Reigning champion American Quarter Horse Association trainer Judd Kearl has been suspended 19 years and fined $110,000 by stewards in Texas after five of his horses tested positive for the Class 1 drug nomifensine – a human antidepressant medication taken off the market in the 1980s. Two other trainers were sanctioned at the same time after horses in their care tested positive for the medication: Brian Stroud received a one-year suspension and $10,000 fine for one nomifensine positive and Jose Sanchez was suspended four years and fined $35,000 for two positives.
According to the rulings, Kearl will not be eligible for reinstatement until July 30, 2036. He was suspended one year and fined $10,000 for the first violation, three years and $25,000 for the second, and five years and $25,000 for each subsequent violation.
The eight violations occurred over several weeks, beginning May 22 with a Kearl horse testing positive at Sam Houston Race Park in Houston and continuing at Retama Park in San Antonio for the other seven. Nomifensine was detected and identified by the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Lab and split samples were confirmed by the Pennsylvania Toxicology and Research Laboratory.
Each trainer was summarily suspended pending a hearing. All the cases were combined into one hearing, conducted from Sept. 25-27, with additional transcripts submitted Oct. 6 and written closing arguments on Oct. 10. Kearl and Sanchez were represented by attorneys Eleanor Ruffner and Darrell Vienna; Stroud by Trent Rowell. Stewards were Anne Alley, Mike Pelletier and Fred Winch Jr., with Devon Bijansky, deputy general counsel for the Texas Racing Commission, also present.
According to the rulings, “All three respondents employed veterinarian Dr. Justin Robinson, and the logical inference from the totality of the evidence is that he was responsible for the administration of nomifensine to all of the horses in question.”
The trainers claimed the drug was given to the horses without their knowledge.
“However, ignorance does not relieve the respondents of responsibility,” the rulings state, citing trainer responsibility under Texas Racing Commission rules. “To allow a trainer to excuse any positive by claiming ignorance regarding what a veterinarian administered, is to allow a trainer to abdicate a responsibility that is theirs by rule. Therefore, this board of stewards will not endorse a trainer's active ignorance as an excuse for a positive test for a prohibited substance in a race horse.”
The investigative process, specimen handling and storage procedures were brought into question by counsel for the three trainers, who said some procedures deviated from written policies.
“Some procedures have been improved, while the written policy is still in the process of being updated,” the rulings state. “Fewer tubes of blood are drawn from the horse after the race, because of the larger size of the storage tubes. Also, the process of storing the blood serum was improved, thereby lessening the chance of contamination. Respondents pointed out that some samples were refrigerated rather than frozen.”
On the latter issue, Dr. Scott Stanley of the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine was brought in as an expert witness for the commission. Stanley said refrigeration's only effect might be to “reduce concentrations of substances in the blood being stored.”
It was also revealed that security offices at the tracks had keys to the test barns, freezers and refrigerators, which is another departure from written policy.
“However, none of these issues compromised the sufficiency of the chain of custody of these specimens, and no evidence whatsoever was introduced that the specimens were tampered with or that the results are not reliable,” according to the rulings.
Nomifensine was withdrawn from the market in the 1980s and had its FDA approval revoked in 1992, the rulings state.
Robinson, the veterinarian who worked for the three trainers, did not testify at the hearing.
Attorney Vienna said he would be “surprised” if his clients did not appeal the rulings. “We had hoped for a different outcome,” Vienna said, “but all the signs during the hearing, the implications, tenor and general feeling was that this was a fait accompli.”
Vienna said any appeal would be heard by an administrative law judge appointed by the state of administrative hearings. “We still have an opportunity to seek a remedy in the courts,” he added.
Kearl was named AQHA champion trainer after horses he trained won 129 races from 474 starts in 2016 for earnings of $4.6 million. Stroud and Sanchez also have won won major Quarter horse races during their careers.
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