09/19/2013 12:58PM

Tampa Bay Downs: Cibelli-vet case boils down to, Whom do you believe?


The biggest question confronting regulators and investigators as they examine an incident in late January at Tampa Bay Downs in which a horse was scratched after being administered an illegal substance is whether a veterinarian would act unilaterally in deciding to inject a horse on race day.

The incident involves veterinarian Orlando Paraliticci and trainer Jane Cibelli. After initially telling investigators that he alone decided to administer the substance – which is marketed as a pain reliever – Paraliticci changed his story five weeks later after being barred by Tampa Bay, saying that Cibelli provided him with explicit instructions to administer a pain medication to the horse Raven Train, an undistinguished 5-year-old horse with only seven starts at the time.

Officials involved in the ongoing investigation have refused to comment, but a trove of documents detailing the probe obtained from the Florida Department of Pari-Mutuel Wagering under a Freedom of Information Act request provides details into what happened Jan. 27, even if those details are inconclusive because of the contradictory statements made by Paraliticci and others.

In interviews with investigators, Paraliticci has said that he met with Cibelli early on the morning of Jan. 27 to review notes about plans for the day’s horses. On March 7, six weeks after the incident, Paraliticci told investigators that Cibelli’s notebook for Jan. 27 had a notation saying “Raven Train Split?” (The term “split” is repeated elsewhere in the account of the testimony, and it is presumed to refer to a splint, which is a bone on either side of the cannon bone which can become inflamed.) He then told investigators that Cibelli told him Raven Train was entered to race that day and wanted him to “shoot up the right split.”

In an interview and in her own testimony to investigators, Cibelli denied instructing Paraliticci to inject the substance, saying that she told him to administer a legal raceday shot of the anti-bleeding medication furosemide “and nothing else.” Nevertheless, vet records show that Paraliticci also injected a corticosteroid solution, another substance that is legal to administer on race day in Florida. The vet records and Paraliticci’s own notes that day on the treatments he administered do not include any reference to an injection other than furosemide and the corticosteroid solution.

So the case rests on whether investigators will believe Cibelli’s denials and hold Paraliticci responsible – as he claimed on the day of the incident to both investigators and stewards – or whether they believe Paraliticci’s second account of what happened that day.

In the second interview, he claimed that he “examined the splint and found the onsite pain scale to be a one on the scale of 1 to 5, with one being the lowest.” Following his examination, Paraliticci injected the illegal substance to an area behind the right knee, the documents state. He had previously stated that he believed the substance could not be detected in post-race tests, strongly suggesting that he had used the substance on horses on race day in the past.

In his first interview with an investigator on Jan. 27, Paraliticci said he administered the substance on his own. The investigator described Paraliticci’s testimony as, “He wanted to be a hero; it was a mistake.”

An association veterinarian and her assistant on their pre-race inspection rounds who witnessed the injection and immediately reported it to track stewards stated that Paraliticci left the stall of the horse saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The witnesses also said that Paraliticci told them, “It was a mistake and I hoped you would forget it.”

The substance was referred to in the documents as “P-Block or Sarapin.” A photo of a vial of a substance called “P-Bloc,” which Paraliticci initialed to confirm it was the substance he injected, identifies its manufacturer as Life Science Products of Manchester, Mo. A company by that name in that location could not be found.

Other products known variously as P-Bloc or P-Block that contain Sarapin, a natural substance derived from the pitcher plant, are sold on several online sites of dubious reputation in the racing industry. The sites sell substances that most chemists have increasingly come to believe are largely innocuous.

Sarapin has been studied in laboratory environments as far back as 1997, and two studies, one in horses, and one in humans, has found that the substance has no impact in mitigating pain for either species, even when being administered specifically in areas to block pain.

“Essentially what they found is that there was no efficacy at all,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, the executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. “The issue we still have, what we are still trying to wrestle with, is the fact that administration on raceday is still inappropriate.”

Paraliticci told investigators that he initially admitted to being responsible for deciding to inject the substance because he felt threatened by Cibelli, whose partner is Tampa Bay’s longtime vice president of marketing, Margo Flynn, who also owns horses trained by Cibelli and does the trainer’s bookkeeping. He said that Cibelli and Flynn had threatened to kick him off the track’s grounds. In mid-May, he agreed with Florida regulators to accept a 90-day suspension as long as he cooperated with the investigation.

In the recent interview, Cibelli said she had never ordered a “pain block” on any horse in her care and that she has always insisted that any injections aside from legal raceday medications be witnessed by either herself or her assistant. All agree that Cibelli was not at the barn at the time that Paraliticci treated the horse, while her assistant has been variously described as either at the track at the time or elsewhere in the barn area, but not in the stall.

Cibelli also said that a heated discussion she had with Paraliticci after the incident, which had been reported to the stewards, revolved solely on her dissatisfaction with Paraliticci’s decision to interpret her note on the splint as a justification to use the substance.

“Why in the world would he do that?” she said. “The horse was in today. He knew that. So I’m telling him, ‘Now I’ll have to scratch him, and now I’m going to have to deal with all this fallout.’ Because that’s the first thing you think about, that this is going to hurt my career.”

Cibelli – openly gay, British-born, and successful in a sport that has a long history of intolerance toward both women and gay people – has been fined several times for “abusive language,” according to regulatory records. She also was issued three warnings in 2009 for positives for anabolic steroids during a grace period when the steroids were being phased out in Thoroughbred racing. Anabolic steroids have relatively long half-lives and can be detected in sensitive tests well after administration.

And then there is the testimony of Marcos Ortiz, Paraliticci’s assistant, who claimed not to have heard or seen any explicit instructions to administer the substance but was in the stall when the substance was injected. Ortiz told investigators on March 13 that “in his 40 years of dealing and working around horses and being a vet assistant, he had never known a veterinarian to do any procedure without the trainer’s instruction, order, or request,” according to a summary of his interview. “Ortiz also said the veterinarian’s [sic] don’t do anything without being told and being able to bill for it.”

Yet no treatment with the substance is on Paraliticci’s vet logs for the day or on his bills.

Ken Wiener More than 1 year ago
Great reporting by Mr. Hegarty to shine the light of day on this sordid story.
R. Carlos Nanez More than 1 year ago
Not a single vet in any race track would inject a horse without the authorization or request of the trainer, specially on race day. Cibelli should be fined and suspended, she's at fault, just like the vet is too for taking chances to please the client.
Michael Infurna More than 1 year ago
If any trainer at any track in the United States has a horse under his or her care, and the horse gets a positive from being administered a prohibited substance from pretty much anyone, who is responsible? As far as I know, it does not matter if the trainer is present when the substance was injected or not. (like in this case). As a followup, why would any "reputable" vet administer lasix or tap a joint or give medication without the trainers consent and/or not billing the owner? Out of the goodness of his heart?? I don't think so!! Finally, by some strange coincidence, a 20+% trainer at a very tough and competitive Tampa meet became a 10% trainer at the current Monmouth Fair meet, where at least 4-5 trainers are winning at 25%. I do not know who is right or wrong and I really don't care because none of the people involved in this soap opera are sympathetic figures!!, However, lets hope common sense prevails and these bureaucrats don't drag this on for another 9 months!
John Stevelberg More than 1 year ago
As someone who has been critical of DRF investigative reporting let me say that I am impressed by Mr. Hegarty's work in these articles. Although there is some conflict in the various accounts it seems clear that when the smoke clears Tampa Bay Downs (TBD) needs to do some house cleaning or damage control if they expect top line trainers such as Clement, Mott, Motion, Procter, Ward etc to keep sending their horses over from the east coast.
DRFInsidePost More than 1 year ago
@armstrong: There have been several previous articles. http://www.drf.com/news/tampa-bay-downs-cibelli-vet-give-conflicting-statements-regarding-raceday-injection http://www.drf.com/news/tampa-bay-downs-owner-banned-vet-case-tells-accidental-injection http://www.drf.com/news/tampa-bay-bars-private-veterinarian-its-grounds http://www.drf.com/news/tampa-bay-downs-veterinarian-accepts-90-day-suspension
armstrong More than 1 year ago
Is this even a question? trainer responsibility, hello? and is this the first time drf has written about this? correct me if i'm wrong, and i hope i am, but the only thing i have seen about this ridiculously redhanded should-be suspension incident THAT HAS BEEN GOING ON UNPUNISHED for MONTHS has come out on paulick report. oh, and of course on Facebook.
John Cossette More than 1 year ago
Matt, thanks for combing through what I'm sure were a lot of documents and giving us the most complete and unbiased account I've yet seen of the situation. As someone whose only knowledge of the specific incident is from reading about it, I would tend to agree with Ortiz and be flabbergasted that any vet would ever administer any kind of treatment, ESPECIALLY one that is illegal and potentially dangerous, without express consent/instruction from the trainer or assistant trainer. Racetrack vets are for profit - there is no way I can conceive of one freely giving a substance without knowing it was paid for, especially when the substance was illegal and any evidence that they administered it would get them in serious trouble. The whole "wanting to be a hero" thing doesn't even make sense - if he administered it without her knowledge thinking she would approve, he would have to have done so based on a prior incident in which she directed him to do the same with another horse. What is he going to do, tell her "By the way, I injected your horse with illegal drugs" if it wins? And expect her to be happy about it? There is no profit to him whatsoever in putting his license at risk and giving away free medication but NOT telling her. And of course there would be no treatment listed as the substance on the bill, it's ILLEGAL. It would be absorbed into the cost of another charge or more likely be paid for totally under the table.
John Cossette More than 1 year ago
Also, am I the only one who thinks it's a serious conflict of interest for a track official to a) have horses with and b) be responsible for the financial business of someone with whom they are romantically involved? How can this not be against (at the very least) track regulations (especially the accounting)?