12/02/2009 1:00AM

McLaughin starts 30-day suspension


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin began serving three concurrent 30-day suspensions on Tuesday after three horses in his care tested positive for a rarely used bronchial dilator following races at Keeneland in October, in a case that illustrates the dangers trainers face when using little-known medications.

The bronchial dilator, ipratropium bromide, has been widely available for decades to treat lung problems such as asthma in humans. The drug, however, is not approved for use in horses by the Food and Drug Administration, and trainers, veterinarians, and testing officials have very little information to guide the proper use of the medication, especially when horses ship from states using less sensitive testing methods to those using more sensitive technologies.

McLaughlin, who is based in New York and runs one of the most high-profile barns in the country, said that he had been using ipratropium bromide on the advice of his veterinarian to treat reactions to hay dust, using a mask that was laced with an aerosol version of the medication. The veterinarian told McLaughlin that the drug should not be administered within 48 hours of a race. McLaughlin said he followed those guidelines.

Kentucky stewards said on Wednesday that the drug was detected in trace levels in post-race urine samples in three horses. The horses were Bluegrass Princess, the winner of the Grade 3 Valley View Stakes on Oct. 23; Liston, the winner of an allowance race on Oct. 9; and Hatheer, who finished third in a race on Oct. 15. All three horses were disqualified, and purses from the races were redistributed.

Because Kentucky does not allow the drug to appear at any levels in postrace urine samples, stewards felt compelled to issue a penalty consistent with other drugs in the same class as ipratropium, according to John Veitch, the state's chief steward. Veitch said that stewards did not believe that McLaughlin was seeking an advantage by using the medication, but he said that any trainer with a positive for a Class B medication like ipratropium would face the same penalty.

"We have to be consistent, because that is how you remain fair to everyone," Veitch said. "If we think the action is nefarious, we can give up to five years. The only question we really faced was whether to have the penalties served consecutively or concurrently."

Unlike many commonly used medications, ipratropium is treated as a zero-tolerance drug because threshold levels have never been established for the medication, in part because testing officials were not aware the drug was being used by trainers.

"What little we know is that it's a mild bronchial dilator and the effect of the drug is pretty fast-acting," said Dr. Scot Waterman, the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, which coordinates research on drugs and threshold levels in the U.S. "Other than that, it's not even on our list of drugs we are interested in studying. My guess is that a veterinarian came up with that 48-hour guideline through trial and error."

In fact, a study done in Australia earlier this year with limited data indicated that ipratropium can be detected at trace levels in urine 72 hours after administration.

Alan Foreman, a well-known racing attorney who McLaughlin hired after being notified about the positives, said he urged McLaughlin to appeal the suspension, contending that the available scientific research would show that the drug could not have possibly had any pharmacological effect at the levels at which it was detected.

"There are legitimate issues we could have raised, and I don't think 30 days was warranted," Foreman said. "But Kiaran is a stand-up guy. Everyone knows that he's as honest as the day is long. And he didn't want an appeal to be hanging over him for six months or a year. You get nothing but adverse publicity out of that."

In an interview, McLaughlin said he decided to accept the penalty to avoid the appeals process, which can drag on for months and even years in many racing cases. By taking the days now, McLaughlin will be on the sidelines for what is one of the slowest parts of the year for him, after the major meets in New York and before he ships south to Florida.

"There's never a good time for days, but I didn't want to fight it and drag it on for months and months," he said. "We could have gone a lot of different ways with it, but this is the way I chose."

Dr. Larry Soma, an expert on drug testing at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, said that the positive was likely called only because Kentucky does not require Class B drugs to be detected in both urine and blood before calling a positive, as is the case in Pennsylvania and some other states. In general, it is much harder to detect trace levels in blood.

"It would be interesting to see what the plasma concentrations would have been," Soma said, referring to blood plasma. "I don't think we'd find it here."