Louisiana hearings: How horses got frog juice a mystery

by | 09.27.2012 | 9:05pm

Three Quarter horse trainers whose runners tested positive for the powerful Class 1 drug dermorphin at Delta Downs earlier this year told the Louisiana State Racing Commission on Thursday they had never heard of the drug before being charged and had no idea how it wound up in post-race blood and urine samples of their horses.

The commission conducted the first of two scheduled days of hearings to adjudicate appeals lodged by seven trainers suspended by track stewards for six months – the maximum allowed under Louisiana law. Their cases were also referred to the racing commission, which could impose harsher penalties.

The state's case against Alvin Smith Jr., John Darrel Soileau and Alonzo Loya was presented by assistant attorney general Rhea P. Loney. A fourth trainer, Steve Garrison, was granted a continuance after his attorney, Donald G. Kelly, said Garrison had a “very serious” health problem.

On Friday, appeals filed by Michael Heath Taylor, Anthony C. Agilar, Lamont Keith Charles and Gonzalo Gonzales are scheduled to be heard.

Kelly and law partner Taylor Townsend represented Smith, Soileau, and Loya. On Friday it is expected they will represent Heath Taylor.

In its natural state, dermorphin is derived from secretions of a South American tree frog, thus its slang name frog juice. It is widely believed the drug that started showing up in test samples this spring from Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nebraska and possibly Texas is a synthetic version of dermorphin. The drug is said to be a powerful painkiller at least 40 times more powerful than morphine and gives a heightened sense of invincibility and strength.

In Thursday's cases, trainers Smith and Soileau (who had two horses test positive for dermorphin) said  their vet work, including race-day Lasix administration, is done by Dr. Ed Baronne II, whose Baronne Veterinary Clinic is based in Sunset, La. Loya, who  testified through a translator because he said he did not speak enough English to be confident, said veterinarian Larry Findley or an associate from his Delta Equine Center in Vinton, La., gave the race-day Lasix to his horse that tested positive.

Smith, under questioning from Loney, said he didn't recall some of his past medication violations, including a 2010 positive for flunixin or one of the two times in the 1990s he was caught with syringes in his possession on racetrack property. In 1999, Smith was suspended seven months for two Class 1 drug violations in Louisiana when two of his horses tested positive for a cardiovascular stimulant. Sixteen other trainers were also cited.

Smith admitted he doesn't keep any records of what medications his horses receive, although after the dermorphin positives he checked the vet bill for the horse in question and found nothing unusual.  Commission vice chairman Bob Wright admonished Smith for not seeming very upset about the positive drug test or for making much effort to find out how the drug could have wound up in one of his horses.

Smith declined to have a split sample tested, saying the owner of the horse wanted to run him in a stakes race for which he was supplemented at a cost of $12,000, and going through the referee or split sample process would make the horse ineligible to run. “We didn't want the horse in jail,” he said.

In his sworn testimony, Soileau said veterinarian Baronne told him he'd never heard of dermorphin. After the charge against him, Soileau said, he asked his wife to research dermorphin online, and that there were reverberations about the drug in the stable area. “You hear whispers,” Soileau said. “You can't hide it.”

Soileau, who has only a few minor medication violations on his record, unequivocally denied giving the powerful drug to his horses. “I would never, ever hurt a horse,” he said.

Soileau said he doesn't believe the drug was given to his horses by strangers or his barn help. In response to a question about whether he tightened security in his barn, he told commissioners he has since instructed there always be someone with a horse when Lasix shots are administered. How does he know, Soileau was asked, if it was just Lasix given to one of his horses. “They'll start pissin'” he said.

Both horses in Soileau's care that tested positive are owned by his father, John L. Soileau. The trainer said he never takes a close look at veterinary bills unless his father “starts fussin'”

Loya was drilled by commissioners about his relationship with James D. Hunt, the owner of Courvilles Buff, the Loya-trained horses that tested positive for dermorphin. Loya didn't seem to know anything about or had never met Hunt, who he said was from North Carolina. Loya didn't seem to provide a clear answer about whether or not he was facing some type of charges in Oklahoma, either, but he did confirm that he was suspended for 180 days in Iowa in 2010 after he was discovered in possession of a syringe in his shirt pocket, additional syringes in a duffle bag, and sodium iodide in his truck.

Dr. Steven Barker, head of the Louisiana State University testing laboratory that called the positive tests, provided testimony on the lab's quality control process and types of testing that detected the dermorphin. Other witnesses provided testimony on how blood and urine samples are collected at Delta Downs and stored in secure locations until transported to LSU.

Also testifying were National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alex Waldrop and Jockeys' Guild national manager Terry Meyocks, who spoke about the serious nature of Class 1 drug violations.

No one seems to know how the dermorphin made its way onto the racetrack or into the bloodstream of the horses. No veterinarians testified. Perhaps we'll learn more about this on Friday.

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