Four harness horses at The Red Mile to race in the Grand Circuit meet have tested positive for illegal blood-doping agents, but their trainers are unlikely to be punished by the state.
This is thought to be the first time the dangerous drugs have been detected in racehorses in Kentucky
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The horses were among dozens tested by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission at the request of the track, which instituted out-of-competition testing for the performance-enhancing drugs last week.
However, the names of the horses, trainers, and owners might never be made public because the testing comes under the regulatory gray area of "house rules," established by tracks to go beyond state regulations. Keeneland and Turfway have implemented such house rules to ban toe grabs on front horseshoes.
Blood-doping agents, commonly known as epo, are illegal in racing horses but almost impossible to detect with normal post-race blood sampling. Kentucky has never detected epo in regular testing or in surprise pre-race testing such as that done for the Kentucky Derby.
Jim Carroll, spokesman for the Public Protection Cabinet that houses the racing commission, said the state has no authority for out-of-competition testing and so cannot use the test results to charge anyone under the state's drug rules.
If the positive test results had come under the state's authority, the trainers could have faced multi-year suspensions even for a first offense and the horses could have been suspended from competition for up to 60 days.
Instead, they likely will go to tracks in other jurisdictions next week and continue racing.
The trainers could face challenges getting relicensed in Kentucky next year. Carroll said a record of the positive would be placed in each trainer's file.
Joe Costa, Red Mile president, said the four horses were from four different trainers. None of the trainers has yet requested that the other half of the split sample be sent for retesting, so he declined to name them without confirmation.
The trainers, horses and owners racing at The Red Mile during the Grand Circuit are among the top competitors in harness racing. The horses that tested positive were scratched; one of the four will forfeit purse money.
Costa said the owners of the horses who tested positive were "shocked."
He said the owners were known in the industry for their integrity. "They would rather not be in the horse business than have horses like that," Costa said.
Costa said that perhaps 100 horses have been tested by racing commission vets, who will continue sampling through the end of the meet Saturday. In some cases, the horses were tested days after they raced.
Epo augments red blood cell production, which enhances a horse's stamina. The drug's effects last for weeks but it generally can only be successfully detected a few days after administration.
But, he said, the track's hands are tied after the horses and trainers leave Kentucky because The Red Mile has no jurisdiction to inform other tracks of its findings.
"I'm not sure exactly what we can do," Costa said. "The Red Mile has chose to put itself in uncharted water."
He said the track asked for the out-of-competition testing to ensure the integrity of The Red Mile's racing, with some of the top trotters and pacers in the world competing there during the two-week Grand Circuit.
Costa said the reaction from horse owners, who were required to sign a consent and waiver for testing to enter their horses, had been supportive.
George Segal, one of the racetrack's owners, said if the epo positives are confirmed, the results will be made public. "These guys will be punished, and the jurisdiction where they operated will be notified," Segal said. "We are serious about this."
It's unclear if the Horse Racing Commission's indefinite suspension of two Ohio vets on Thursday was related to the epo positives. Commission investigators seized unknown substances and records from the vets' vehicles at The Red Mile.
"I did not ask the state to investigate any vet," Segal said. "It could have something to do with the testing for epo. I can't tell you why they suspended them or why they searched any vet."