06/10/2016 3:06PM

Outcome in Lynch case not out of line, regulators say


When Brian Lynch, a successful New York trainer, surrendered his license this week to the New York State Gaming Commission after testing positive for a chemical related to marijuana, many people in the racing industry expressed astonishment that testing positive for the drug, legal in some shape or form in 25 states now, could lead to such a dramatic outcome.

However, regulators in other racing states in the U.S. said this week that their own racing licensees would face a similar outcome for failing a drug test in their states, under either specific regulations relating to illegal drug use or broad rules pertaining to “conduct detrimental to racing.”  While it is extremely rare for a trainer to have to surrender his license because of a positive drug test, the officials said that sanctions for testing positive can vary widely depending on the circumstances of the case and on the ability of stewards or regulators to use discretion in issuing penalties.

“It’s very dependent on the circumstances,” said Barbara Borden, the chief state steward in Kentucky. “Was it a guy who was just minding his own business at the time, or was it a guy in a position to endanger a horse or someone else?”

Little is known conclusively about the Lynch case, aside from comments made by Lynch and an owner of one of the horses he trains. Lynch said that he will be unable to train for an “indefinite period” under an agreement reached with the New York State Gaming Commission, and he said the positive arose from smoking a “vapor stick” containing THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

Lynch’s attorney, Drew Mollica, said on Friday he could not comment on any aspect of the case because of a confidentiality agreement related to the deal struck with the commission. The commission has declined to comment on the case.

According to the regulators, every major racing state has the ability to conduct drug tests of racing licensees at any time, at random or for cause. In most states, testing focuses on those whose jobs place themselves, other people, or horses at risk of injury, such as riders and hands-on stable employees. As a result, the tests don’t often snare trainers, the officials said, because they are targeted for sampling less often.

The Lynch case may have drawn an outsized reaction because a Grade 1-winning horse he trains, Private Zone, had to be scratched from Saturday’s True North Handicap at Belmont Park after he surrendered his license. However, the scratch was unrelated to the drug test – New York rules require that the trainer of record at the time of entry be the trainer of record at the time of the race, and Private Zone was entered just prior to Lynch surrendering his license.

However, it’s clear that if Lynch tested positive in several other racing states under similar circumstances, he likely would have faced severe sanctions.

In Louisiana, for example, under a drug-testing program considered the strictest in the country, the states selects three to five licensees each day at random to be tested for drugs, according to Charles Gardiner, the executive director of the state’s racing commission. The names are pulled by the stewards each day from a random lot of 100 to 150 licensees classified as being “safety or security risks,” Gardiner said, a group that includes assistant starters, pony riders, jockeys, exercise riders, grooms, and other licensees.

While trainers are not included in that classification, the name of one trainer a day is added to the pool before the lots are drawn, according to Gardiner.

“It’s not often a trainer’s pill comes up, but they know there’s a chance, so that’s how that is working, as a way to keep them on their toes,” Gardiner said.

If a drug test comes back positive in Louisiana, the licensee is suspended 30 days and must undergo an evaluation and test clean before being reinstated. For a second offense, the suspension is six months, and the third offense is five years, Gardiner said. For any of the cases, a licensee who is reinstated after a drug positive has to agree to random testing at any time, at the discretion of the stewards.

In California, regulators have the ability to conduct random drug tests on backstretch workers and can also order tests if onsite investigators suspect a licensee is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to Rick Baedeker, the executive director of the California Horse Racing Board. If a test comes back positive, that sets off a string of procedural events that often culminates in a hearing in front of the stewards within several weeks of the test, Baedeker said.

For a first offense, Baedeker said, the stewards often suspend the worker’s license until the completion of a substance-abuse program run by the Winner’s Foundation, a non-profit group in California that assists people on racetrack backstretches with addiction problems. Second or third offenses typically carry longer suspensions and longer programs at the Winner’s Foundation, according to Baedeker.

While stewards can often issue lighter penalties for backstretch workers, including trainers, the state has a zero-tolerance policy for anyone riding a horse, Baedeker said.

Like in many other states, marijuana use is legal for medicinal purposes in California, which complicates the adjudication of some positives, Baedeker said. But he also said every positive test is thoroughly investigated, and if a person with a marijuana prescription tests positive, investigators and stewards try to determine if the use occurred during working hours.

“Any time you are working, the prescription does not supersede state law,” Baedeker said. “You cannot use when working. But if you were tested after working hours in your living quarters and you have a prescription, that can be different.”

Baedeker also said that growing tolerance for the use of marijuana in American society shouldn’t influence commission’s decisions to sanction the use of the drug. 

“I know in this day and age there’s a tendency to say this isn’t a big deal, but these are people who work around horses,” Baedeker said. “That is dangerous, to animals and humans.”