The Prairie Meadows Board of Stewards on Wednesday found trainer Kelly Von Hemel blameless after two of his horses tested positive for ractopamine, because he was able to prove that the trace amounts of the Class 2 drug were the result of contamination in feed originally mixed at a South Dakota mill.
Von Hemel trainee Jello Shot Jodie won the seventh race on May 21, 2016, while stablemate Hot Shot Socks finished second in the fifth race on May 27, 2016. Prairie Meadows' policy is for both the first and second-place finishers in each race to be sent to the test barn for blood and urine samples, so both of the Von Hemel trainees were tested. Both horses' tests came back positive for ractopamine.
Von Hemel is a member of the Prairie Meadows Hall of Fame, with over 1,300 wins on his resume. He hails from a racing family: father Don Von Hemel is a Nebraska Hall of Famer and his brother Donnie Von Hemel was inducted into the Oklahoma Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2011 as the all-time leading trainer at Remington Park.
Ractopamine is a feed additive used to promote weight gain and feed efficiency in livestock such as beef cattle, pigs, and turkeys. While the drug itself is not a steroid, it does have a muscle-building effect on the horse. It is not approved for use in horses, and the Association of Racing Commissioners International lists it as a Class 2 drug.
A Class 2 drug is one that has “a high potential to affect performance, but less of a potential than Class 1. These drugs are 1) not generally accepted as therapeutic agents in racing horses, or 2) they are therapeutic agents that have a high potential for abuse,” according to the RCI.
Von Hemel requested that the horses' split samples be tested as well. When blood and urine samples are taken, approximately half of each sample is separated and set aside, so that, in the case of a positive test resulting from the original sample, a trainer may elect to have the “split” sample tested again. Von Hemel's split sample tests also came back positive.
In the past few years, there have been several cases across the United States in which ractopamine was found to have contaminated horse feed, usually because the mill processing the feed had not sufficiently cleaned out the equipment between processing cattle feed with ractopamine added, and processing the racehorse feed. The most recent was a case in Canada involving Standardbreds.
“When I got the (second) notice, I didn't even feed lunch that day until one o'clock,” said Von Hemel. “There was no doubt in my mind where it came from. I knew it had to be contamination.”
While the penalty for a Ractopamine positive was relatively minor in Iowa in 2015, just a 15-day suspension and a $1,000 fine, the rules had been updated for 2016. Von Hemel was facing a full year's suspension of his training license, as well as a $10,000 fine, for the first positive. When the second positive was reported, his possible suspension was increased to four years.
According to Von Hemel, the levels of ractopamine found in his horses were very low. The trainer says the state vet indicated to him there was “no way he could have been feeding it to the horses directly, or that it had had any performance-enhancing effect.”
Von Hemel hired a pair of attorneys, Michael Meuser and Maria Pauly, and began searching out the cause of the contamination.
“The burden of proof is on you,” said the trainer. “My understanding is that the feed company keeps a sample of each batch of feed that they make. We tested some of the bags of that lot number ourselves. Both the bag that we found of that lot number and the batch that they tested came back positive.”
According to the stewards' ruling, “the contaminated feed was Triple Crown 14% Racing Performance feed produced at the Consumers Supply Distributing mill, located in North Sioux City, South Dakota. The mill has identified and confirmed, through independent testing, that the Triple Crown 14% Racing Performance feed Lot #20505624 is contaminated with ractopamine.”
Entered into evidence was a “letter from Consumers Supply Distributing in North Sioux City, South Dakota, taking full responsibility for the contaminated feed that was provided. The mill ran cattle feed supplemented with Optaflexx (ractopamine) prior to the production of the Triple Crown 14% Performance Racing feed Lot #20505624.”
The Triple Crown 14% Performance Racing Feed from lot #20505624 was then sold to trainer Kelly Von Hemel via Griff's Feed, a local feed supplier in Altoona, Iowa, the town in which Prairie Meadows is located.
“As a result of the above findings,” reads the ruling, “the Board holds Owner/Trainer Kelly Von Hemel blameless.”
Though he won't suffer a penalty from the Board of Stewards, Von Hemel is still responsible for his attorneys' fees and for paying for testing procedures. The owners of Jello Shot Jodie and Hot Shot Socks will also have to return the purse money that each horse earned during the races in which they tested positive.
“Through this whole process it's been stressful, trying to get the proof,” Von Hemel said. “The owners took it very well. They knew that we had not done anything intentionally. They knew that it was contamination from the get-go. They were fantastic about it. Obviously they weren't happy about losing the purses.
“It's unfortunate because I've always had a good repoire with the stewards here, and they were still good, but I understand that they have a job to do also. Fortunately for me, we could prove everything, and everything went about as good as I could possibly hope for.”
Board of stewards Stipulated Agreement
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