A Kentucky court overturned a 2015 methocarbamol positive against trainer Graham Motion, and in doing so called into question Kentucky's adoption of guidelines crafted by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium.
Furthermore, the court's decision also found the state's "absolute insurer rule," which places ultimate responsibility for what's in a horse's system on the trainer, to be unconstitutional. In ruling in favor of Motion, the court said threshold guidelines need to be based in science.
"Without scientific evidence providing more than the wildest speculative reasoning for imposing a penalty, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission would have unfettered power to regulate all substances with which a horse could come in contact," wrote Franklin (Ky.) Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate in his decision in favor of Motion.
The court's decision overturns a 2015 methocarbamol positive against Kitten's Point, following her victory in the Bewitch Stakes (G3T) at Keeneland. The decision will see the $500 fine against Motion lifted and the $90,000 winner's purse awarded to owner George Strawbridge Jr.
Motion's attorney, W. Craig Robertson III, said the trainer easily could have accepted the relatively light penalty, which also initially saw the stewards impose a five-day suspension; but Motion opted to fight the ruling on principle.
"I was most happy for Graham because it preserves his reputation, which is very important. He didn't deserve to have this violation," Robertson said. "The easy thing for Graham would have been to just accept the fine, $500, and five-day suspension—in the grand scheme of things it's not a whole lot. But to his credit, he fought it on the principle of the matter.
"It cost a lot of money, and time, and emotional heartache—litigation is not easy. I told him he deserved a big pat on the back from all horsemen because not a lot of people would have gone this far."
KHRC general counsel John Forgy said the commission is currently evaluating Judge Wingate’s opinion and order, and is in the process of assessing all available legal options. KHRC executive director Marc Guilfoil also said the commission is evaluating Judge Wingate's opinion, which was entered Aug. 18.
The court ruled that the KHRC did not act within its statutory power because its threshold for methocarbamol, a muscle relaxant, of 1.0 nanograms per milliliter of blood was promulgated without reinforcement of scientific evidence. Kitten's Point tested at 2.9 nanograms per milliliter of blood. The court said testimony from experts, including Kentucky Equine Medical Director Dr. Mary Scollay and Dr. Richard Sams of Kentucky's testing laboratory LGC Science, indicated that methocarbamol would not have any effect on a horse at 2.9 ng/ml.
"The evidence presented by the KHRC merely indicates that a possibility for an effect at a certain dosing level exists," Judge Wingate wrote in his decision. "The court cannot allow mere speculation to stand for scientific evidence."
The court decision later noted that, "evidence petitioners supplied to the record suggests that the RMTC board members who made the advised drug schedule considered additional, unscientific factors outside of scientific suitability of the regulation."
As Motion's case was progressing, the RMTC argued that its thresholds, including the one for methocarbamol, are based in science.
"The recommendation is based upon research that is published in Rumpler, M., et al., The pharmacokinetics of methocarbamol and guaifenesin after single intravenous and multiple-dose oral administration of methocarbamol in the horse, J. Vet. Pharmacol. Therap., 37(1): 25-34 (Feb. 2014)," the RMTC previously said.
Motion's attorney also argued that a hearing officer who recommended that the full commission uphold the stewards' finding of a positive should have allowed Motion's arguments as to the non-scientific reasons the RMTC recommended the 1.0 threshold. The court ruled that prohibition amounted to the petitioner not receiving sufficient due process during the administrative hearing.
"The hearing officer, by limiting the evidence at the hearing to merely that which related to Kitten's Point's drug violation, curtailed petitioners' ability to present a meaningful challenge to the regulation," Judge Wingate wrote.
"To allow an administrative agency to so siphon the offer of proof surrounding the arbitrariness would effectively eliminate any check to the administrative agency's power."
The ruling went on to say, "If the citizens of Kentucky cannot challenge regulations they believe to be founded upon political and baseless motives, then no remedy exists to check the agency's power. An agency must allow proof regarding the perceived arbitrary and capricious nature of a regulation."
The court said at the hearing the KHRC merely presented evidence in the form of expert testimony that methocarbamol could cause central nervous system effects at certain dosing levels. It ruled that such findings are too speculative.
"The mere chance of effect empowers the KHRC to excessively penalize racehorses for the consumption of virtually any substance," the court added in its decision. "This far exceeds the purpose of the KHRC to protect the integrity of Kentucky racing and the well-being of horses."
Motion's attorney argued that the state's absolute insurer rule is unconstitutional because it should be limited to instances where affirmative action has occurred to place the substance in the horse. The petitioners argued that a 1.0 ng/ml level of methocarbamol in a horse's system merely indicates environmental contamination.
The court ruled that the state's absolute insurer rule impermissibly deprives trainers of due process.
"Trainers must be able to present evidence to rebut their liability in an instance of violation," read the decision. "To disallow a trainer to safeguard his license, a trainer must receive due process to be heard on the propriety of his actions to challenge liability for a dosing violation."
Robertson said the court's finding in terms of the absolute insurer rule could have great impact on Kentucky racing and perhaps beyond.
"The first part of the ruling was important to Graham and George but it just pertains to this case," Robertson said. "The broader implications would be the additional ruling pertaining to Kentucky's absolute insurer rule."