A Kentucky hearing officer expects to decide by early July if a graded stakes win by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider's Sign at Churchill Downs should be reinstated.
Last year, Sign was disqualified from victory against other 2-year-old fillies in the 2012 Pocahontas Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill following a positive test for a methocarbamol (Robaxin) overage. Methocarbamol, a muscle relaxer commonly used in horses to treat sore backs, muscle strain, and spasms, is listed in the lowest of three penalty classes under the Association of Racing Commissioners International Uniform Classification Guidelines for Foreign Substances.
Robert Layton, chief hearing officer for the Kentucky Office of Administrative Hearings, said he anticipates making a decision by July 3 following the two-day hearing that concluded May 21 at the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission offices.
David Royse, representing Sign's owners, said the stewards mistakenly believed they were obligated to include a disqualification (and resulting purse forfeiture) as a minimum requirement of the current KHRC rule. Through his line of questioning, Luke Morgan, representing the KHRC, established that a new penalty structure for Class C overages was put in place last year before the Pocahontas, which was contested Oct. 28.
In what may prove key testimony, KHRC executive director John Ward acknowledged that the rule on the books is substantively different from what the KHRC intended when it passed new rules on Class C penalties. Changes to the KHRC rule's language were made by the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission that Ward said altered the KHRC's intended rule.
In having Ward compare the rule passed by the KHRC in August 2012 and the rule that ultimately ended up on the books, the words "some or all" in regards to possible sanctions for Class C violations were dropped from the rule approved by the KHRC. Ward said the result of the wording change is that the actual rule requires the stewards to impose all of the minimum penalties. He said that change was substantive, as opposed to technical.
On May 20, Kentucky Chief Steward Barbara Borden testified that because of trainer Al Stall's previous good record, they intended to impose the minimum sanctions when Sign tested positive for a methocarbamol overage. She said the rule on the books required those minimum sanctions to include the disqualification and purse forfeiture while Stall received the minimum fine of $250. After the Oct. 21 hearing, Royse noted that the stewards likely would not have included the disqualification if they didn't think it was part of the minimum penalty structure.
A reinstated victory would not only return the winning purse of $101,125 to the owners, it also would restore the graded stakes win for the now 3-year-old daughter of Pulpit. Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm said plans call for Sign to return to training in about a month for a summer campaign.
Still, the current rule was in place when Sign raced in the Pocahontas. Borden said, other than a few specific exceptions that do not require purse forfeiture (phenylbutazone and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications), the stewards are required to disqualify a horse for Class C overages. She said purse forfeiture has been included as a sanction in 11 Class C positives (or overages) since the rule was updated last year.
"Consistency is very important," Borden said May 20 of enforcing the rules. "In anything we do, we strive for consistency. We want to be fair to all and don't want to play favorites."
The rule on Class C violations allows stewards to consider mitigating circumstances. It is why they fined Stall the minimum $250 and did not suspend him, when they could have suspended him up to 10 days. But even when those mitigating circumstances are favorable to the connections, the rule, as currently on the books, calls for disqualification as a minimum sanction.
As for the actual drug test, Stall's veterinarian Kevin Dunlavy testified that he did not administer Robaxin to Sign, who tested at 2.1 nanograms per milliliter. Kentucky's allowed level at the time of the race is 1.0 nanograms.
"I did not, and no one in my practice administered methocarbamol to that filly," said Dunlavy, who for his entire 22-year career has worked with Stall.
In questioning from Morgan, Dunlavy acknowledged that oral Robaxin is routinely administered by trainers or assistant trainer, but Dunlavy said he did not know what happened in the case of Sign.
"The bottom line is we don't understand what happened," Dunlavy said. "I am baffled to how that's occurred and how that has taken place."
Royse also is representing Stall in both the Sign positive and a second positive for methocarbamol in Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence's Upon Reflection following a victory in a Nov. 7 maiden claiming race at Churchill. Royse argues that the positive should not be considered a second offense because Stall at that point had not received the results of a split sample on Sign.
Dunlavy said Upon Reflection was administered methocarbamol but it was more than 48 hours out, as recommended in Kentucky. The stewards fined Stall $250 for the Sign positive. As a second offense for Upon Reflection, Stall received a $500 fine and 10-day suspension.