by Frank Vespe
Lady Vivien’s about as nondescript as a racehorse can be. She’s a runner more notable for what trainers think she can be — she’s been claimed seven times since May 2014 — than for what she actually is, a horse who’s won five of 32 career starts and earned a bit over $106,000 in her career.
Yet for a couple of weeks in January, the six-year-old Posse mare was the talk of the Laurel Park backside.
The reason for that demonstrates one of the challenges trainers — and racing itself — face in this era of toughened medication regulations.
“An innocent bystander who claims a horse could get ruled off, called a doper,” says trainer Kieron Magee, who happened to be in the middle of the Lady Vivien incident, “and he’s done nothing wrong.”
Call Lady Vivien the poster-horse for the problem of stanozolol. Her single positive test for stanozolol had the potential to implicate three different trainers, two of them entirely blameless.
“I think this is something that should be addressed pretty quickly because it could happen to anyone,” said Kenny Cox, one of the three.
Lady Vivien won for trainer Scott Lake on December 11 in $6,250 claiming company, and Magee claimed her out of that race.
About two weeks later, her post-race test came back with a positive for stanozolol, the anabolic steroid formerly marketed as Winstrol. It had in Maryland been permitted, up to a threshold level, until mid-October. In October, the state changed its rules to remove a threshold level, meaning that the presence of any stanozolol in a horse’s system on raceday will now trigger a positive. Some veterinarians continue to prescribe it, however, for therapeutic purposes. It also, of course, has performance-enhancing benefits.
Lady Vivien was one of a half-dozen horses, two in Lake’s care, who recently tested positive for stanozolol in Maryland. It is unknown what caused the sudden spike in positives, though the rules change, sources have said, played a role in at least one of them.
At first, when Lady Vivien’s test came back, it was a garden-variety story of a horse with a positive test.
Two problems arose, however. First, stanozolol is slow to leave the body; some horses have been known to show traces of it up to 45 days after being treated, studies indicate.
Second, no one bothered to tell Magee, who then ran Lady Vivien on December 27 — a few days after the positive, about which he had not been informed. She won again — and was claimed again, this time by Cox.
That put Magee in a dicey position, “sweating out a test,” as Cox put it. If it came back positive — a distinct possibility, given that it had been just 16 days since she’d registered a positive — the horse would have had to be disqualified, costing Magee and owner Robert R. Beck the winner’s share of the purse. Moreover, Magee would have been at risk of a fine, suspension, and points on his record.
He was not happy.
He says that he told a steward with whom he spoke, “Whatever you all decide, I will sue you guys if you try to disqualify me and take the money away.” He says that the steward described the stewards as being in “territory that we don’t know what to do.”
The top two finishers in a race in Maryland typically are tested after the race. Thus, Magee would have to wait — a week to 10 days, normally — before knowing whether Lady Vivien’s win would stand.
That also put Cox, who had claimed the mare, in a difficult spot. He could not run his new charge until the second test came back clean. If it did not come back clean, he would have to sit on the sidelines and wait until the stanozolol cleared her system. That would cost time and money with a horse in good form.
Cox says that Maryland Racing Commission officials told him, “You can run the horse if you want to.” But they also told him that a positive test would result in a disqualification and probably other penalties.
Fortunately for both Magee and Cox, the second test came back negative. Magee and his owner were able to keep the purse money Lady Vivien had earned. Cox had a horse he could race.
Still, both trainers believe that the rules must change, for the well-being of both trainers and horses.
“My biggest problem is how my particular case was handled, and nobody gives a damn,” said Cox. ” Any horse that comes back with a positive, you should have the option to return it.”
Magee said he agrees.
“It should not have happened this way,” he added. “I just think from now on, every horse that’s claimed should be tested for steroids.”
The void-claim solution, however, is not in the immediate offing, said Maryland Racing Commission Executive Director Mike Hopkins. He said that, depending on the drug — stanozolol is one of only a few medications used on horses with such lengthy withdrawal times — a horse with a positive test would be placed on the stewards’ list and become ineligible to start until showing a clean test. The claimant would be informed but unable to take any action, other than waiting.
Hopkins said that allowing the claim to be voided would require regulatory action, which would take months. It also raises questions: who pays which bills and for how long, among them, and what happens if a horse injures itself during the interim period. He couldn’t say whether the Commission would want to go down that road, particularly given the rarity of such occurrences.
“I’ve been here 30 years,” he said, “and I don’t remember a claimed horse coming back positive before this one.”
That’s cold comfort to Cox, who suggests that a void-claim rule would benefit not just trainers and owners but also horses, since it would serve as a stronger disincentive to using the now-prohibited steroids.
“If we’re about protecting the horses, this isn’t doing it,” he said.
As for Lady Vivien, Cox ran her on January 31. She finished third, as the favorite, and was claimed by Keisy Cartagena. That marked the fourth consecutive race in which she was claimed.