View From The Eighth Pole: Regulatory Fairness Left At Starting Gate In Minnesota

by | 03.11.2019 | 10:45pm
Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn.

In her written decision recommending dismissal of any sanctions against the owner and trainer of a horse testing positive for minuscule levels of methamphetamine at Monmouth Park in 2017, Administrative Law Judge Susan M. Scarola said New Jersey Racing Commission steward Stephen Pagano testified in the case that he had never heard of a meth positive “in all his years” as a racing official in multiple states.

Really?

Can someone please introduce Mr. Pagano to the Internet and this thing called Google?

There have, in fact, been numerous charges in recent years against trainers after their horses tested positive for methamphetamine. Among them: Kellyn Gorder in Kentucky in 2014; Larry Cappuccitti in Ontario, Canada, in 2014; Steve Miyadi in California in 2015; James Coats Jr., Sandy Gladd, Paul Smith and Jerenesto Torrez in Texas in 2016; and Peter Miller in Pennsylvania in 2017.

In each of these cases involving a Class 1 drug, authorities found some form of mitigating circumstances or applied a reduced sentence. None of the trainers was ever suspected of having a street drug like methamphetamine administered to their horses. Contamination was suspected in virtually every instance, in part because of the minute levels of detection.

The New Jersey case involving trainer Joe Sharp is somewhat different in that the administrative law judge's recommendation was based on the discovery of contamination of control samples in the testing laboratory at Truesdail in California. She recommended the trainer's fine and the owner's purse forfeiture be reversed. Other rulings resulted in the owners losing purse money, even if the amount of methamphetamine detected was so small that it could not have affected the performance of the horse.

Then we have Minnesota, where regulators have dug their heels into the ground on four different methamphetamine positives since 2014, even when there was confirmation that some members of the Canterbury Park starting gate crew – the people who handle the horses just before a race – were methamphetamine users.

Minnesota's first methamphetamine case was against trainer Luis Canchari in May 2014 when a horse from his small stable named Smart Masterpiece tested positive for the drug after a second-place finish. Though he passed a lie detector test saying he didn't administer or authorize methamphetamine to be administered to his horse, Canchari was suspended 90 days, fined $2,000 and Smart Masterpiece's purse was returned. He was unable to prove that he didn't give the drug to the horse. (How does one do that anyways?)

McLean “Mac” Robertson was charged with a methamphetamine positive after a horse he trains, Purest Form, won a race on June 7, 2015. Canterbury Park, where Robertson is a member of the track's hall of fame, issued a statement in the case that said: “Canterbury Park management does not believe Mr. Robertson, an upstanding and respected member of Canterbury Park's racing program for many years, administered a performance-enhancing or prohibited substance to the horse referenced in this case but is a victim of environmental contamination.”

Robertson fought the charges but eventually accepted a 90-day suspension, with 45 days stayed. He was also fined $5,000 and the owners of Purest Form lost the purse money from the win.

In between Canchari's 2014 positive and Robertson's in 2015 came the news that two members of the starting gate crew at Canterbury Park were arrested for possession of methamphetamine. Track security suspected one of the men of dealing the drug, according to the arrest papers. Those arrests occurred in August 2014.

In 2017, Industrial Laboratory of Colorado, the contract lab for the Minnesota Racing Commission, reported two positive tests for methamphetamine.

One was against Shane Miller, a Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse trainer, whose PR Lady in Red tested positive for methamphetamine after winning a Quarter Horse race Aug. 12, 2017. Miller, who operated a small stable in the Midwest, was suspended 90 days and fined $2,000. He quit training after the suspension.

The other was a second methamphetamine positive from a horse in Luis Canchari's barn, this one named Carson's Storm, winner of a race on May 20, 2017. Canchari, who again took a polygraph test, was just as confused as he was in 2014 over how his horse had a Class 1 drug in its system. This time, Canchari suspected the starting gate crew may have been the source of the contamination. His request, however, to have the entire starting gate crew given drug tests was denied.

Yet less than three months later, security officials at Canterbury Park became aware that some members of the starting gate crew might be using methamphetamine. One assistant starter was caught attempting to submit non-human urine. Methamphetamine residue and drug paraphernalia were found in a search of his track dormitory room. Another assistant starter – one whose license had been suspended in another state after testing positive for a controlled substance – refused to take a drug test and quit his job. Around the same time, the head starter and four of his assistants resigned their positions and reportedly moved to similar jobs at Turf Paradise in Arizona for a meeting that wouldn't begin for two months.

Administrative Law Judge James E. LaFave didn't see the dots connecting between starting gate crew members using methamphetamine and a horse that left the starting gate testing positive for the drug. He recommended a three-year suspension and $25,000 fine for Conchari. The racing commission reduced the suspension to one year and the fine to $10,000.

In a memorandum attached to the administrative law judge's recommendation, Minnesota racing commissioner James E. Lane III commented: “The commission has a statutory obligation to ensure that horseracing in Minnesota is conducted in the public interest. Minnesota's trainer responsibility rule helps achieve that purpose because it serves to increase the public's confidence that a horse is not racing with prohibitive drugs in its system. The rule, however, places a heavy burden on trainers and may lead to a harsh or unfair result.

“Carson's Storm had methamphetamine in his system when he raced on May 20, 2017,” Lane continued. “By law, respondent is considered responsible. Despite respondent's credible testimony, he failed to demonstrate that neither he nor his employees were responsible for the methamphetamine in the horse's system. As a result, respondent must be sanctioned. There is no question this is a harsh result, but it is one mandated by law.”

Harsh? Yes. Unfair? Yes. I would also add ridiculous.

That's my view from the eighth pole.

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