Monday, May 10, 2010

Honest Trainers Get Drug Positives, Too

Horse racing is full of suspicion. “All trainers are drug-wielding cheats.” “All the races are fixed.” “The trainers and vets get away with murder.” And those are just the versions that are printable in a family blog.

Now, I’ve been around the race track for a while, and I know it’s true that some trainers are probably using illegal chemical help, though that’s far more difficult to do these days, with super-sensitive testing devices, than it was a decade or two ago. But this is a story about state racing officials more concerned with their public image than with fair dealing, and about an honest trainer, trying to play be the rules, who’s getting a very raw deal all because he did exactly what he was told by people who should know.

Like most racing jurisdictions, New York makes the trainer the insurer of a horse’s condition. Whether an illegal substance was given to a horse by a vet, a groom, or some guy in a trenchcoat who sneaks into the stall, it’s the trainer who’s held responsible when that horse tests positive for a drug. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably a good idea, since it’s a lot easier to police a finite universe of trainers than it is to track down those errant vets, grooms and guys in trenchcoats. But every once in a while, the trainer suffers through no fault of his or her own.

Case in point: This past Monday, May 5th, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board suspended trainer Bruce Brown for 30 days, and fined him $1,000, for two drug positives. [Disclosure: Bruce trains two horses for my Castle Village Farm partnership. I’ve watched him in his barn at Belmont, I’ve talked with him extensively, and each of the two horses he trains for me has won this year. Everything I’ve seen confirms to me that he plays by the rules.]

The drug in question was hydroxine, sometimes referred to as hydroxyzine. It’s an antihistamine that’s been around for more than 50 years, and is used to treat hives and other allergies in humans as well as horses. Here’s how and why Bruce used the drug:

Back in early March, two of his horses were suffering from hives. He attempted to deal with the problem by changing their stall bedding from straw to wood shavings, since the allergy (hives) was probably caused or aggravated by the straw. When NYRA refused to allow the use of wood shavings (something about a track-wide contract that requires straw, which is sold for use in the mushroom industry), Bruce went to Plan B, calling the vet. His vet prescribed the hydroxine, and told Bruce what the safe time would be to stop using the drug before each horse’s race. Bruce did stop the treatment as directed, and the horses, their allergic reactions under control, went on to finish first and second in their respective races. But apparently the vet’s instructions weren’t cautious enough. Post-race testing found traces of the drug in each horse’s system. Not enough to have any effect on their performance, but enough to cause a positive test.

Racing has an astonishingly long list of prohibited drugs. (Of course, two of the most egregious drugs, Lasix and, in Kentucky, Bute, aren’t on the list, but that’s another story.) You'd think the list would make a distinction between a major dose of the drugs and a small trace that can’t possibly have an impact on the results of a race. Some jurisdictions set threshold levels, below which a trainer isn’t penalized. Some don’t. But few listen to any kind of explanation from a trainer once traces of a drug have been found.

And when the regulatory agency has the attitude that all trainers cheat, as is the case in New York, the chances of getting a fair hearing are, to say the least, minimal.

So, Bruce Brown gets a 30-day suspension, two owners, through no fault of their own, have to repay purses that they thought they’d won, and the whole episode does nothing to clean up racing. It does, however, lend some urgency to the ongoing efforts to at least have uniform drug rules in all 37 states where there is horse racing. I don’t know if a uniform rule with a reasonable threshold level for hydroxine would have helped Bruce Brown in this case, but it couldn’t have hurt.

Some owners say they’ll drop a trainer the minute he or she has a drug violation, as Team Valor did with Ralph Nicks back in 2004. But it’s just not the right thing to do to a trainer who’s done well for you and who tried, to the best of his ability, to follow the rules. So, Castle Village Farm will be waiting for Bruce Brown to be back in the barn at Belmont on June 7th. We’re looking forward to more drug-free wins this year.

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