LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In another blow to racing's image after a rocky Triple Crown season, Steve Asmussen and Rick Dutrow, two of the most successful trainers in North America, have both been notified of positive tests for illegal raceday medications in horses under their care.
Asmussen was to be served notice Thursday by the Texas Racing Commission for a lidocaine positive on Timber Trick after the filly won May 10 at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Tex., Karen Murphy, a New York-based attorney who is representing Asmussen, said on Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, Dutrow was formally notified by Kentucky racing officials that he had been suspended 15 days after Salute the Count tested positive for clenbuterol following a Grade 3 stakes race on the May 2 Kentucky Oaks program at Churchill Downs. Dutrow told John Veitch, the chief steward for the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, that he will appeal. Dutrow will continue to train pending a hearing.
Asmussen and Dutrow train arguably the two best horses in North America: Asmussen trains Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year and the winner of his last five races, and Dutrow trains Big Brown, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The positives came just days after Larry Jones, the trainer of the Kentucky Oaks winner Proud Spell, was informed by Delaware racing officials that one of his horses also tested positive for clenbuterol.
The violations come at a time when racing is under intense scrutiny that began after the filly Eight Belles, trained by Jones, broke down and was euthanized after finishing second to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby. A highly publicized Congressional hearing into drug and safety-related issues in horse racing was held last week in Washington, where Jess Jackson, the majority owner of Curlin, asked a House subcommittee to support major reforms, including the banning of anabolic steroids and all nontherapeutic drugs.
Murphy said Wednesday that Texas officials had declined to give her some critical information concerning the case of Timber Trick, a 3-year-old filly owned by the Gainesway Stable of Graham Beck. Murphy said quantification of the positive has not been revealed to her or Asmussen, and that an attempt to have a split sample tested at a laboratory of choice was denied.
Texas has a zero-tolerance policy for performance-enhancing drugs and other medications, and Murphy said she suspects the amount of lidocaine detected was very small. She said she welcomed the upcoming legal challenge and would "fight it to the very end."
Timber Trick, making her sixth career start in maiden special weight company, won May 10 by seven lengths as the even-money favorite. The filly since has raced once more, finishing second in a June 6 allowance at Lone Star.
Lidocaine is a local anesthetic with a high potential to enhance performance because it can deaden pain in a horse's legs. The drug is delivered by injection and is widely used for therapeutic purposes in equine medicine, although it is prohibited on race day. It is a Class 2 drug with the Association of Racing Commissioners International and carries stringent penalties that vary depending on jurisdiction. The recommended penalty in most states is a six-month suspension for the trainer.
Jean Cook, a public information officer with the Texas Racing Commission, did not return a phone call Wednesday but said earlier this week that, in accordance with state law, she could neither confirm nor deny that an investigation has been undertaken.
Asmussen, 42, has been at the forefront of American racing and leads the country in wins and earnings this year. In 2004, he set a North American record for wins with 555, and he has been a finalist for the Eclipse Award as top trainer in three of the past four years. He is the trainer of Curlin, a 4-year-old colt who has earned more than $9.3 million and is fast approaching the earnings record of nearly $10 million. For the second half of 2008, Asmussen has designed a possible grass campaign for Curlin, culminating with the prestigious Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France in October.
This is not the first medication positive for Asmussen. He served a six-month suspension from July 2006 to January 2007, stemming from a positive test for mepivacaine, a local anesthetic and also a Class 2 drug, taken from the filly No End in Sight after a March 2006 race at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana. Concurrently, Asmussen served a six-month suspension stemming from a New Mexico positive for acepromazine, a widely used sedative designated as a Class 3 drug by the racing commissioners' group.
Asmussen did not pursue a legal challenge of the Evangeline positive, which involved a massive overage. He waived his right to appeal and began serving his suspension shortly after a June 23, 2006, hearing before the Louisiana Racing Commission.
At Churchill on Wednesday, Veitch said that Dutrow had phoned him in the morning to notify him of his intention to appeal the suspension that stems from Salute the Count, who finished second by a length in the $100,000 Churchill Downs Turf Sprint on May 2.
Dutrow, 48, has been in racing's spotlight as the trainer of Big Brown, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but was eased in the June 7 Belmont Stakes. During the Triple Crown, he candidly admitted that Big Brown and all of his horses regularly received legal injections of anabolic steroids.
Veitch said Salute the Count's test was the first clenbuterol overage "in three years, that I can recall," since Kentucky medication regulations were tightened. He said the testing lab at Iowa State University, which services all Thoroughbred and Standardbred tracks in Kentucky, found the level of clenbuterol in a urine sample taken from Salute the Count to be 41 picograms per milliliter, well over the permissible level of 25 picograms.
Veitch said Dutrow exercised his right to have a split sample tested by an independent laboratory and chose Louisiana State University. That sample revealed a level of a clenbuterol metabolite of .04 nanograms per milliliter, Veitch said, "which, if you do the math, is the same as what Iowa State had."
Clenbuterol is an approved bronchial dilator but postrace samples must fall beneath the threshold limit. Kentucky regulators recommend that the drug be administered no closer than 72 hours before a horse is to race.
Besides its primary usage in increasing lung capacity and assisting in a horse's breathing, clenbuterol has steroidal properties and promotes the growth of muscle mass.
The appeals process, if Dutrow follows through, will entail a hearing before an administrative officer employed by the state of Kentucky, who in turn will make a recommendation to the full authority, which then would hear the case. If at any time Dutrow drops the appeal, he then will have to serve the 15 days.
Salute the Count, owned by Michael Dubb and Robert Joscelyn, will be disqualified from the $20,000 he earned for the second-place finish, "once the case is fully adjudicated," said Veitch. Salute the Count has raced once since the Turf Sprint, finishing second, beaten a head, in the Grade 3 Jaipur Stakes on June 15 on the Belmont Park turf.
Dutrow has amassed a litany of medications violations during a training career that dates to 1979. According to the Association of Racing Commissioners International, he has been fined or suspended at least once every year since 2001, with most of them for relatively innocuous offenses. A severe penalty, however, was handed down in 2005, when he served a 60-day suspension after two of his horses tested positive for mepivacaine.
Dutrow did not return phone calls on Wednesday.
Dutrow's biggest client, the IEAH Stable - the owner of Big Brown and other top horses, including Kip Deville and Benny the Bull - announced earlier this week that it intends to race its horses free of drugs and steroids effective Oct. 1.