Suspended equine veterinarian Rodney Stewart testified Dec. 3 that he was unaware that a soft-sided cooler he left in a refrigerator in a barn at Keeneland contained the prohibited substance cobra toxin.
Also, during a day-long hearing of Stewart’s appeal of his five-year suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, the vet said he did not know that a box in the back of his truck contained carbidopa and levodopa, both considered Class A medication under Kentucky racing rules.
Trainer Patrick Biancone, who was suspended for six months and agreed not to seek reinstatement for another six months, recently completed his suspension. Stewart testified that Biancone was unaware of the contents of the cooler. Biancone was suspended under the absolute insurer rule that holds trainers responsible for horses in their care.
Stewart was suspended for four years for possession of three sealed vials of alpha-cobratoxin, or cobra venom, a substance used to kill pain. The substance is a Class A medication under the KHRA Uniform Drug and Medication Classification Schedule. Stewart was additionally suspended for one year for the possession of carbidopa and levodopa, both also Class A medications. Both drugs are used to treat Parkinson's disease in humans. The suspensions will run consecutively. He was also suspended for lesser offenses related to the case, with those suspensions to run concurrent to the longer suspensions.
During the day-long hearing before administrative law judge Robert Layton, Stewart’s attorneys attempted to show that any violations of Kentucky’s medication rules by their client were inadvertent and that there has been no evidence that he used or was attempting to use on horses any of the drugs for which he as suspended. The attorneys, Michael Meuser of Lexington and New York-based Karen Murphy ,also questioned whether the barn where the cooler was found is actually on property under the racing commission’s jurisdiction. They also provided evidence to show that Stewart is in compliance with orders from the stewards to produce records in the case and produced veterinary practitioners who supported the therapeutic use of cobra toxin.
Attorney Bob Watt, representing the commission, presented witnesses who cited ways in which horses could be endangered by the administration of cobra toxin. He also reiterated that the cobra toxin and other medications found during the June 22, 2007, search of the barn and vehicle violated state racing regulations.
He also presented witnesses that testified the property where the search took place is considered part of Keeneland that is regulated by the commission.
The hearing, which has been continued until Dec. 9 when some unresolved matters will be heard, included evidence from both sides about procedural and technical aspects of the case.
Stewart said he was not aware of all the contents in the cooler because it was packed by his wife, Erica, when she cleaned out items from the couple’s refrigerator in their home. The Stewarts were in the process of relocating to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and as a result the vet was living in an apartment. In addition to vials of medications Stewart needed during his daily work and the Cobra toxin, the cooler also contained vaccines for dogs and cats and rabies tags, which Stewart said were items that his wife threw together. Since the track was far from his apartment, Stewart said he carried the medications he needed with him. Because it was a hot June day, he stored them in Biancone’s refrigerator.
Stewart attributed his lack of awareness that cobra venom was in the cooler and the subsequent problems it has caused to his own "stupidity."
Since the Kentucky suspension began, Stewart has been unable to practice veterinary medicine at any racetrack, including those in his native Australia.
During the day’s testimony, there was unanimity by both sides that the cobra venom, carbidopa and levodopa were in their original packaging with no indication they had been used.
Although he visited Biancone’s barn daily, Stewart said he always considered it the trainer’s private barn and never looked upon it as premises that were part of Keeneland and thus governed by the rules of Kentucky racing. Barn 74, where the raid took place, is located on what is known as the Keeneland training center. It is across a major public road from the main Keeneland property.
Keeneland vice president Harvie Wilkinson testified that the training area is part of the racetrack and is treated no differently than the main parcel of land when it comes to security and how it is treated by the racing association. He also produced documents showing when the property was acquired by Keeneland.
“Trainers (at the training center) are subject to the same rules and regulations as (those occupying) barns on the other side of Rice Road,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson said he was not aware of any filings by Keeneland with the racing commission to have the training barns recognized as part of the main track’s grounds.
Racing commission personnel also testified that they considered the training center part of the main track, supporting their decision to use KHRC investigators to conduct the barn search.
John Veitch, the state’s chief steward, said he ordered the search of three barns occupied by Biancone after being notified that one of the trainer’s horses had tested positive for a prohibited substance at Churchill Downs. Veitch said a barn search was normal protocol for the medication for which Biancone’s horses was positive.
As to the effects of cobra toxin on horses, Dr. Mary Scollay-Ward, the racing commission’s chief medical officer who has a lengthy career as a racetrack veterinarian, said the substance is used to temporary block the nerve in a horse’s foot, thus relieving pain. She said that using it on a horse that is going to race is potentially dangerous because it “damages or impairs the ability of the nerve to function.”
Veitch also said cobra toxin was not recommended for use in racehorses because “it would allow a horse to perform with certain injuries” due to its ability to “block” problems.
Veitch, who said the penalty assessed Stewart was apparently the most severe ever handed down in Kentucky, acknowledged that he had directed a veterinarian to once administer cobra toxin to Alydar, the top horse he trained for Calumet Farm in the 1970s. Under questioning by Meuser, Veitch said Dr. Charles Allen administered it to Alydar after the colt injured a coffin bone. But he said the cobra toxin had no effect on the colt.
“We would not have run him again if it had worked,” Veitch said. “We treated him at the time. He was not in training. We experimented with Dr. Chuck Allen, who was an expert on venom. At the time, cobra venom was legal for use in the United States for treating Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). We tried it and it didn’t work. We didn’t use it as therapy so he could race, but only to see if we could relieve some pain.”
Later, Stewart and two veterinarians appearing on his behalf testified that cobra venom has a positive therapeutic effect on horses exhibiting lameness. Also, at the time it was in his possession, cobra venom was allowed for use in Kentucky in Standardbred horses, which Stewart also treated. But Stewart said he never used it on racehorses.
The veterinarians -- Dr. Paul Thorpe and Dr. Ben Belmear -- said in some cases administration of snake venom would be preferable to some other treatments for lameness. They noted that cobra venom blocks the nerves temporarily, usually for a period of three to six weeks, while alternative surgeries do the same thing permanently.
There is no known test for the presence of cobra venom in horses and Stewart said he did not have it to use in racehorses. After receiving four vials of the snake venom from a Florida supplier in July 2006, Stewart said he used one on an ex-racehorse that was serving as a pony for Florida trainer Nicole Walt. Walt appeared at the hearing on Stewart's behalf and said administration of the drug did wonders for the lameness in her horse. Nicole said her horse, whom she called "Skinny" because of his condition when she rescued him from a farm near Lexington, had raced under his registered name Strorm of Liberty.
"I didn't, nor would I," Stewart said. "Mr. Biancone doesn't train horses of a caliber that you would want to use something experimental (on).
Stewart was suspended as a result of his inability to produce the documents within a timely manner, according to Veitch. Stewart’s attorneys said they have produced everything they believe complies with the order.
One question centered on a forensics review of the contents of Stewart’s hard drive in an effort to find all the information sought by the stewards. Attorneys for both sides agreed to continue to pursue the computer’s contents in an effort to make sure there is compliance.
That subject will be considered, along with the testimony of one KHRC investigator who participated in the barn search and who was unavailable for the Dec. 3 hearing, when the hearing reconvenes Dec. 9.