Cup trainers not saddled by drug suspensions

By Joe Drape
The New York Times / November 5, 2009

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In 2007, Kentucky racing officials found cobra venom, a powerful painkiller, in the barn of Patrick Biancone, a horse trainer with prestigious victories from Hong Kong to France. He was barred from the sport for a year. Steve Asmussen, the nation’s leading trainer, served a six-month suspension in 2006 after one of his horses failed a drug test in Louisiana, and is appealing another six-month ban handed down in Texas for another medication violation.

Both, however, will saddle horses in the Breeders’ Cup, which begins tomorrow at Santa Anita Park and will bring together horses from around the globe to compete in 14 races worth more than $25.5 million in purse money.

Biancone and Asmussen are not alone: More than a half-dozen other trainers with multiple and serious drug violations will have contenders in the starting gate of one of thoroughbred racing’s greatest events.

In fact, of the top 10 American-based trainers in purse winnings this year, only one, Christophe Clement, has never been cited for a medication violation, according to industry records.

“Ten years ago, you were embarrassed to get a medication suspension,’’ said Clement, whose Gio Ponte will compete in the $5 million Classic. “Now trainers get suspended and go away and when they come back they get more horses and more owners than they had before they left.’’

It is part of an evolving culture in horse racing that ultimately rewards those who seek any means, legal and otherwise, to get an edge. When illegal drug use goes undetected, trainers walk away with the winnings and an enhanced reputation. But when they are caught, they are all too often handed punishment that is in name only. Their horses still run and their stables still operate, usually under the name of a trusted assistant.

“It seems like we’re handing out speeding tickets instead of arresting people for dealing drugs,’’ said Tom Ludt, a member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which regulates the sport in the commonwealth and handed down the ban on Biancone.

In 2006, for example, when Asmussen was suspended by Louisiana authorities when a filly he trained tested 750 times over the legal limit for the local anesthetic mepivacaine, which can deaden pain in a horse’s legs, he turned his horses over to Scott Blasi, his longtime assistant. Blasi won 198 races in 2006 as the Asmussen stable finished the year with more than $14 million in earnings.

Soon after his return, Asmussen was given Curlin, who went on to win the Preakness Stakes in 2007 and then became a two-time Horse of the Year for Jess Jackson.

Asmussen and Jackson are likely to win a Horse of the Year title for a third time this year with the filly Rachel Alexandra. She is skipping the Breeders’ Cup after going 8 for 8 this year, including beating 3-year-old colts in the Preakness and the Haskell as well as older male horses in the Woodward Stakes.

In July, shortly after Texas announced its suspension of Asmussen, Ludt, who also is general manager of Vinery Stable, took 21 horses away from him. But his decision lasted only so long. He has returned six horses to Asmussen - including multiple stakes winner Kodiak Kowboy, who was supposed to compete in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint Saturday but was scratched this week because of illness.

Ludt acknowledges that his words and actions are often in conflict over the subject of drugs in horse racing. He admits that he returned to Asmussen because “it’s a tough, brutal sport, and you want to win.’’

“Everyone knows we have a problem where the punishments do not fit the crimes,’’ said C. Steven Duncker, the racing association’s chairman. “We all need to go farther.’’