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Racetrack vet testifies about cobra venom

The veterinarian at the center of a notorious horse-racing medication case said on Wednesday that he never gave cobra venom to an active racehorse, let alone one in the care of top trainer Patrick Biancone.

Dr. Rodney J. Stewart, who told Kentucky racing authorities that three vials of powdered cobra venom found in a refrigerator in Biancone's barns at Keeneland were there by chance, the result of being in transit from Versailles back to Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Stewart, who has been suspended since Aug. 16, 2007, testified Wednesday in an appeal of his five-year suspension, evidently the harshest ever imposed by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

Cobra venom can be used to deaden nerves and has some legitimate use in non-racing horses, but is a banned substance on the tracks because of its potential for abuse. There is no test that can detect it. While Stewart doesn't dispute that the cobra venom and other drugs were at Keeneland, he said they weren't there to be given to a racehorse.

"I didn't, nor would I," Stewart said. "Mr. Biancone doesn't train horses of a caliber that you would want to use something experimental (on)."

Stewart put the circumstances down to "my stupidity."

He said he was living out of a suitcase at the time, carting a bagful of medications from the refrigerator in his rented room to the barn on many days but never looked to see what was inside.

"At the time, I wasn't even aware there was snake venom in there," Stewart said.

He said he didn't know until Kentucky racing investigators raided Biancone's rented barns at Keeneland on the morning of June 22, 2007. The barns were searched because drug tests had come back positive for other prohibited medications on a Biancone-trained horse, L'Aziza, who ran at Churchill Downs on May 3.

Investigators searched four tack rooms, and Stewart had stored in one some veterinary supplies, including a soft-sided cooler containing medication that had to be refrigerated. Also in the cooler was a plastic bag of various medications that Stewart's wife, Erica, had scooped out of their home refrigerator in the move three weeks earlier, including various dog and cat vaccines, rabies tags ... and cobra venom.

Stewart said he bought four vials of powdered snake venom in July 2006 from a Florida veterinary supplier. The only time he ever used it, he said, was on a rescued racehorse, named Storm of Liberty but known to him as "Skinny," at Victory Haven Training Center in Lexington. Nicole Walt, Skinny's owner, came from Tampa, Fla., to testify on Stewart's behalf.

Stewart used one dose from the two-dose vial as a temporary therapeutic nerve block to treat Skinny's sore right front foot. The rest of the bottle he threw out with medical waste; the other three vials were still sealed when the authorities found them.

For possessing Alpha-Cobratoxin on the grounds of Keeneland, Stewart's racetrack vet license was suspended for four years. He got another year's suspension for drugs found in his vehicle the day of the raid, including Carbidopa and Levodopa, used to treat Parkinson's disease in humans. Stewart said he had forgotten the Parkinson's drugs were there. He was also suspended indefinitely for failing to comply with requests to turn over computer and veterinary records.

As a result of the suspensions, Stewart has been unable to practice at any racetrack, including in New York, where he lives, and would be unable to practice on any performance animal (horses, greyhounds or camels) in Australia, where he's from.

He is contesting the suspensions on the grounds of severity, and contends that he has cooperated with investigators fully and has since provided records and a copy of his computer's hard drive.

Biancone, who also was suspended after the barn raid, reached an agreement with racing authorities and has served out a year's suspension. He was eligible to reapply for a trainer's license on Nov. 1 but has not. Biancone was not at the hearing.

Stewart's appeal hearing will be continued on Tuesday. Hearing officer Robert Layton is expected to make a recommendation to the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission after Feb. 10.

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