Horse's Death Exposes Holes in Regulatory Net

Mistakes by security and regulators followed after death of horse at Mountaineer.

According to a track security guard, on April 19 at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort trainer Kathy Jarvis paused from what would prove unsuccessful efforts to resuscitate her dying horse Slippin' Around to walk to a garbage barrel and push down trash.

Moments earlier, that same guard heard Slippin' Around collapse and watched Jarvis place a plastic bag with an unknown item, or items, in the same barrel.

A security guard witness to what would be called a "suspicious" equine death in the investigation that would follow would seem to put the West Virginia Racing Commission and the track in a position of strength in determining exactly what happened that night. Sanctions, if necessary, would follow, or perhaps Jarvis would be cleared.

But after initially having eyes on the scene, track security and regulatory officials failed to work together in the critical hours that followed, ultimately leaving many questions unanswered. The WVRC, stewards, and racetrack have taken action going forward, but some are shocked that a racing commission that collects about $2.8 million a year and a large track security force that had personnel on the scene failed to deliver more answers in the death of Slippin' Around.

A settlement was reached with Jarvis in which the trainer admitted to minor reporting infractions, but the stewards initially wanted Jarvis to answer to more serious allegations. In a June 1 letter, the stewards said Jarvis would have to answer to suspicions of illegally injecting Slippin' Around moments before the 5-year-old mare collapsed and died.

The Blood-Horse acquired the letter, witness accounts, and e-mail correspondence between the track and WVRC officials through a Freedom of Information Act request sent to the WVRC.

"You were seen with items in your possession which tend to prove more likely than not that you administered to Slippin' Around a medication, drug, chemical, or other substance after you entered its stall prior to (the) race on April 19, 2013," the letter from the stewards to Jarvis said. It then explains that injections by a trainer are prohibited under West Virginia rules, which only allow veterinarians to possess a needle or syringe.

The letter requested Jarvis attend a July 1 hearing. But just days before the scheduled hearing, the stewards instead reached a settlement, fining Jarvis $1,000 on June 27 for failure to promptly report to them the "change of condition" in Slippin' Around.

No other person was sanctioned by the WVRC. The track suspended one security supervisor for one day. No hearing was conducted to question Jarvis' actions or verify her eventual story that the mare suffered fatal injuries after she spooked.

The WVRC accepted the settlement with Jarvis after it realized key pieces of potential evidence had not been collected as track security and regulatory officials failed to work together, putting the case behind the eight ball. 

"I can say that when we have settled cases, we try to make a decision that reflects the information that we have on hand and our ability to pursue sanctions," WVRC executive director Jon Amores said. "We balance the facts on hand with the offer of settlement and we weigh both.

"We commonly settle cases. This was weighed by our counsel, and counsel for Kathy Jarvis, and it was decided that settlement was most prudent in this case."

Key evidence that could have been collected but wasn't included the bag the guard saw Jarvis place in the trash, an account that night from Jarvis of what happened, and a follow-up necropsy.

Failures in the investigation began shortly after guard Kimberly Marriotti saw Jarvis stuff a plastic bag into a garbage barrel–actions another witness saw as well–and then take time out from life-saving efforts to "walk over to the bag and push it deeper into the barrel."

That was Marriotti's account to WVRC investigator Mike Vapner. But that night, no other security officers who soon arrived recovered the bag Marriotti saw Jarvis place in the garbage.

Track security failed to contact the stewards or state veterinarian John Day in a timely manner about Slippin' Around's death. The stewards said they were not contacted until hours after the mare's death, and Day told Vapner he did not learn of the mare's death until the next day.

Because of those circumstances, the stewards and state vet had no opportunity to question Jarvis about what took place that night in the receiving barn. From Jarvis' perspective, she had no opportunity to explain what happened.

Also, security personnel did not keep Jarvis on the scene for an interview with stewards. It was weeks before Vapner was able to reach her for an interview.

Mountaineer director of racing Rose Mary Williams said security did make an effort to contact the stewards, but a mix-up in radio frequencies foiled those efforts. Track security initially believed it had contacted the state vet, but guards later told Vapner they were mistaken, and he was not contacted.

In an e-mail to Vapner, Bill Tice, executive director of security for Moutaineer, said all regulatory officials they were supposed to contact were notified. In an earlier e-mail, however, he said a guard had thought Day had been contacted that night when, in fact, he had not been contacted.

Slippin' Around's body was disposed before a necropsy could be conducted. Without a necropsy, the WVRC could not say if there had been evidence of a recent injection to Slippin' Around; for that matter, regulators could not verify or discount the story Jarvis eventually would give to explain the mare's death.

The stewards have the power to call for a necropsy, but they did not. The state vet can recommend to stewards that a necropsy be conducted, but one was not ordered. The stewards said that was because of the failure of track security to promptly inform them of Slipppin' Around's death. Instead, track officials disposed of the horse's body that night.

Thoroughbred owner Trevor Hewick, a retired detective who serves as an alternate on the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association board of directors, closely follows regulatory issues in West Virginia. He said the circumstances of the case sicken him, and he believes Jarvis, as well as the stewards for failing to collect evidence, should face severe sanctions.

"A thousand-dollar fine? Not only does she need to be kicked out of racing, but the stewards who were on duty that day need to be fired," Hewick said. "It is so pathetic."

Hewick believes part of the reason a settlement was reached was to avoid publicity about the mistakes that were made by regulatory officials and track security.

"I do believe that the WVRC failures resulted in this settlement; they screwed it up royally and now they are protecting their own," Hewick said.

Failure to communicate

On April 19 Mariotti told Vapner she was walking by the receiving barn when she heard a loud noise and saw the side of the barn buckle out. She entered the barn and saw Slippin' Around on the ground outside her stall.

Marriotti offered Jarvis her phone because the trainer was having problems with her cell phone, but the trainer refused the guard's offer, according to testimony. Jarvis was required by rule to contact the stewards, but she turned down the offer of the phone and did not contact them.

In the June 1 letter to Jarvis, the stewards outlined her failure to communicate the death of her horse to them. "After the horse died, you did not report its death to the stewards and a racing commission veterinarian," the letter charged. "In addition, you too failed to contact the appropriate parties to scratch Slippin' Around from the ninth race on April 19, 2013."

Jarvis ultimately admitted to those violations in the settlement.

Soon after Mariotti heard the horse collapse, exercise rider Calvin Dunkle IV approached Marriotti to call attention to the ailing horse. Dunkle told Vapner he saw Jarvis and a groom enter the stall, and seconds later, "the horse started to flip out of the stall. The horse tried to get up twice but went straight back down to the ground. Kathy then went to the trash bag and threw something away that was in her hand."

Without the area secured, even the identity of the apparent groom is open to question. In a May 1 report, Vapner initially identified the man as Gilbert Rosello, noting that licensing information for Rosello was not available.

Jarvis said the person in the stall with her was groom Rafael Nunez, who is licensed in the state. Jarvis said Nunez does not have a phone and could be reached by calling her.

There is no report of Nunez ever being interviewed in person. Through a phone interview arranged by Jarvis, Nunez confirmed Jarvis' account of Slippin' Around's death.

Finding Jarvis for comment in the days and weeks that followed proved difficult.

The trainer did not contact the stewards that night. Vapner noted in a report that he left repeated phone messages with Jarvis requesting an interview, but those calls were not returned. Jarvis also did not return a phone call from The Blood-Horse shortly after the investigation was launched.

The trainer finally contacted Vapner May 13. On that date, more than three weeks after the death of Slippin' Around, Jarvis said the mare acted up when she turned on the flashlight on her phone. "(She) flipped out, ran out of its stall backwards, and struck the side of the barn and went down and eventually died," Jarvis said.

A piece of evidence seemingly in Jarvis's favor is a post-mortem blood test that found no drugs or foreign substances. The LC-MS testing was conducted by Equine Drug Testing Services in Philadelphia, Pa., and the results were sent to the stewards in a letter dated June 11.

But regulatory officials acknowledge a full necropsy should have been requested. That night when Day could have been conducting an initial review of the mare's body and recommending a necropsy, a bobcat and dump truck were used to haul away Slippin' Around's body.

"The necropsy was not conducted on the horse," Amores said. "That information and the lack thereof was one of the things that went into the ultimate decision on how to proceed in this case. The settlement was entirely based on the evidence that resulted from our investigation, and you weigh that against the legal expenses of pursuing the case and one of the factors was that a necropsy was not ordered."

Not a textbook investigation

Because of the gambling involved, and increasingly because of animal welfare concerns, racing is the most regulated sport in the United States. In 2012 the WVRC received $2.8 million in funding from its Thoroughbred and Greyhound tracks, licensing fees, and fines.

Mountaineer pays for a security staff as well. Amores believes lack of communication between track security and WVRC personnel led to the failure to gather evidence and conduct a necropsy.

"We have talked to (Mountaineer and Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races) and they've agreed to work with us in the event that they come upon a horse death that might include a suspicious set of circumstances," Amores said. "The tracks also have agreed to contact the stewards first and let them make a decision as to a necropsy or as to whether a horse can be disturbed in any way.

"We want them to find out who is involved and make sure they don't leave the property."

Through the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance, the industry has tried to outline plans on how security and regulators can work together. But Mountaineer is not one of the 25 tracks participating as accredited members.

The Safety and Integrity Alliance, which works with member tracks and regulators, has protocols in place for reporting equine deaths, post-mortem veterinary examinations, and security assessment and training, along with other standards that touch on aspects of the West VIrginia case.

Mountaineer hires and oversees its own security personnel. Those workers are licensed by the state, but the track oversees training and procedures of its security force.

Following the death of Slippin' Around, Mountaineer security acknowledged mistakes, but the only sanctions carried out were a one-day suspension of security supervisor Brian Kasprzak, who arrived on the scene that night.

In an e-mail from Mountaineer director of security Tice to Vapner, Tice acknowledged mistakes but also said the protocol in place was followed.

"Did it go textbook(?) I would have to say it did not, which is the reason for the corrective action which I would hope remains as confidential as possible," Tice said, referring to Kasprzak's suspension. "I'm not sure where the breakdown in communication was in its entirety, however, the (Mountaineer) security department did communicate with all who have previously requested to be communicated with in the manner in which was requested."

Amores said security personnel should have immediately contacted the stewards.

"On that fateful day the one thing that was needed was just more effective communication," Amores said. "That's not just on the trackthere may have been a breakdown therebut we're trying to emphasize that the stewards need to be contacted first. With us clarifying that and the tracks addressing that with their own security people, everything will be tightened up."

Williams and chief steward Jim O'Brien said since Slippin' Around's death, signs with a contact number for stewards have been placed throughout the backstretch to ensure that they are quickly contacted during any future equine emergencies or suspicious backstretch actions. Amores said stewards and WVRC personnel also need to do a better job.

"We discussed just trying to make sure that the stewards and the vets act as quickly as possible in the event of a suspicious horse death," Amores said. "A lot of the initial breakdown in communication was that the security guard at Mountaineer failed to effectively inform the stewards. But to simply leave it at that would not be sufficient for the racing commission in that we have to do our internal investigation and see how we can improve our responses and response time instead of kind of leaving it at the doorstep of the track.

"So in addition to what the track has investigated on its own folks, we've asked our folks procedurally to make sure that the stewards are always notified of a suspicious circumstance resulting in a horse death."

Hewick said moving forward with some changes is not enough, and the state needs to sanction racing officials to ensure people properly do their jobs in the future.

"This event, as far as abandoning your dead horse and not reporting it to the proper authorities, is unheard of," Hewick said. "It seems like they're not considering the horse, or what happened to the horse."