. 21, Judge Philip J. Shepherd rejected Stewart’s contention that the four-year suspension issued for the possession of cobra-snake venom, an illegal nerve-numbing agent, was unreasonable because the maximum penalty for the administration of a Class A drug in Kentucky is three years. Shepherd said that the commission is free to consider exacerbating circumstances in determining the penalty, and that it applied those circumstances legally when deciding to cite the unique properties of the substance for the four-year penalty.

Stewart had already appealed the 2007 suspensions through the commission, but a hearing officer determined in 2009 that the suspensions were warranted, in a ruling in which he cast doubt on the credibility of Stewart’s testimony. Stewart filed the circuit-court appeal after the hearing officer’s determination.

“Given the state’s interest in preserving the integrity of racing by preventing the administration of prohibited substances to race horses, the nature of Alpha Cobratoxin, and the deference required to the hearing officer’s assessment of Stewart’s credibility, the commission acted within its discretion in suspending petitioner for four years,” Shepherd wrote.

Shepherd also ruled, however, that the commission could not issue a suspension to Stewart based on the discovery of carbidopa and levidopa during the same search that turned up the cobra venom, citing the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the drugs for treating human patients and the lack of any credible evidence that the drug could impact the performance of a horse.

“Mere possession of this drug, which has an approved use for humans, cannot form the basis for imposing a penalty absent some testimony to support a finding that its use would endanger the health or welfare of a horse or the safety of a rider,” Shepherd wrote.

The racing commission issued the penalties late in 2007 after commission investigators searched a barn used by trainer Patrick Biancone at Keeneland. In that search, they found a cooler in the barn belonging to Stewart that contained the cobra venom. Investigators also searched Stewart’s truck, finding the carbidopa and levidopa.

As a result of those searches, Biancone was prohibited from receiving a training license in Kentucky for one year.