F and F Stable's Best Play failed drug tests in back-to-back starts for trainer Luis Miranda in late 2014 and early 2015 at Aqueduct Racetrack, a circumstance New York's state steward said he can't recall ever previously happening.
While the second positive for Best Play marked the third failed drug test for a Miranda-trained horse in less than 11 months, the trainer received the same sanctions each time: disqualification of the horse, a $1,000 fine, and 15-day suspension.
Miranda received those sanctions when Best Play tested positive for five different substances after finishing third in the third race Nov. 5 at Aqueduct. Those medications included non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications flunixin, phenylbutazone, and oxyphenbutazone, as well as the muscle relaxer methocarbamol and the expectorant guaifenesin.
In Best Play's very next start for Miranda, a Jan. 23 race at Aqueduct where he finished second, Best Play tested positive for the NSAID ketoprofen. Like his previous start, Best Play was disqualified to last and Miranda was suspended 15 days and fined $1,000. That decision was handed down May 9.
New York state steward Stephen Lewandowski said May 13 that he couldn't recall a case where a trainer's horse failed drug tests in consecutive starts.
The two Best Play positives followed the March 2, 2014 disqualification of Prince Raja, then owned by Birbal's Racing Stable and trained by Miranda, from his third-place finish at Aqueduct following a positive test for flunixin. Miranda was suspended 15 days and fined $1,000 following that incident—the same penalty he would receive after his third violation in a race less than 11 months later.
The positives for five different medications, including three NSAIDs, after the Nov. 5 Best Play race also are a particular concern. The New York Racing Association Equine Safety Committee and New York Gaming Commission medical director Scott Palmer have specifically cautioned against the dangers of "stacking," which is simultaneous use of NSAIDs. The results of the first failed drug test by Best Play following the Nov. 5 race suggest such a practice.
Despite the third failed drug test by a Miranda-trained horse in less than 11 months, the consecutive failed drugs tests by the same horse, and the apparent instance of stacking, New York stewards did not opt to increase sanctions against Miranda.
"As stewards we look at the facts of each case and we just thought this was the proper punishment for those cases," Lewandowski said, noting that there were mitigating circumstances that factored in the stewards' decision on sanctions. Lewandowski declined to provide detail of those mitigating circumstances.
The industry in recent years has taken some measures to strengthen penalties against multiple offenders. The multiple medication violations penalty system that is part of the National Uniform Medication Program is designed to increase sanctions of horsemen who repeatedly violate medication rules. But New York, like several prominent racing states, has not completed adoption of the rule.
New York State Gaming Commission spokesperson Lee Park said the multiple violation rule was approved for proposal in December but is awaiting publication in the New York State Register, which will start a required 45-day public comment period before it comes back to the commission.
"Like other regulations in New York, they get hung up in the governor's office," said Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association chairman Alan Foreman, who has championed the National Uniform Medication Program. "What would normally be a smooth transition becomes a much more difficult process because the governor has to approve regulations before they're adopted, so New York has not formally adopted the multiple medication violations penalty system."
The multiple medication violations penalty system is designed to increase sanctions for horsemen who repeatedly violate the rules by assigning points to trainers for each violation. The Association of Racing Commissioners International maintains a database with each violation and the points assigned.
When a new positive occurs, stewards in participating states receive that information. As points add up, longer suspensions are required.
In the case of Miranda, a key judgment call would be how the Nov. 5 ruling with its five positives is interpreted, but the rule allows stewards to treat each of those substances as an individual violation. All five of the medications involved fall into the Class C penalty class on the RCI's Uniform Classification Guidelines for Foreign Substances. The multiple medication violations penalty calls for 1 point to be assigned for a trainer for each Class C substance that is listed among the 26 controlled therapeutic medications recognized by the National Uniform Medication Program.
In the Nov. 5 positives, flunixin, phenylbutazone, and methocarbamol are all among the 26 controlled therapeutic medications but oxyphenbutazone and guaifenesin are not. Penalty Class C substances not listed among the controlled medications call for 2 points to be assigned to the trainer. In this single case, Miranda could have been assigned up to 7 points.
Along with his March 2 violation (1 point), Miranda could have had a total of eight points after the Nov. 5 positives. Trainers with 6 to 8.5 points are to be assigned 60 suspension days under the multiple violations rule. The Jan. 23 violation would have brought Miranda to 9 points on the year, which calls for a 180-day penalty.
All trainers started at 0 points on Jan. 1, 2014. States have some latitude in assigning points, and variances also can occur in states that have not fully adopted the National Uniform Medication Program. Still, the RCI is keeping tabs on trainers from states that have not fully adopted the program.
RCI president Ed Martin said they currently have Miranda listed at seven points. He would have been at six points after the findings for the Nov. 23 race and seven points after the findings in the Jan. 23 race. Both of those point levels would have called for an additional 60 suspension days for each violation if New York had the multiple offender policy in place.
But as it is, New York has not completed adoption of the National Uniform Medication Program and its system that calls for increased sanctions for multiple violators. Instead of receiving 180 days for the Jan. 23 violation, or 60 days, Miranda was suspended 15 days.
Foreman acknowledged that it can be frustrating to see states come on-line with the rules at different times but noted that progress has been made. He said Pennsylvania will have the National Uniform Medication Program fully adopted by September, meaning every state in the Mid-Atlantic region will have the program fully adopted.
"The problem is the one we always anticipated and that's the rollout problem," Foreman said. "You have states that are coming online but the question is until you get everyone online, or an entire region adhering to the system, your start-up is always the problem."
The Jockey Club is frustrated with how long it is taking states to put the multiple medications violations penalty system in place. Major racing states like California and Kentucky, where the penalty system is under discussion; and Florida and Louisiana, which have not committed; have not adopted the penalty system.
"While I refrain from discussing an individual case, it seems clearer by the day that this industry desperately needs a penalty structure that is strong enough to be a meaningful deterrent," said The Jockey Club president Jim Gagliano. "The National Uniform Medication Program has been a step in the right direction but we are still a long way from uniformity, especially when you consider the multiple medication violation portion of it.
"In our view, a trainer should not be allowed to amass numerous medication violations and continue training. Yet we see that happen on a regular basis."
Foreman pointed to recent actions in Maryland as evidence of how the National Uniform Medication Program and its added sanctions for repeat offenders can work. The Maryland Racing Commission assigned a 60-day suspension to trainer Scott Lake following a positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol, late last year. Because of a previous positive in Pennsylvania, an additional 60 days were added. Lake is appealing the decision.
The Jockey Club and Foreman agree that multiple violators cannot be tolerated but The Jockey Club is concerned that the current state-by-state process may never fully put consistent policies in place.
"We need true uniformity with our rules, our labs, and our penalties," Gagliano said. "That is why The Jockey Club is continuing to work on a national legislative strategy would result in a true national, uniform medication program, one that brings both integrity and pride to our sport."