01/20/2012 4:17PM

Louisiana panel strikes down phenylbutazone rule; state's graded stakes under threat

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The Louisiana state Senate Commerce committee voted Friday to strike down an emergency rule designed to comply with requirements for the grading of stakes races, a decision that may threaten the grades of stakes run later this year in the state, according to officials.

The Commerce committee voted to strike the rule after representatives of the state’s horsemen’s organization complained that the rule was adopted by the Louisiana Racing Commission without a hearing in which industry participants could voice their opinions. The rule lowered the so-called threshold level for the drug phenylbutazone, a painkiller that is prohibited from being administered within 48 hours of a race.

Two graded stakes races are scheduled to be run Saturday at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, the Col. E.R. Bradley and the Lecomte Stakes, both grade 3 races. But because the emergency rule will not be rescinded until the committee sends an official notification to the racing commission next week, the grades of the Saturday stakes will probably not be affected, according to officials.

However, it remains unclear if graded stakes run later this year will qualify for their grades if the state does not perform post-race drug tests with the lower threshold level in place. The industry group that awards grades, the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, passed the requirement in 2010, citing recent scientific work that determined the lower threshold was necessary in order to ensure that phenylbutazone was being administered within the proper time frame.

Stanley Seelig, president of the Louisiana Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said that horsemen did not have an objection to the lower threshold level. Instead, he cited what he called a “long history” of the racing commission passing new rules without taking input from horsemen by invoking its powers to summarily adopt emergency rules. Rules adopted on a non-emergency basis typically take at least six months to be formally adopted.

“We’ve got no problem with the rule, and the last thing we want to do is interfere with any of the tracks in Louisiana,” Seelig said after the hearing. “We just want the commission to do this the right way. Conduct a hearing, let people state their views. There’s no reason this was an emergency.”

Charles Gardiner, executive director of the racing commission, said after the hearing that he will ask the commission to meet prior to Feb. 25 – when the next four graded stakes races appear on the Fair Grounds calendar – in order to adopt a new emergency rule. Simultaneously, the commission will continue to push the rule through the normal channels, Gardiner said.

“The problem with the emergency rule we passed is that it wasn’t done particularly cleanly,” Gardiner said. “We could do it better.”

Grades for stakes are ostensibly assigned to provide guidance for participants in the breeding and auction industries, but earnings in graded stakes also determine the horses who are eligible to start in the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. Fair Grounds holds several graded stakes that serve as preps for the Derby and Oaks.

Andrew Schweigardt, a spokesman for the graded stakes committee, said that he could not comment on whether future stakes on the Louisiana calendar would retain their grades this year. If a graded stakes race is run in a state that is not complying with the requirements, then the full committee will meet to review whether to rescind the grade.

“All I can say is that the rules require the state to test at that level,” Schweigardt said. “But it’s all up to the committee.”