Complaints against trainers Julio Canani and Jeff Mullins were withdrawn Wednesday by the California Horse Racing Board after it was advised that evidence failed to support the charges in either case.
Both trainers were charged with conduct detrimental to horseracing for controversial remarks made to the news media. Canani was investigated for comments made about the pre-race health and activities of his filly, Sweet Catomine, after she ran fifth as the heavy favorite in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) April 9. In an unrelated incident, Mullins called people "idiots" for wagering on racing and implied that officials in charge of milkshake testing engaged in conflicts of interest.
"In the cases involving Mr. Canani and Mr. Mullins, they have not violated any statute or regulation," said James Ahern, the deputy attorney general representing the CHRB in the cases. "Therefore, the CHRB has no legal basis on which to charge them. Rule 1902 describes conduct detrimental to racing. The key word is conduct.
"If you look at the rule, it addresses things like associating with bookmakers and crimes involving moral turpitude. What these trainers said just doesn't fit, especially if you look at the subsections. The rule doesn't say anything about misrepresentations and controversial statements to the press."
Canani was also charged under the "absolute insurer" rule in connection with Sweet Catomine's removal from the Santa Anita Park grounds for specialized treatment for a bleeding problem in the days before the race. The van driver who transported her, Dean Kerkhoff, allegedly identified Sweet Catomine falsely to gate security as a "pony."
Sweet Catomine's owner, Martin Wygod, was cleared of charges in connection with that allegation at a Hollywood Park board of stewards hearing April 23.
Ahern said there was no evidence Canani was responsible for the removal of the filly or that he had knowledge of the plan. In addition, Ahern said he consulted three veterinarians who had examined Sweet Catomine prior to the race, and "they all said the horse was ready to run. If you can't trust the vets, who can you trust?"
According to Ahern, Wygod's farm manager, Russell Drake, made the decision to remove the filly from track grounds, but Kerkhoff decided to mislead gate security about the horse's identity. Drake wasn't named in the complaint.
"Kerkhoff admitted under oath that Mr. Drake told him to pick up the horse as early as possible," Ahern said. "He said he was told to keep it quiet, or something like that, and he told the gate personnel she was a pony because he didn't want it known that Sweet Catomine had been moved. Mr. Kerkhoff is on the hook for that."
A hearing is set for May 12.
Ingrid Fermin, CHRB executive director, said in a statement she would review and evaluate the CHRB's investigative procedures. Fermin, in an April 26 memo to racing commissioners, said the attorney general's office would play a larger role in future investigations.
"This was a faulty procedure," Fermin said in her review of the case.
Fermin said she and Ahern determined the need for someone from his office to "review and evaluate" the more serious cases to make sure the charges "have merit" before complaints are filed.
"Our role is to evaluate cases to make certain that complaints are based on the appropriate statutes or regulations and backed up by sufficient evidence," Ahern said. "We need to be more certain that cases filed by the CHRB have sufficient evidence to allow the stewards to take action in accordance with racing law. Likewise, we need to be certain there is sufficient evidence to allow any reviewing tribunal to uphold the decision."
Ahern advised the attorneys for Canani and Mullins the complaints had been withdrawn.
CHRB chairman John Harris said in a statement: "The board wants to maintain a very high integrity level in racing and, at the same time, protect the rights of every licensee. In retrospect, these incidents should have been better investigated and received more due diligence early on. I support the changes that Ingrid is making in our investigative procedures and oversight, and feel we can learn from past shortcomings and move forward."
Mullins declined to comment on the decision to withdraw the complaint against him.