Maryland: Lengthy dextrorphan case leaves both sides unhappy
by Frank Vespe
It took the horses in Laurel Park’s second race on February 10 1:41.06 to navigate the one-mile distance.
It took horse racing’s humans another 174 days to figure out who’d won.
What came between was a lengthy and slow-moving process to adjudicate a dextrorphan positive called against the winner that included a finding, the testing of a split sample, and an appeal to the Maryland Racing Commission.
Ultimately, a three-person panel of the Commission finally decided the case August 3. It voted unanimously that trainer Mary Eppler was “responsible,” under the absolute insurer rule, for the presence of the drug in the system of Story Spinner, who won the race.
But it rescinded the $500 fine imposed by the stewards and overturned Story Spinner’s disqualification, leaving the gelding the winner of the race and a maiden no more. Eppler will receive either one point or one-half point on the multiple medication violation system, rather than the two points the stewards originally imposed.
“That’s really the reason I appealed was the points,” said Eppler, who co-owns the horse along with Adam Staple. “I personally didn’t care about the purse money.”
The race, a $25,000 maiden claimer, carried a base purse of $27,000. The winner’s share was $15,390. For trainers, though, the points can carry even more severe costs, as they can lead to enhanced penalties and, if owners take note, reduced business.
Eppler, who has been training since 1980, has just one other medication violation on her record, according to ThoroughbredRulings.com, a 2011 phenylbutazone overage.
“I didn’t give anything to the horse,” said Eppler, who believes the substance must have got into the horse’s system via environmental contamination. “I’m not going to give anything to the horse, not after 34 years. What worries me is what happens when this happens again.”
Neither Eppler nor Greg Wilson, the trainer of Beltway Bob, the runner-up in the February 10 race, had much good to say about the process.
“The whole process was just not easy,” Eppler said.
“I went around and around with the Commission,” Wilson agreed. “They need to change the rules on how long that takes.”
Wilson also thinks how the rule treats horses in this situation should change.
Truesdail, Maryland’s testing lab, initially called the positive on March 1. Eppler requested a split sample, as she is entitled to, but said that it took several weeks to find a lab willing to do one.
By the time the stewards had the split – which also came back positive – and held the hearing, it was April 28. Once Eppler filed her appeal, on May 4, the stewards declared the results of the race “in dispute.”
That means that, in this case, both the winner and runner-up were considered for eligibility and allowance purposes to have won the race.
Wilson, who ran Beltway Bob three times between the February 10 race and the May 4 ruling that the race was in dispute, refused to run the horse against winners. Since nothing in the program would mark his horse as a winner – the result still being in dispute – he said he didn’t want to enter and “look like a damn idiot.”
And once, when he did enter but then scratched, “I caught hell” from the racetrack for scratching.
As a result, he said that his perfectly healthy horse didn’t run a race between April 21 and August 12. The delay included a continuance at the request of the Eppler side. Fortunately, when he did run on August 12, he powered to a four-length victory.
“You would have thought I won the Derby yesterday,” Wilson said August 13, following the victory. “Everybody that knew what was going on wanted to be in the winner’s circle or to come up and congratulate me.”
Wilson believes that the rule treating both horses as winners when a race is in dispute is unfair.
“It’s not fair that the horse that ran 2nd should be punished,” Wilson said. “It’s the trainer that runs second that has to pay the penalty.”
All of which points to some of the complexity’s in the sport’s ongoing efforts to standardize and improve policing of medication.
Dextrorphan is a metabolite of dextromethorphan, which is commonly found in cough medicine. Under Maryland rules, which mirror the model rules promulgated by the Association of Racing Commissioners International and Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, dextromethorphan is not permitted in horses. It is a Class 4 drug – those considered to have “less potential to affect performance” than Class 1, 2, or 3 drugs – and carries a “B” level penalty. The recommended Category B penalty for a first offense is fine, disqualification, and a suspension.
Dextrorphan came to the attention of the horse racing public earlier this year when the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission rescinded three violations that had found the drug in horses’ systems. In those cases, the concentrations found of the substance were higher than the 2.5 ng/ml found in Story Spinner’s urine.
Additionally, a recent study, on which Kentucky in part based its decision, found that, while because of metabolic differences in horses it is hard to determine when dextromethorphan was administered, horses with low levels of dextrorphan showed “no significant undesirable behavioral effects.”
It could not, Kentucky regulators believed, have affected the performance of the horses in question. With Story Spinner having even lower levels of the drug in his system, Maryland regulators reached the same conclusion.
“An innocuous kind of medication,” Commissioner David Hayden, who participated on the panel called it, citing the Kentucky decisions and the recent study.
In years past, the decision might have come more quickly. Indeed, the stewards might well have decided not to impose the recommended penalty and reached a conclusion similar to that reached by the Commission.
But, in the aftermath of a controversial 2015 decision made by the stewards not to disqualify Corvus, the winner of that year’s Maryland Million Nursery, after he tested positive for isoxsuprine, the Commission essentially eliminated the stewards’ discretion on such matters.
“The stewards threw the book at (Eppler) based on the rule,” Hayden said.
Adam Campola, the state’s administrative steward agreed. He said that the stewards followed the guidance they’d been given by the Commission but that Catherine Bellinger, the assistant attorney general who represents the stews, told them that the recent rulings in Kentucky and the latest science would make it hard to uphold the case.
As a result, Campola said, “We didn’t fight” for the ruling.
At the same time, though, the Commission felt it important to impose some sort of penalty under racing’s “absolute insurer” rule because it believed Eppler to be responsible. Though Eppler had “no idea” where the medication came from – “I questioned every one of my employees and no one was taking cough medicine at the time,” she added – she also was unable to offer compelling evidence pointing to environmental contamination, which might have convinced the Commission to revoke the penalties altogether.
And then there’s the question of how all of this affects the game’s integrity.
Wilson, a trainer since the mid-1970s, said he’s concerned when the Commission weakens a medication ruling.
“It’s sending out a bad message,” he said. “Trainers are going to get away with what they’re going to get away with.”
Eppler expresses a different, though related concern: that the industry focuses on minor violations like these at the expense of catching genuine cheats.
“If I had done something, I would have admitted it. It was like I was put in jail and I’m innocent,” she said. “I think (catching up honest trainers) is lowering the integrity of racing. They need to really crack down on the people that are using things.”