George R. “Rusty” Arnold II is a proud man. A third-generation Kentucky horseman, he's trained Thoroughbreds for more than 40 years, saddled 16 Grade 1 winners and ranks 38th on the Equibase list of all-time leading trainers by money won, with over $64 million in total earnings.
Arnold, 62, is the first to admit he doesn't have the numbers or the “big horse” of a Hall of Famer, calling himself a journeyman who's been fortunate to train for some of the best people in the game. What he does have, he said, is “the respect of my peers. That's my greatest accomplishment.”
That respect is based in part on running a clean operation and always putting the horse first. After 41 years and more than 11,000 starts, he's had two minor therapeutic medication overages – one a veterinarian's mistake in 2010 and an earlier violation in 2000 that was the result of an error in his barn. He's never been suspended.
Arnold has been told he is being suspended 90 days by Kentucky stewards for two positive tests for ractopamine that date back to September 2016 at Kentucky Downs. A Class 2 drug with a Class A penalty recommendation in the Association of Racing Commissioners International classifications, ractopamine is a food additive given to cattle or swine to fatten them before slaughter. It has been abused by some in racing because of its anabolic steroidal effects.
Ractopamine also has been found as a contaminant in horse feed that led the Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency to issue a warning to horsemen in 2014. Positive drug tests for ractopamine in Thoroughbreds in Iowa and Minnesota in 2016 were found to be the result of contamination in horse feed, as were positive tests in dressage horses in Florida 2017.
There were no sanctions against the trainers in Iowa and Minnesota, and in the case of the dressage riders, the FEI, the sport's ruling body, dismissed preliminary suspensions once it became evident the positive tests were due to contamination.
Arnold said he had never heard of ractopamine, though he's learned a lot about it since being told his horses tested for it. His veterinarian is Foster Northrop, a member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
Rusty Arnold isn't the only Thoroughbred trainer facing a suspension from a positive test for ractopamine in Kentucky. Joe Sharp will be suspended 30 days for a single violation.
The three positive tests all occurred over a five-day span at Kentucky Downs in September 2016.
The first was for Brad Grady's Bankers Holiday, who finished third in the fourth race for Sharp on Sept. 10, 2016. Next was Calumet Farm's Prudence, winner for Arnold of that day's next race, the fifth, on Sept. 10, 2016. The third was Calumet-owned, Arnold-trained Quality Emperor, second-place finisher of the fourth race on Sept. 15, 2016.
Bankers Holiday and Prudence likely were in the test barn at the same time, since their races were 30 minutes apart.
There have been no other positive tests for ractopamine in Kentucky in recent years, according to attorney Mike Meuser, who is representing both Sharp and Arnold. Meuser said the test barn at Kentucky Downs is used for other purposes on non-racing days, including housing geriatric horses for Old Friends. The barn did not have a security fence around it in 2016.
“It violates about 16 of the guidelines in the RMTC protocol for test barns,” Meuser said, a reference to the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium best practices document.
Arnold said the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission did a surprise barn search of his stable at Keeneland on Oct. 4, 2016 – standard procedure following a drug positive – and found nothing. He asked for the split samples to be tested –which he said took four months. Those came back positive, too. Then, for the longest time, he heard nothing.
Finally, a full 16 months after the horses had raced, stewards scheduled a hearing on Jan. 31, 2018. Arnold, who stables his horses during the winter months at Palm Meadows in Florida, flew back to Kentucky for the hearing.
He was told none of the unusual circumstances or past contamination issues with ractopamine mattered. The stewards said their hands were tied, that the horses would be disqualified, the purse money would have to be returned by the horse owners, and that Arnold was facing a serious penalty.
“It was the biggest kangaroo court I've ever seen,” he said. “It was a joke to go up there.”
Arnold said the stewards will allow him to serve the two suspensions concurrently, meaning he would be banned 60 days.
Because of the length of the suspension, Arnold's 40 horses will have to be moved to other trainers. His 30 employees – some of whom have been with him for 25 years or more – may have to find other work.
Under the Multiple Medication Violation program adopted in some states, Arnold said, his next violation – even a minor overage for a therapeutic medication – could put him out of business.
Meuser said he is filing appeals on behalf of both Arnold and Sharp and is confident he will get stays of the suspensions – putting everything on hold and likely sending the cases to an administrative law judge who would conduct a hearing and then make a recommendation to the racing commission.
Meuser said the case boils down to the fact Kentucky in 2009 took away rebuttable presumption – an opportunity for a trainer to present substantial evidence in a steward's hearing to rebut the charges against him. That is a significant part of the ruling in the Graham Motion methocarbamol case by Franklin Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate, who said Kentucky's absolute insurer rule is unconstitutional because it “deprives trainers of due process if they are not allowed to challenge the rebuttable presumption of a violation.”
That Circuit Court ruling has been appealed by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, so the absolute insurer rule as written is still on the books.
“I thought I was going to get through my career without a suspension,” said Arnold, whose grandfather worked as broodmare foreman for the Widener family at Elmendorf Farm and whose father operated Fairacres Farm in Lexington and trained horses locally.
Arnold, who worked for his dad and later for Gene Euster at old Keystone Park in Pennsylvania, got his start with a handful of claiming horses at River Downs in Cincinnati in the summer of 1976. His career jump-started six years later when Glencrest Farm's Wavering Monarch gave him his first Grade 1 victory in the Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth Park. He gradually picked up clients like Churchill Downs Inc. chairman G. Watts Humphrey Jr. and Keeneland trustee William S. Farish, among others, and some of his owners have been with him for more than 30 years. One of his most memorable wins came with West By West, owned and bred by the late John Peace, in the G3 Widener Handicap at Hialeah Park in 1994. It meant a lot to him, Arnold said, that Pete Widener – from the family that employed his grandfather – gave out the trophy that day.
That trip down memory lane with West By West was a short diversion for Rusty Arnold. These days he's more focused on what lies ahead with a legal battle that he's already spent $30,000 on and, he fears, drugging charges that may cost him his good name and a reputation developed over a lifetime.
“I think the system has failed me,” he said, “and I'm pissed about it.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this article had the incorrect name of the Joe Sharp horse that tested positive for ractopamine.
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