11/04/2016 5:59PM

New York court tosses 3-year suspension of Standardbred trainer

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A New York appellate court has thrown out a three-year suspension of a harness trainer, ruling that a novel approach used by the state racing commission was inadequate in proving that the trainer violated medication rules.

The Appellate Division of New York State Supreme Court, Third Department, ruled Thursday in favor of Lou Pena, a Standardbred trainer who was charged in 2012 with more than 1,700 violations of the state’s medication rules based solely on a review of the veterinary records of his horses. Pena was ultimately suspended for three years and assessed $343,000 in fines.

The violations did not contain a single reference to a failed post-race test, and horse racing legal experts claimed that the approach of using veterinary records as the only evidence of medication violations did not have a precedent in racing history. As a result, the case has been closely watched, even though the approach was unlikely to be used in other states because of a feature in New York racing laws that is not present in other states.

New York regulators said the veterinary records showed evidence that Pena’s horses were commonly administered regulated medications within prohibited time frames prior to a race. While the court said that the records did in fact provide some evidence of violations, they were insufficient to prove the allegations.

“While respondent was free to consider the records, they do not constitute substantial evidence for the essential finding that horses in petitioner’s care were administered substances within the prohibited time frames,” the court’s 4-1 majority wrote. “The determination, which was based upon the records, must therefore be annulled.”

The court specifically cited testimony that the records do not in all cases indicate the exact date when a medication is administered.

Pena, a native of Mexico, moved his operation to New Jersey in 2009 after racking up impressive win numbers in California. He immediately gained the attention of authorities by continuing to win races at extremely high rates. Though Pena was based in New Jersey, the charges were brought by New York regulators because Pena often raced at harness tracks in New York. The New York racing commission relied on New Jersey regulators to obtain the veterinary records.

Most of the veterinary records cited by New York regulators involved the use of glycopyrrolate, a common anti-ulcer drug, and methocarbamol, a muscle relaxer that is commonly used to prevent cramping. The withdrawal time in New York for glycopyrrolate is 96 hours, and the withdrawal time for methocarbamol is 72 hours.

New York is the only state that has codified withdrawal times, meaning that regulators can bring charges against a trainer based solely on whether they can prove a drug was administered within the prohibited time frame. In other states, withdrawal times are recommendations.