Under questioning by an attorney representing Rodney Stewart, the veterinarian appealing a five-year suspension for his possession of cobra venom and other banned substances at Keeneland in June 2007, John Veitch, chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and a retired Hall of Fame trainer, admitted that his racing star Alydar was treated with cobra venom after suffering an injury in September of his 3-year-old season.Attorney Mike Meuser asked Veitch about the use of the now-banned substance during an appeal of Stewart's suspension before racing commission hearing officer Bob Layton on Wednesday in Lexington, Ky. “Did Dr. Charles Allen give cobra venom to Alydar during the time you trained him?” Meuser asked.
“On one occasion,” Veitch confirmed, saying it came after Alydar had fractured the coffin bone in a foot while training up to the 1978 Marlboro Cup Handicap. “It wasn't effective,” Veitch said. “We would not have run him again if it had worked. We treated him at the time. He was not in training. We experimented with Dr. Chuck Allen, who was an expert on venom. At the time, cobra venom was legal for use in the United States for treating Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS). We tried it and it didn't work. We didn't use it as therapy so he could race, but only to see if we could relieve some pain.”
Technically, cobra venom, a powerful blocking agent, is not an illegal substance. It is not approved for use in humans or animals by the FDA and is prohibited in most racing jurisdictions, including Kentucky, which classifies it as a “Class A” drug, one that can be abused as an illegal performance enhancing substance.
Three vials of venom and other prohibited substances were found during a search of three barns on Keeneland property used by trainer Patrick Biancone and in a vehicle registered to Stewart. Most of the substances were found in a soft-sided cooler kept in a refrigerator in Barn 74, located in the barn area known as the Keeneland training center off Keeneland's main property across Rice Road. Stewart admitted to officials the substances were his and that he was only using a refrigerator in Biancone's barn because he and his wife were in the process of moving from Kentucky to New York. Stewart said his wife had packed the bag with medications usually kept in a refrigerator at their rented home, but that he had been living in temporary quarters. He said he wasn't aware of everything that was in the bag. Biancone was suspended for six months and agreed not to seek reinstatement for another six months. Stewart received a five-year ban. As chief steward of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, Veitch was in charge of the investigation involving the banned substances and the hearing that led to the suspensions.
Bob Watt, an attorney representing the racing commission, called several witnesses in addition to Veitch, including one of the investigators who conducted the search, commission veterinarian Mary Scollay and Keeneland executive Harvie Wilkinson.
Scollay called cobra venom an “exceedingly dangerous” substance that could cause a loss of sensation in a horse's foot and block pain. She said there is no known test to detect cobra venom in urine or blood.
During cross-examination of Wilkinson, who among other things oversees security at Keeneland, Meuser asked whether Keeneland officials ever sought approval from the racing commission to have the Rice Road training facility recognized as part of Keeneland's racetrack grounds. Wilkinson said he was not aware that they had sought approval.
The purpose of that question came to light later in the day when Stewart himself was testifying and Meuser asked if he believed Barn 74 was part of the racetrack property. “I thought it was a private barn,” Stewart replied.
“I thought it was Patrick's private barn. He'd always referred to it that way.”
Records showed that Stewart had purchased four vials of the cobra venom in July 2006 from BioToxins, a Saint Cloud, Fla., company. The veterinarian testified that he had used one of the vials on a former racehorse that had been rescued from a farm and was being used as a stable pony. The other vials remained in their shrinkwrap packaging. The vials contain a powder which is then mixed in a salilne solution before injection.
Among the other substances seized was a container of Carbidopa-Levodopa, a human medication used to treat Parkinson's disease. Scollay testified that the drug could act as a stimulant and reduce fatigue in humans. In later testimony, Stewart said he did not use the drug on any horses but did not recall why he had it. Another bottle with an unknown honey-like substance inside was labeled “For Mythical Elmo,” according to the testimony, but it was more likely meant for the Biancone-trained filly Mythical Echo. Its contents remain unknown.
Another bottle found was labeled with the lettering “R.T.H..” When asked about the “R.T.H.” substance, Stewart said “a fellow from South Africa had given it to me. It was used there to treat bleeding.” When pressed he said he had no idea what pharmacological agents were contained in the liquid. Stewart said he has had his license to practice on “competition animals” (including horses, greyhounds and camels) suspended in Australia, where he earned his veterinary degree in 1997. He is banned from racetracks but is allowed to continue his veterinary practice in the United States.
The hearing will continue Dec. 9. Among the issues to be covered area the contents of Stewart's personal computer, which has been sent to a business that conducts forensic searches on computer hard drives to extract any information related to his veterinary practice for a period of time prior to his suspension.
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