Commentary: A Fateful Decision One Night In Oklahoma?

by | 06.14.2018 | 8:49am
Remington Park

On June 2, Special Candy High flew out of the gate at Remington Park to take the lead in the $1,024,840 Heritage Place Futurity, a Grade 1 event at 350 yards. It was the undefeated 2-year-old Quarter Horse's third career start for trainer Clinton Crawford, and it would prove to be his last. Shortly after the break, he broke down in catastrophic fashion, with his left foreleg visibly dangling as a result of injury. It turns out there was an opportunity for officials to have stopped the colt from leaving the starting gate that night.

Racing regulators will tell you one of the hardest parts of enforcing safety and integrity rules is gathering enough evidence to level charges against violators. It is for this reason special investigative teams are brought in ahead of major races in the Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse worlds – security and out-of-competition testing are heightened for Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races, and the American Quarter Horse Association sends a group of members of the Organization of Racing Investigators.

“Our efforts are to partner with both the commissions and the tracks to help enforce all rules of racing,” AQHA Chief Racing Officer Janet VanBebber said in a statement about AQHA Integrity Teams. “This can include monitoring proper licensing, checking for the presence of prohibited substances, searches for illegal equipment, and even keeping an eye out for possible human drug use. Assisting each jurisdiction in implementing its own Integrity Team will help serve as a valuable deterrent for improper and illegal activity at racetracks.”

In this case, the AQHA Integrity Team did its job. Investigators observed a veterinarian treating horses in the Crawford barn after the 24-hour cut-off for the June 2 races. They took video of the veterinarian and copies of the day sheets. They reported their findings to the stewards on the evening of June 1.

Three horses would later be listed as scratched from the early part of the card – Bootn Scootn Corona was a trainer scratch from Race 2, High Lunar Streak was a veterinarian scratch from Race 1, and Tyler Crawford-trained Fancy as It Gets was a trainer scratch. The remaining Clinton Crawford horses – seven in all – would be allowed to start June 2, including the winner and runner-up in the twelfth race, the Heritage Place Juvenile Stakes. All told, Crawford runners brought home $47,927 that day.

Since June 2, Clinton Crawford has started 13 horses, including seven at Fair Meadows in Tulsa County, Okla. Tyler Crawford, who saddled his first horse in March, has not started any horses since the incident.

I wanted to know more about what happened on that night. In many jurisdictions, a trainer whose horses were being treated within 24 hours of a race (a violation of Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission Rule 325:45-1-4) would be summarily suspended, while the offending veterinarian would be escorted from the grounds until the stewards could hold a hearing into the matter. It's very likely horses from the offending barn would have been scratched – which of course would have meant Special Candy High wouldn't have entered the starting gates June 2. No matter what the veterinarian's intent with his treatments, other commissions would likely view this as a serious offense, since only the vet involved knows for sure whether he was running late that night or intentionally trying to push the regulatory envelope.

OHRC Executive Director Kelly Cathey told me via email “our investigation and review of all the evidence for the cases you've inquired about is not complete” but also that, “There are no hearings currently schedule[d] at this time, but it is anticipated hearings will be schedule[d] after all investigative documents are received.”

When I asked what medications were being administered to Special Candy High and others, Cathey told me “I do not know what treatment was administered.”

I decided to contact the veterinarian involved to try to learn what had actually happened. Imagine my surprise when he told me he hadn't been contacted by the stewards regarding a hearing … or anything else. In fact, it was the veterinarian who called them to set up a meeting to review his records, actions and intent. The veterinarian declined to comment further.

It hadn't occurred to me Cathey may not know what treatment had been administered to the horses because the stewards and/or commission hadn't asked. How exactly were they conducting an investigation without talking to one of the most important players?

It seems there's a lot of latitude being used in this case when it comes to interpreting Rule 325:45-1-4. The Crawford incident wouldn't be the first time Oklahoma officials have decided to lean harder on personal judgement than black-and-white when applying their rules. Thresholds for therapeutic substances are listed in 325:45-1-6.1 (in addition to acceptable thresholds for “environmental contaminants” including arsenic, cobalt and atropine). However, in a February meeting of the racing commission, Oklahoma Department of Agriculture Deputy General Counsel Bennett Abbott said the commission declines to prosecute a violation of state code if he judges the overage is inconsequential.

“I've had a number of cases over the last couple of years – and I've only been doing this now for a couple of years – when the level that has been shown in the affidavit from Industrial Labs is really close,” said Abbott. “I'll go to Kelly Cathey and ask that we decline to prosecute … Certainly, if it's in the margin of error, we won't prosecute. Even if it's just pretty darn close, we won't prosecute.”

As the discussion moved on to questions about discrepancies between laboratories and variation in lab results between Oklahoma and other jurisdictions, commissioner Phillip Kirk summed up his viewpoint on the question, which one imagines may be similar to that of the Remington Park stewards: “Let's don't put one guy in jail who's innocent. Let's let one or two go free instead.”

I can certainly see how that viewpoint is supposed to serve the horseman. But I'm not sure how well it serves the horse.

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