Reduced suspensions draw mixed response

ON HORSE RACING

Horse Racing

October 06, 2002|By Tom Keyser

"Justice," proclaimed Jerry Robb.

The veteran trainer made that declaration Sept. 23 after the Maryland Racing Commission reduced the suspensions of Robb and fellow trainer Mark Shuman for racing horses at Pimlico that tested positive for the banned drug Guanabenz. The commission's verdict -- and Robb's one-word pronouncement -- concluded the high-profile case.

Case closed.

Officially, yes. But criticism of the commission's decision continues to swirl around the track backsides. At the same time, some horsemen support the commission's ruling.

"It's nothing personal with any of the people involved," said outspoken trainer Tony Dutrow. "But in the big picture, this is a slap in the face to the racing industry. What a disgrace to the racing industry.

"You're just not supposed to cheat. You've got trainers out here who are pushing the use of illegal drugs as far as they can. They're too willing to do it, because they know it's not a big deal if they get caught."

Other trainers expressed those sentiments in as forceful terms but declined to be quoted by name. They said they feared retribution from the commission and its investigators.

They said Guanabenz is not a common drug around the racetrack. They said that if trainers administer it to a horse or authorize their veterinarians to administer it, they are trying to do one thing: enhance the horse's performance and gain an unfair advantage over trainers trying to abide by the rules.

Guanabenz lowers blood pressure. It is used to treat hypertension -- in humans and horses. A relaxed horse will expend less energy during the stressful buildup to a race. That sometimes translates into an improved performance during the race.

Robb and Shuman acknowledged that they had routinely used Guanabenz on their horses -- to prevent cramping during training, they said. Robb said he hadn't tried to hide it, believing that as long as he didn't administer the drug within 48 hours of a race he had nothing to worry about.

After three of Robb's horses and two of Shuman's tested positive for Guanabenz within a six-day span in April, the stewards concluded otherwise. They suspended Robb for 60 days and Shuman for 40 days. They disqualified the five horses (three had won, two had finished second). The stewards' ruling said "the reported equine metabolism of Guanabenz strongly suggests that the drug was administered to the horses within 24 hours of their races."

Robb and Shuman appealed to the racing commission. The four commissioners subsequently fined Robb $1,500 and Shuman $1,000 but cut back the stewards' suspension.

The stewards had determined that each infraction warranted a 20-day suspension (thus 60 days for Robb and 40 for Shuman). But the commissioners reduced the suspension per infraction from 20 to 15 days, thus lowering Robb's total to 45 days and Shuman's to 30. Then, the commissioners decreed that the trainers had to serve only a 15-day suspension, as if they had committed only one infraction.

The main reason for that, the commissioners said, was because Robb and Shuman were not notified immediately of the initial positives. That delay of notification occurred so additional investigation could be conducted.

If the trainers had been notified right away, the commissioners said, they could have scratched their other horses and avoided all but the first positive. In addition, said Lou Ulman, commission chairman, the drug had been properly prescribed by a veterinarian. And, Ulman said, a 15-day suspension matched the penalty for similar drug violations in Maryland.

Some trainers agreed with Robb that justice had been done. John Alecci and Dale Capuano, for instance, said a 15-day suspension was appropriate for Guanabenz, especially taking into account the delay in notification.

John Franzone, a racing commissioner, said the Robb and Shuman cases would have been "a nonstory if the normal notification process had been carried out. ... I just don't want the public to think that the commission is wishy-washy when it comes to drugs. We have one of the best testing labs in the country. Trainers know that when they come to Maryland they're not going to get away with things they might get away with someplace else."

Wilson comeback continues

Rick Wilson, the veteran jockey seriously injured in a spill one year ago, has begun galloping horses in the morning at Laurel Park and hopes to return to racing by the end of the year.

Wilson, 49, broke his right femur (thigh bone) and three ribs Oct. 12 last year at Pimlico. He underwent three surgeries. Initially, a rod was inserted into his thigh. Four months ago, a new rod was inserted. Wilson said the first one was too short, hindering his recovery.

"I should have been back in May," he said.

`Weisner' to return

Magic Weisner also is preparing for a return to the races after his frightening bout with West Nile virus. As with Wilson, the Preakness runner-up might race again before year's end.

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