Getting Down to the Science of It All In Medina Spirit DQ Appeal

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Bob Baffert | Horsephotos

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FRANKFORT, KY – After a brief private meeting between attorneys and the hearing officer to discuss “confidentiality” matters, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission's hearing addressing trainer Bob Baffert's appeal continued, slowly but surely, on Wednesday in Frankfort, KY.

While Tuesday's session focused on the KHRC's medication rules, along with those established by the industry's Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) and the model rules of the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI), the center of interest Wednesday was the corticosteroid betamethasone itself.

The day started off with Dr. Heather Knych, a professor of clinical veterinary pharmacology and head of the pharmacology section at the K.L. Maddy Equine Analytical Pharmacology Laboratory at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University California, Davis. She provided her testimony via Zoom (from California) as an expert witness.

Called to the stand (virtually) by KHRC general counsel Jennifer Wolsing, Knych spoke to her area of specialty in equine pharmacology, with special interests specifically in studying drug metabolism, anti-inflammatory drugs, pain management and emerging threats. Knych explained that she has studied the effects of drugs on performance horses for nearly 15 years and has had several studies focused on corticosteroids published.

Wolsing asked Knych to explain what betamethasone is, what the effects of it are, and made note of the longevity of its effects in a genomic sense. Along that line of questioning, the KHRC's Medication Classification Schedule was pulled up as an exhibit, as Knych was asked if she agreed with betamethasone being listed as a Class C medication.

“I agree with its classification as a Class C medication. Based on the description, it's an FDA approved drug, it's a therapeutic agent and it has moderate potential to affect performance. [It] could potentially mask a lameness or injury and fits nicely with the other medications in this category,” said Knych, who also serves on the RMTC's Scientific Advisory Committee.

When asked if the administration of the drug matters in terms of measuring its impact, she replied, “I don't think it matters. The drug is the drug. Once it gets in the system, that's what we're looking at, [what it does] once it gets in the body and its effect.”

Diving deeper into the specifics of betamethasone and corticosteroids in general, Knych discussed the effects of various cortisol levels, how that is measured, and the overall picture when it comes to how the concentration of a drug in the horse's system correlates directly with the effects of the drug. Wolsing presented various published studies on the topics at hand during this time, including some that Knych was involved with herself. Some of the studies focused on betamethasone, while others centered around the effects of dexamethasone, a comparable drug that is also listed as a Class C medication.

When asked if the health and safety of the horse is part of the focus in equine pharmacology work, Knych said, “The primary reason corticosteroids are so tightly regulated is to eliminate the potential to affect performance, the potential to mask [things such as] lameness.”

Knych also acknowledged that there is potential of masking underlying health issues when using higher amounts of betamethasone.

However, when it came to the findings from the studies presented, Knych did say, “We don't know the end pharmacological effect of betamethasone in the horse.” She also said there have been no studies done specifically on the effects of betamethasone in horses when administered as a topical ointment.

During this time, Wolsing cited the KHRC's case with trainer Graham Motion in 2015, involving a stewards' ruling after a horse he trained that raced was found with too much methocarbamol in its system, to show that the commission has a right to regulate in situations where there is gray scientific area with regard to medication. Craig Robertson, an attorney for Baffert, argued against its relevance when discussing the systemic effects of corticosteroids.

Motion claimed he followed the RMTC guidelines for withdrawal but was still flagged, which is a similar claim from Baffert in terms of what happened with Medina Spirit's post-race result that revealed a betamethasone overage, which ultimately resulted in the colt's disqualification from his victory in the 2021 GI Kentucky Derby.

Robertson, who was part of the KHRC case involving Motion in 2015, believed the case was being mischaracterized and stated, “The case says that you have to have a rational scientific basis for what you do.”

Wolsing also asked Knych if the route of administration of the drug has any bearing on the effect of the drug once it is in the horse's system. She replied, “No. It depends on what the concentration of the drug is regardless. I'm talking about the concentrations at the end, when we still see suppression of cortisol.”

In one of her final inquiries, Wolsing stated, “Medina Spirit was administered approximately 45 milligrams of Otomax from a bottle over a period of about Apr. 9 and going through Apr. 30, the day before the [2021] Derby.” She followed up asking Knych what the impact of that would be on the horse.

“I don't think we can say one way or another. We don't have the science to say one way or another,” she replied.

Her response was met with audible satisfaction from Baffert's legal team, who took over from there, as they continued to argue that the KHRC's medication rules lack detail and scientific backing, specifically when it comes to administering betamethasone in the form of a topical ointment.

The cross-examination of Knych, conducted by Baffert's attorney Joe DeAngelis, delved into the inexactness of the science in the studies of and testing for betamethasone, along with how long it takes for betamethasone to leave a horse's system–intended to enforce that the 14-day withdrawal period established by the KHRC was unreliable.

The RMTC's Controlled Therapeutic Substances Monograph Series was also brought up, as DeAngelis asked if Knych recalled discussing or hearing any discussion about the ethics and safety of topical use of betamethasone. She said she hadn't. When asked if there had been any recommendation from the RMTC specifically on a stand-down period for topical use of corticosteroids, Knych replied, “No.”

DeAngelis also referenced RMTC's Position Statement on Corticosteroids, a study published in 2013, which showed that the use of topical corticosteroids was known to RMTC at the time the findings were published.

When asked if she approved of the 14-day stand-down period, Knych replied, “Yes,” and admitted she did not recall any discussion of recommending it to be longer.

Knych's time as a witness, which lasted nearly 3 1/2 hours, ended with some final questions from Wolsing and a few remaining questions for the sake of clarification from DeAngelis.

Wolsing asked, “Could a much higher concentration affect a horse's health and safety?”

“Potentially yes, but what those levels are, I don't think we necessarily know that yet,” said Knych.

After a 45-minute lunch break, members of the media were asked to leave the conference room as lawyers met behind closed doors to discuss what hearing officer Clay Patrick, a Frankfort attorney, called “proprietary information.”

The hearing addressing Baffert's appeal to get his already served 90-day suspension and a $7,500 fine removed from his record, along with reinstating Medina Spirit's victory in last year's Kentucky Derby, continues Thursday at 9 a.m. and is expected to roll over into next week, starting Monday, Aug. 29.

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