Maryland-based trainer Christopher Grove is targeting the "absolute insurer rule" in an appeal he has filed in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County in Charleston, W.Va.
Grove was suspended for six months and fined $5,000 by stewards at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races for a major drug violation in a July race involving his horse Bubba de France, who tested positive for the Class I substance Nikethamide, a stimulant with the trade name Coramine.
On Aug. 2 a West Virginia hearing officer recommended that the West Virginia Racing Commission uphold the penalties handed down by the Charles Town stewards. The WVRC upheld those sanctions, which also included purse forfeiture.
In the court case, Grove's attorney argues that because the stewards assumed the absolute insurer rule would be in place, a proper investigation was not carried out to determine exactly who had administered the drug in question. The absolute insurer rule, which is typical in racing states, requires responsibility of a given horse to fall on the shoulders of the trainer of record.
"As currently applied, the rule is overly broad and provides uncircumscribed power to the racing commission and the stewards and actually discourages the conducting of thorough and comprehensive investigations in cases where the facts are not obvious," argues Grove's attorney in the court filing. "As demonstrated by Mr. Grove's case, allowing the racing commission and the stewards to penalize a trainer when there is little to no evidence supporting the alleged violations (or even in the state at the time of the alleged violation) amounts to a direct violation of an individual's state and federal procedural due process rights."
The stewards also suspended Grove's assistant, Misael Ceciliano, for six months and fined him $5,000. Ceciliano worked as Grove's assistant for the race in question. Ceciliano has not appealed that decision.
While Grove said he was not even in West Virginia at the time of the race, the hearing officer said the stewards acted properly and handed down sanctions that were "appropriate and consistent...particularly in light of the fact that the drug was Class I and Grove had a prior history of drug positives in horses he trained."
The hearing officer said the detail of who administered the drug is not of particular importance in the stewards' decision, but noted they did make an effort to determine who administered the drug.
"The stewards did not have a legal burden to prove who administered the drug," said hearing officer Jeffrey Blaydes in his Aug. 2 decision. "The evidence shows that the stewards investigated this issue without success. Similarly, Grove—in an effort to establish a defense—performed a similar investigation, also without success. However, there was no unlawful shift of the burden of proof in this case."
The hearing officer said the absolute insurer rule is needed.
"The rule establishes accountability for the trainer in an instance where the offender is unidentified," Blaydes wrote. "Otherwise drug positives where the offenders are unidentified would go unpunished. By requiring the trainer to be accountable for such instances, the absolute insurer rule protects the integrity of racing."
Grove's attorney, J. David Bolen, contends that a proper investigation was not carried out by chief investigator Art Wood.
"Had additional steps been taken and additional efforts been made to investigate this matter, the question of Mr. Grove's involvement in said matter would have concluded with a different result," Bolen said.
Class I substances call for the most severe penalties as they are stimulants or depressants with the highest potential to affect racing performance and have no known generally accepted use in a race horse. Charles Town state steward Danny Wright said it is the first time he has seen a Class I violation in his 13 years.
E. Clinton Lowry's Bubba de France won the fifth race July 28 at Charles Town by a neck over runner-up Sir Fits too Much. Bubba de France will be disqualified and Lowry will forfeit the $6,600 in purse money.
Since January 2009 until this finding, Grove had three previous medication violations that carried fines or disqualifications, according to a database provided by The Jockey Club at ThoroughbredRulings.com. None of those three violations were of a Class I nature. His previous highest fine was $1,500.