A series of drug positives issued by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission in early February raised a few eyebrows, including those on the face of trainer Gerald Lee Jr. Lee, who has been in the Standardbred business some 30 years, has maintained a small stable and stayed on the right side of the Pennsylvania rulebook for most of that time. He had just one ruling against him in the state previously, a $200 fine stemming from a late driver change on one of his horses four years ago. In late 2018, he suddenly found himself the recipient of four positive tests for strychnine, a Class 1 drug in the Association of Racing Commissioners International's uniform classification of foreign substances. Lee said he was as surprised by the news as anyone.
Strychnine was detected in the post-race samples of Twin B Wrangler after he won the third race at The Meadows on Nov. 10, 2018, the tenth race on Nov. 26, and the seventh race on Dec. 1. It was also found in Daenerys Hanover, winner of the fourth race at The Meadows on Nov. 13, 2018. The positives were all confirmed after split sample testing.
Best known for its lethal effects in rat poison, strychnine isn't a particularly common finding in post-race drug tests. It has no known medicinal uses, though in the late 1800s it was used as a performance enhancer and recreational stimulant in humans for its action as a convulsant. It works by stimulating nerve endings in the spinal cord which control muscle contraction, ultimately overstimulating muscles and asphyxiating the recipient.
Lee wasn't giving his horses rat poison. The only thing he could think of that had been altered in his management routine, he would tell stewards in a Feb. 6 hearing, was a supplier change for his horses' vitamin and mineral supplement called Western CaCo #2. Lee brought officials two bottles of the supplement – an opened one and a sealed one – which were tested by the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory (PETRL) and found to contain strychnine.
In most places, strychnine carries an A penalty classification; since there were four positives against Lee, ARCI guidelines would have required a minimum five-year suspension and $50,000 fine. Pennsylvania has not integrated the ARCI's classification or penalty system into its rules. When rulings were issued in early February, all four of Lee's horses were disqualified, the purses redistributed, and two violations carried a fine of $500 each.
Lee presumes the stewards believed his testimony and chose the penalty they did because once they saw the tests on the supplement bottles, they understood he had no intent to administer strychnine. There was no explanation attached to any of the four rulings.
“You don't know how these rulings are going to go,” Lee told the Paulick Report. “I showed them that I had no intent of doing anything harmful. I was fortunate that they believed everything I was telling them. I was honest with them from the start. In the long run, I was grateful for their decision.”
There were several oddities about the case that had nothing to do with the final penalty. For one thing, PETRL did not test the bottles for anything other than strychnine. In other jurisdictions, it is common to run a complete analysis on substances provided to commission officials if the contents are considered suspect.
“Testing the contents of vials and syringes can lead to leads on substances that have not been previously reported so commission inspectors and equine medical directors submit them to laboratories frequently,” said Dr. Rick Sams, former laboratory director at LGC Science. “Most analyses yield no new information but there is the occasional nugget of new information or evidence that the contents do not match the label.”
And the contents should have been considered suspect. Nowhere, Lee said, did the bottles say they contained strychnine or give any warnings about discontinuing use before an athletic contest.
Shortly before the positives, Lee said, he switched CaCo suppliers, from Rabbitt's Equine to a New York-based company called Equine Power Meds. Equine Power Meds appears to have no online presence or physical storefront. According to business registration information in New York and Pennsylvania, the company is owned by veterinarian Dr. Louis Bauslaugh and includes Louis Frascella and Michael Rashkin as principals. Bauslaugh, who at various times has been licensed on the track as a trainer, driver, and veterinarian, was credited in testimony before the U.S. Equestrian Federation as one of the original distributors of Carolina Gold, a calming substance banned by USEF.
Lee was a little confused when his order arrived. Instead of branding from Equine Power Meds, the Western CaCo #2 he received had labeling from an Alabama company called BRD, which he hadn't heard of. BRD is an offshoot of Buy-Rite Drugs, a regional pharmacy chain serving human patients in Alabama and Florida. Buy-Rite does not advertise veterinary products or compounds, and BRD's only commercial presence is a Facebook page last used in 2017. It does have a small storefront in Hartselle, Ala.
“Our company has been in business in some fashion since 1925,” said BRD co-owner Erik Jorgensen. “My business partner is a fourth-generation pharmacist. We've been doing strictly veterinary for the past six or eight years, and we don't do any human compounding. We can never tell where our medications go, but we get all the paperwork on our end. If we were to get inspected by the FDA or board of pharmacy, it's got to all be there.
“[Our business is] grassroots but we keep very busy. Everything that we have on our shelf comes from FDA-approved chemical sources. We're growing slow, not too greedy. I don't want any trouble, so we have to be real careful in this industry.”
Confusingly, Jorgensen also said that Western CaCo #2 has always contained strychnine as part of its ingredients and that this is listed on the warning label. The strychnine is present in very small amounts in the product, which is an older formulation of Western CaCo and doesn't typically cause problems, per Jorgensen. Jorgensen told the Paulick Report in March the pharmacy had received no communication about positive strychnine tests associated with the product.
Lee told stewards on Feb. 6 he became connected with Equine Power Meds through its product representative. The product rep assured Lee he didn't need a prescription for Western CaCo #2 but if he wanted to order products that did require a prescription, he could make a call and acquire one. Jorgensen said Western CaCo #2 is a prescription drug, and BRD would not have made it without the appropriate prescription information from a veterinarian.
The trouble is, veterinarians are legally required by most states' veterinary practice acts to establish a working relationship with a client and their animal before they can prescribe drugs for the animal – in most cases, the legal definition means the vet must have physically seen or examined the animal recently. For compounded drug prescriptions, this becomes especially important; with rare exceptions, pharmacies cannot legally make large quantities of a drug to be dispensed at liberty to clients but instead are only permitted to make small batches of a product for a particular animal's specific diagnosis.
Stewards asked Lee whether the Equine Power Meds representative was selling to other trainers on the backside. Yes, he told them, and furthermore, he knew of veterinarians who carried compounded products on their rounds.
“Anything you buy anymore, it seems like it's from a compounder,” Lee told this reporter after the hearing. “Even if you use the vets down here at the track, everything they have on the truck is from Rabbitt's [Equine] or this or that. They're all compounders. Even when you use stuff from a vet it seems like it's the same thing.”
During a recording of Lee's hearing, the Pennsylvania stewards did not inquire further into the identity of the veterinarians who may have been carrying large amounts of compounded product and did not ask whether the product rep had approached Lee on track property — they also didn't ask for the spelling of the rep's last name.
It remains unclear whether the commission or stewards have undertaken any investigation into the company or its representatives, including whether or not they are approaching trainers on racetrack grounds or if those reps are licensees.
A total of seven emails sent to Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission executive director Tom Chuckas and director of enforcement Jason Klouser inquiring about Lee's case went unreturned.
While the peddling of compounded drugs and “supplements” advertised as performance enhancers mostly takes place online these days, some pharmacies and drug companies know the ol' handshake is as good a way as any to inspire a horseman's trust. Other trainers said they're approached by product reps for supplement companies and compounders from time to time. Some know to stay away, but others may not – after all, major pharmaceutical companies work via sales representatives, too. It's hard to tell the difference.
“For us as horsemen, the old adage of 'If it's too good to be true, it isn't' doesn't apply,” New York-based trainer Chad Summers said, who pointed out a favorite tactic for salesmen is to claim the top trainer on the backside is using his product. “We think it must be true. A lot of horsemen who are hungry, they see the trainer with a high win percentage and think it must be true, he must be using this hot new supplement.”
For some trainers, this conundrum is one more sign pointing to the need for a central authority in American racing. In the most highly regulated countries such as Japan and Hong Kong, over-the-counter products like shampoos, poultices, and supplements must be tested and approved by regulatory authorities before they can be legally used in a racehorse. Summers recalled meeting with a Japan Racing Association representative ahead of a planned run with Mind Your Biscuits. He learned he had 47 items in his barn that would need pre-approval and testing, including the applesauce he mixed into the horse's feed for flavor. The red tape was a headache, he said, but at least there was a single, central authority that could tell him whether a product was safe, acceptable, and effective for use in an active racehorse.
Outside of Pennsylvania, racing officials are aware of the various ways a dubious product could make its way onto the backstretch. Most commissions offer vendor licenses for product representatives, which may include anyone from a hay supplier to a supplement provider. Some may ask applicants to provide samples of the products they plan to sell, though of course licensees can always expand their repertoire after they get their license.
In Kentucky, Chief State Steward Barbara Borden said the stewards keep their ears open for any indication a non-veterinarian may be on the backstretch peddling prescription products.
“As far as people selling supplements, we reserve the right to analyze them. I wouldn't say that happens very frequently and I would say also there's probably people selling stuff under the guise of, they have a different kind of license and they have access to something and they're selling it,” she said. “We did have a young lady we were advised several years ago was selling omeprazole to people and we shut that down immediately because it's a prescription medication and so has to be prescribed by a vet. Anything like that obviously couldn't be sold by a vendor.
“But these supplements are tricky. These supplements, for the most part, aren't FDA-approved. They could be putting anything in there. We don't advise the use of a lot of that stuff.”
Mostly though, Borden worries about trainers purchasing substances – prescription, non-prescription, compounded — online and bringing them into the barn themselves.
In New York and Florida, officials said they routinely do random vehicle searches at tracks and training centers and stop people on the backstretch, requesting to see their license. People without current licenses will almost certainly have their vehicles searched. Anyone believed to be selling or transporting something they shouldn't is at risk of exclusion.
So if you're a trainer on the backstretch, how do you avoid ending up in Lee's shoes?
One check trainers can run on a compounded product is by looking for a national identification number, which all legitimate pharmacies place on their labeling to designate the ingredients inside. These numbers may be called NADA, ADA, NBC, or ANADA numbers depending upon the substance. The Food and Drug Administration also maintains a database online of authorized producers of prescription drugs.
It's also important to know what those ingredients are in the case of products with multiple uses. Lee said he understood Western CaCo #2 to be “a vitamin supplement” akin to an electrolyte jug. Lee told stewards, he had been giving Western CaCo #2 to all his horses twice a week; he supposed the four that came back positive did so because they were his only winners and therefore, the only ones who were tested.
In fact, CaCo (most widely known as CaCo Copper or CaCo Iron Copper) is an old treatment for anemia which derives its name from a compound containing minute amounts of arsenic. The substance is not legally manufactured in the United States, though it is advertised by dubious outlets like RaceHorseMeds.com as an “aid for simple anemia and in cases of slow convalescence from debilitating and exhausting diseases” – whatever that means. It is regulated in other countries like Canada and New Zealand as a drug.
“Trainers are encouraged to treat their horses with CaCo Copper if they are not performing well but the effects will be minimal even if the horse is anemic, which is highly unlikely,” said Dr. Sams. “If it is anemic, then it should be treated with something that addresses the underlying cause.”
So what's a trainer to do if they have questions about a product's purpose or origin? Consult their veterinarian. Lee said he did, and he got the green light for the compounded, injectable product provided to him with no prescription.
In lieu of an appropriately skeptical eye from a veterinarian, Kentucky's Barbara Borden said commission veterinarians and stewards are always happy to field questions from horsemen about whether a product is safe for use on the racetrack.
“Our advice to everybody is don't use it if you can help it. So much of this stuff is a waste of money. People think if everybody's using it, they have to use it, too,” she said.
A few weeks after Lee's hearing with stewards in Pennsylvania, strychnine and caffeine were detected in three horses at Turf Paradise in Arizona. Owner/trainer Alex Torres-Casas was fined $2,625 and suspended 180 days for the overages. A spokeswoman for the Arizona Racing Commission said there was no evidence heard by the stewards attributing the positives to a Western CaCo #2 or any other drug or supplement, and Torres-Casas has withdrawn the appeal he filed in late February.
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