By Sue Finley
Forte (Violence) has been disqualified from the Sept. 5, 2022 GI Hopeful S. due to the presence of meloxicam in his system, according to the horse's owner, Mike Repole; his trainer, Todd Pletcher; and their lawyer, Karen Murphy, who held a phone conference Thursday afternoon to address the suspension.
Meloxicam is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, widely prescribed to treat osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, and is sold under the brand name Mobic. It is not one of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatories that is approved in the United States for the treatment of racehorses in training.
“This horse came into our care on March 25, 2022,” said Pletcher. “He was never prescribed or administered meloxicam under our care.”
Murphy said that Braulio Baeza, the steward for the New York State Gaming Commission (NYSGC), informed her Thursday afternoon that the horse would be disqualified, and that Pletcher would be fined $1,000 and suspended for 10 days. Murphy said that the decision would be appealed, and that her request for a stay “at this level” had never been denied.
Forte's connections placed the blame for the eight-month delay squarely on the shoulders of the Gaming Commission.
“One point I want to address up front is that the Gaming Commission has stated now two or three times that we somehow delayed the process,” said Murphy. “That's a little bit shocking to me because it's false. I don't like government regulators to make false statements.” In fact, said Murphy, “from day one, we were on this. This delay is wholly on the Gaming Commission. It's because they weren't prepared to proceed with the case in a professional, orderly manner.”
Pletcher said that he was informed by Baeza of the positive on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022, the day he was to enter Forte in the GI Champagne S. He said that he was told by Baeza that Dr. George Maylin, the director of New York Equine Drug Testing and Research Program in Ithaca, N.Y., had told him that the level of the drug found in Forte's blood–500 picograms–indicated environmental contamination.
As he would not be allowed to race in the Champagne without further testing and examination, he instead went to the Oct. 8 GI Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, which he won.
Murphy said that they immediately informed the NYSGC that they would be requesting a split sample to confirm or rule out the presence of the medication. In these situations, the connections are required to find a lab that is capable of performing the testing, and pay for the test.
Murphy said that per standard procedure, she asked the NYSGC for the list of labs who were capable of performing the test.
“It took the Gaming Commission four months–and I'm not kidding you–to supply us with a list,” said Murphy. “They should be able to pull it out of their top drawer. And as it turns out, they did pull it out of their drawer, but it was outdated.” Murphy said the list contained labs that hadn't been authorized to conduct this kind of testing for years.
She said that once they received the list in December, they first called a lab that said they could not do the testing. They then used the lab at Texas A&M, and the split sample came back positive for meloxicam.
Also on the call Thursday was Dr. Steven A. Barker, considered one of the foremost experts in equine drug testing and research. He served as director of Louisiana State University's Equine Medication Surveillance Laboratory and State Chemist for the Louisiana State Racing Commission for 29 years until retiring from that post in 2016.
Barker said that the amount of meloxicam reported was 500 picograms per milliliter in the blood. “It's an extremely small amount,” he said, pointing to studies that any finding below 1.5 nanograms, or 1,500 picograms in the blood, is irrelevant and should not be called as a positive. “Anything above that, you need to carry on to adjudication,” he said. “So based on the science that has been published, this is environmental contamination.”
Barker took exception with the way that horse racing treats most medication positives, no matter the level of the drug found in the blood or urine. “Zero tolerance makes zero sense,” he said. “I'd say it has no effect, but actually, it has a negative effect, because it is still prosecuted as `doping' or as a violation.”
Pletcher appeared at a stewards hearing before the commission on Wednesday, and the group also expressed extreme dissatisfaction at the process and the proceedings, describing a scenario where the commission didn't send out a link for the video conference, that Repole had to create the Zoom call for the group himself, that Murphy as Pletcher's attorney wasn't allowed to speak, and that the laboratory results including the amount of the drug in the blood was not produced. They said they were also not allowed to call Dr. Maylin–whom Baeza had quoted as saying it was environmental contamination, according to Pletcher–as one of their three witnesses.
“I've never been involved in a situation like this,” said Repole. “As an owner who cares about the horses, I was on the emails with Karen and Todd and I was appalled at the simple questions that I asked the Gaming Commission that took days or weeks before they could even respond. We asked for guidelines, and they couldn't even provide guidelines. I started thinking, `if Todd Pletcher and Mike Repole and Karen Murphy can't get the simplest answers from the New York State Gaming Commission, how can anyone else?'”
Repole also took exception to the fact that the results of the test were provided to reporters, but not to the horse's connections. “It's a disgusting fashion in which they did this,” he said. “And then they leaked it to (the New York Times's) Joe Drape.”
Repole said he would fight this case as long as he had to in order to overturn this ruling.
“I spent $20 million last year on horses, I can spend $20 million fighting this case,” he said. “I think long-term this is going to be good for racing. This whole process, though sad and pathetic, has been a great learning experience for me. Todd and I have both talked about it. This is a fight for all horsemen. What about an owner who can't afford a lawyer like Karen? Or a trainer with six or seven horses who just has to accept the ruling because he can't afford to fight it. They really picked on the wrong owner.”
Forte will ship back to Belmont on Saturday where he will prepare for the June 10 GI Belmont S., said Repole.