Biancone drops appeal, accepts lighter penalty
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Patrick Biancone, the trainer who accepted a penalty from the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority on Wednesday that will prevent him from training horses for one year, said Thursday that he was motivated to settle because of the likelihood of intense scrutiny during next week's Breeders' Cup at Monmouth Park.
"I do not want to cast a cloud over racing's most important day," Biancone said in a statement.
Under the settlement, Biancone is suspended for six months beginning Nov. 1 and is prohibited from seeking a trainer's license for an additional six months. Also, he is required to withdraw his name as the trainer of record for the six horses he has pre-entered for the Oct. 26-27 Breeders' Cup in New Jersey. Biancone has horses in the first five Breeders' Cup races on Oct. 27, which will be televised nationally on ESPN.
The Breeders' Cup "is racing's biggest day," said Alan Foreman, one of Biancone's attorneys. "He didn't want to have the focus be on him, and he wanted this to be a day where the whole industry can focus on the horses."
Earlier this month, Biancone, 55, was suspended for one year by Kentucky's stewards for the possession of cobra venom, a Class A prohibited substance in Kentucky that can act as a powerful painkiller and cannot be detected through testing. Biancone appealed the suspension and received a stay of the penalty, and he would have been able to saddle his horses in the Breeders' Cup because a hearing on the appeal was likely months away. The appeal has been dropped as part of the settlement.
Biancone will not be allowed on the grounds of any racetrack for six months, instead of the original one-year ban. He will be able to attend horse sales at Keeneland with one exception, the April 2-year-old in training sale, which takes place during Keeneland's live spring meet.
For six months after the suspension, Biancone will not be allowed in any non-public area of a racetrack, including the backstretch, and he will be prohibited from seeking a racing license in any jurisdiction. However, Biancone's assistant could begin to put together a racing stable, and Biancone would be able to consult on the operation of the stable as long as he does not go to the backstretch, according to John Veitch, the Kentucky state steward.
The Kentucky racing authority will be able to examine Biancone's financial records to determine that he is not profiting from any of his former horses during the six-month suspension. But after that, "any arrangement he makes with owners or his assistants, we have no control over," Veitch said.
Biancone's Breeders' Cup horses will run under the name of his assistant trainer, Francois Parisel, and the settlement will not prohibit Biancone from earning purse money or bonuses based on the horses' performances, Veitch said. However, beginning on Nov. 1, the horses will have to be sent to trainers with whom Biancone has no financial ties - due to a clause in tough new rules passed by Kentucky earlier this year for drug violations - and he will be unable to earn any money from their training or racing careers.
The six Biancone horses that have been entered in Breeders' Cup races are La Traviata, cross-entered in the Filly and Mare Sprint and the Sprint; Baroness Thatcher and Danzon, both in the Filly and Mare Turf; Irish Smoke, in the Juvenile Fillies; Cosmonaut, in the Mile; and Slew's Tiznow, in the Juvenile.
Terry Finley, the president of West Point Thoroughbreds, the horse racing partnership that owns Irish Smoke, said that he was willing to let Biancone's appeal run its course and that he did not feel pressure to remove Irish Smoke from Biancone's barn prior to the settlement.
"I'll be honest with you, I didn't appreciate a lot of people in this industry crucifying the guy before he had his day in court," said Finley, a former Army captain. "That drove me nuts. I heard all the talk and innuendo. But he didn't have his shot at due process, and no matter what anyone says, this is still America."
Biancone, a native of France, trains for many powerful clients, including the principals behind Coolmore Stud, the multinational racing and breeding operation that owns La Traviata. A spokesman for Coolmore, Richard Henry, said the group had not determined who would train the Biancone horses after the Breeders' Cup.
Carl Lizza, the owner of Cosmonaut under the stable name Flying Zee Stables, said that he had not determined who will train the four Flying Zee horses currently stabled with Biancone. But he said he would not hesitate to give Biancone horses when the trainer is able to operate a stable again.
"I don't know what he did wrong," said Lizza, who called Biancone "one of the 10 best horsemen" in the U.S. "From what I read in the papers, it was just possession. He wasn't using it. Unless something else comes out, yes, of course I'll give him horses."
According to the authority, three vials of cobra venom were found in a bag in a refrigerator in one of Biancone's barns at Keeneland Racecourse during a search on June 22. The bag was labeled with the name and phone number of one of Biancone's veterinarians, Dr. Rodney Stewart.
Foreman said that Biancone had no knowledge of the bag's contents and that Biancone passed a lie-detector test during which he was asked whether he had ever used cobra venom on a horse. The bag was in a box that had a false bottom that Stewart shipped to Biancone's barn without his knowledge, Foreman said.
"By relaxing the suspension, it's a recognition of his full cooperation and the fact that Patrick had no knowledge whatsoever what was in that box," Foreman said.
Stewart, an Australian, was suspended early in September for five years for the possession of cobra venom and two other illegal medications. He has appealed the suspension.
The use of cobra venom, an unregulated neurotoxin that can be purchased legally through reptile specialists, has been the subject of speculation for years in horse racing circles. Some veterinarians recommend its use for a process called nerving, in which painkillers are injected into a horse's heel to ease chronic soreness or lameness.
Biancone is the first trainer suspended under penalty guidelines adopted this year in Kentucky that prohibit a trainer from benefiting financially from his horses while under suspension for a Class A drug. The guidelines were adopted as part of an overhaul of the state's medication rules, which were considered the most liberal in the nation until the changes were adopted.
Foreman said that Kentucky's transformation into a get-tough state had a bearing on Biancone's decision to seek a settlement.
"Let's face it, he was going to get suspended anyway," said Foreman, who has represented trainers for 25 years. "We believe that the suspension should have been lighter, but if we got into the hearing process, it could have gone the other way. The atmosphere surrounding this case has been unlike anything I have ever seen in all my years of litigating cases like these."
In the central Kentucky horse racing community during the past four months, the discovery of cobra venom in Biancone's barn has been a topic of discussion that was difficult to avoid at racetracks and sales and in restaurants and bars. Few people in Lexington were willing to take Biancone's side.
The settlement was approved in a 9-2 vote Wednesday at a closed session of the Kentucky racing authority.
Tom Ludt, one of the two members to oppose the deal, did not return a phone call on Thursday. Dell Hancock, who also voted against the settlement, declined to discuss her reasons.
"I will say this," Hancock said on Thursday. "Even though I didn't agree with it, I'm glad it's settled and we're putting this thing behind us."