A Little Tolerance - By Dan Liebman

The unwritten rule has always been that police officers won’t stop you if you are driving five miles over the speed limit. You might call it their “threshold level.”

As the case of trainer Steve Asmussen clearly illustrates, the Thoroughbred industry is in need of medication threshold levels.

On July 16 Lone Star Park stewards, following Texas Racing Commission guidelines, suspended Assmussen for six months (and fined him $1,500) for a medication positive dating back to May 2008, when the filly Timber Trick’s spit box urine test showed a metabolite of the local anesthetic lidocaine.

Asmussen, who has appealed, has denied administering the drug, and his request to have the filly’s blood tested was denied because Texas has a zero-tolerance policy, thus making the level of the drug irrelevant.

It is relevant, however, because the blood level might prove whether the drug was administered or the positive was due to contamination.

In a perfect world, zero tolerance might work. But this is far from a perfect world, and zero tolerance doesn’t work.

In 2000 Bob Baffert was facing a similar suspension, though for a much stronger drug, after a filly he trained, Nautical Look, won an allowance race at Hollywood Park and tested positive for morphine. Dr. Steven Barker, chief state chemist for the Louisiana Racing Commission, testified the amount of morphine in Nautical Look was 73 billionths of one gram.

Barker testified at Asmussen’s hearing as well and stated he believed the positive to be consistent with contamination.

After nearly five years of fighting the charges, Baffert was exonerated after testimony before an administrative law judge showed that during May and June 2000, 13 of 95 samples were deemed to be “suspect” for opiates, which seemed to indicate environmental contamination.

Dr. B. William Bell, the California Horse Racing Board veterinarian, testified the amount of morphine found in the filly was, “pharmacologically insignificant and most likely due to environmental contamination.”

California has probably had more cases that fit this bill than any other state. Trainer Bobby Frankel had two horses in 2001 test positive for small amounts of morphine, but the charges were dropped after the now infamous “poppy seed” defense. Indeed, studies have proved the ingestion of poppy seed bagels or poppy seed cake can produce false positives for morphine.

In 1989, charges were dropped against California trainers D. Wayne Lukas, Laz Barrera, Albert Barrera, Anthony Hemmerick, and Bryan Webb after accusations that horses they trained were positive for cocaine or its principal metabolite. It was believed the testing samples were contaminated.

In another California case, trainers Richard Mandella, Ron McAnally, Willard Proctor, Mark Hennig, Lewis Cenicola, and Bill Shoemaker were absolved of wrong doing after 1994 positives for scopolamine in post-race urine samples. The trainers proved the depressant was traced to the presence of jimsonweed in stall bedding.

Now comes the case of Asmussen, the leading trainer in the country last year by wins (a record 622) and atop that category again so far this year; the man who guided Curlin through two Horse of the Year campaigns and now oversees the training of the brilliant filly Rachel Alexandra.

There is no arguing about what zero- or no-tolerance means or that those who support it are trying to rid the sport of cheaters, but it doesn’t separate the cheaters from those unfairly tainted by contamination positives.

If the blood levels were tested, we would know if Asmussen indeed administered lidocaine to the filly, and, therefore, whether he should be punished by such a harsh penalty. Should the blood test indicate contamination, a more appropriate punishment of 15 or 30 days could be ordered.

In the Baffert case the administrative law judge stated, “These facts and (Baffert’s) success as a trainer support the conclusion he had nothing to gain and a great deal to lose by the use of a banned substance on this horse.”

The same could be said today of Steve Asmussen.

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