by Frank Vespe
Score one for Katy Voss and the connections of Corvus.
As for the Maryland Racing Commission’s efforts to adopt the national uniform medication program, however, those remain a work in progress.
Following a nearly six-hour hearing yesterday at Laurel Park, the Commission voted 6-1 to uphold an earlier stewards’ decision not to disqualify Corvus, winner of the October 17 Maryland Million Nursery, who tested positive for isoxsuprine following the race. Commissioner Bruce Quade was the lone dissenting vote.
Isoxsuprine, a vaso-dilator typically used for horses with foot problems, is not on the state’s list of 26 approved medications, which mirrors that promulgated by the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) in its national uniform medication program. Following Corvus’ convincing upset victory in the Nursery, for two-year-olds sired in Maryland, the horse had tested positive for the substance, which is a Class 4 drug carrying a Class C penalty.
The stewards decided on November 18 to fine Voss, the horse’s trainer, co-owner, and co-breeder, $500 for the offense but not to disqualify the horse. They also assessed her two points on the multiple medication violation point systems.
That decision, which some observers viewed as lenient in light of ARCI guidelines calling for a $1,000 fine and disqualification and loss of purse, was appealed to the Commission by Country Life Farm, which owns Flash McCaul, who ran second in the Nursery.
Yesterday’s decision allows Corvus to remain a stakes winner. It also allows Voss, the horse’s trainer and co-owner, along with Robert Manfuso and Wayne Harrison, to retain the $55,000 in purse money that came along with the win. Manfuso and Voss, who co-bred the horse, also will benefit from a 15 percent breeder bonus and a bonus they may receive as a result of Corvus’ participation in last year’s Maryland Horse Breeders’ Association yearling show. In addition, Manfuso and Voss still own the mare, who is now a stakes-producer.
All told, the decision might have been worth six figures to the horse’s connections.
“It’s just a relief,” said a visibly emotional Voss after the hearing. “Oh, my God.”
Josh Pons of Country Life Farm had filed the appeal following the stewards’ decision. Country Life also had a lot on the line; a farm partnership owns runner-up Flash McCaul, and Country Life co-bred that runner and stands young stallion Friesan Fire, who sired Flash McCaul.
“We got a fair hearing,” Pons said afterwards. “We pointed out some of the problems in the evolution of modern racing’s struggle with trying to get the drug laws right. It’s changing, and it’s going to keep changing.”
Pons said that Country Life would not appeal the decision.
The vote came as something of a surprise to observers; since the Commission has in recent years sought to position Maryland as a national leader in medication reform efforts, many had assumed it would take a hard line in this case.
But attorneys Steve Allen, representing Voss, and Christopher Lord, representing the stewards, successfully argued that a) whatever its intentions, the Maryland Racing Commission has failed to adopt the national program penalty system for original violations (as opposed to its point system); and b) even if it had, those are guidelines of recommended, rather than mandatory, penalties.
“For an underlying violation, Maryland regulations have not adopted uniform classification guidelines,” Lord, who works in the attorney general’s office, told the Commission in his opening statement.
“Even to the extent the Commission expects the stewards to consult the guidelines, the guidelines make clear they are recommendations and that the stewards should use their own judgement,” he added.
Allen echoed that contention and argued that in this case, it was clear that the drug did not influence the horse’s performance or the outcome of the race. Dr. John Sivic of Yergey Stewart and Associates, Voss’s veterinarian, testified that he had never administered isoxsuprine to Corvus; and Voss testified that any isox in the horse’s system had to have been an accidental “one-time dose.”
“The evidence is unequivocal,” Allen said in closing. “The level of isoxsuprine was too low to have a performance-enhancing effect.”
But Jack Jones, Jr., representing Country Life Farm, disputed that. Indeed, because isoxsuprine is not on the list of 26 approved drugs, any amount found by a testing lab is considered a positive; thus, the labs do not typically, and did not in this case, quantify how much of the substance was present.
“We don’t know, and that was the key to the case, we don’t know how much isox was in the horse’s system because it was never quantitated,” Jones said in closing.
Though isoxsuprine is generally considered therapeutic and not performance-enhancing — “therapeutic and not very effective,” administrative steward Adam Campola said — Jones argued that at high doses, it can boost performance.
“It’s our position that this drug does have pharmacological effects on the horse,” he said.
And he suggested that upholding the stewards’ ruling would tell the racing world that a trainer can simply pay $500 to the Commission and walk off with a $55,000 purse. “I’m not sure this is the message the Maryland Racing Commission wants to send to the world,” he opined.
Ultimately, the Commission appeared to believe Voss’s claim that it was a one-time error and Sivic’s and Campola’s testimony that isoxsuprine is not performance-enhancing except in very large doses.
But it also seemed troubled by the lack of clarity in rules it has been developing over the last several years.
“Going forward we need to be very specific regarding prohibited drugs and what is mandatory and what is permissive,” Commission chair John McDaniel told the hearing. “It’s very difficult to change in the middle of the stream.”
As it happens, Corvus and Flash McCaul will have another opportunity to slug it out in 10 days. Both runners are pointed to the Maryland Juvenile Futurity at Laurel Park on December 26.