Kentucky gives vet 5-year ban

Updated: September 18, 2007, 1:42 PM ET
By Matt Hegarty | Daily Racing Form

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Dr. Rodney Stewart, the veterinarian whose truck was searched June 22 at Keeneland Racecourse, was suspended for five years by Kentucky's racing stewards for violations that included the possession of cobra venom and a drug combination used to treat Parkinson's disease in humans, the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority announced late Monday.

The suspension, which is the longest that the stewards have issued to a Thoroughbred licensee in recent years, arose from an ongoing authority investigation of trainer Patrick Biancone. Three of Biancone's barns at Keeneland also were searched June 22.

According to the authority, the stewards issued a four-year suspension based on Stewart's possession of three vials of cobra venom. An authority statement did not specify where the vials were found, and officials with the racing authority could not be reached immediately for comment.

However, the statement said Stewart also was being suspended for 60 days for failing to report medication violations to the stewards, a suspension that he can serve concurrently with the five-year suspension.

According to the statement, "The stewards found that Stewart was aware that Biancone was in possession of [cobra venom], injectables, and improperly labeled medications."

After the search, a source close to the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said cobra venom was found in Biancone's barn, but Monday's statement was the first acknowledgment by the authority that the substance was discovered. Biancone is serving a 15-day suspension issued by the authority after the discovery of two stimulants in a postrace sample from the filly L'Aziza following a race at Churchill Downs on May 3.

Karen Murphy, Stewart's attorney, said her client would appeal the suspension to the full authority and called the punishment "way out of line with the facts of the case."

"This is possession, not use," Murphy said. "The substances were clearly labeled and he did not use them on any horses. He had them for other clients."

Murphy said the cobra venom was found in Biancone's barn. The drugs to treat Parkinson's disease were found in Stewart's car, she said.

Biancone's lawyer, Frank Becker, did not return a phone call late Monday.

Cobra venom is a Class A prohibited substance under Kentucky's rules of racing, defined as any substance that has high potential to impact racing performance and no therapeutic benefit to a horse. When mixed in solution with water and injected, cobra venom can act as a powerful painkiller. The purchase of cobra venom is not governed by any U.S. regulations.

Stewart, a native of Australia, was issued an additional one-year suspension for the discovery of Levodopa and Carbidopa, which also are Class A prohibited substances. The drug combinations were once used to treat patients with Parkinson's disease, a nervous system disorder, although the drugs are no longer approved for use in the United States. The drug combination affects dopamine levels in the brain to reduce the tremors associated with the disease, although the effects of the drugs on horses are unclear.

Murphy took issue with the KHRA's classification of the substances, contending that the Association of Racing Commissioners International, an umbrella group of racing regulators, recommends that the three drugs be categorized as Class 2 substances. The recommended penalty for a Class 2 substance, which is defined as having some therapeutic benefit to a horse, is a 60-day suspension.

"These do have therapeutic benefits, and Kentucky knows they have therapeutic benefits," Murphy said.

Last year, the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority adopted a new set of penalty guidelines for medication violations as the second step in a wide overhaul of the state's medication rules, which were considered the most liberal in the United States.

The investigation into Biancone is ongoing, the authority said in a statement. The authority has declined to comment on any aspect of the investigation in the past, citing Kentucky's racing rules.

Biancone, 55, a native of France, was suspended in 1999 by the Hong Kong Jockey Club when more than 20 of his horses tested positive for illegal medications. He moved to the United States and was licensed in California in 2000 after his suspension expired.