By Bill Finley
When two members of Gulfstream Park's security team and a veterinarian descended on his barn on the morning of June 2, the 62-year-old trainer Jeff Poole didn't think he had anything to worry about. According to the Jockey Club's Thoroughbred Regulatory Rulings website, Poole, who has been training since 1989, had never had a violation of any kind. And his recent record–he had won 11 races combined since 2021–hardly suggested that he was a trainer who was taking an edge.
Even when investigators found in his office a tube of Thyro-L, which is used with horses for the correction of conditions associated with low-circulating thyroid hormone, Poole wasn't that alarmed. He was given a prescription for the medication in September to use on a horse that was subsequently transferred to another trainer a month later. He says he had not used the drug on any horse since. At the time, it was perfectly legal to use the drug if a prescription had been obtained and in the states Poole raced in, Florida and Ohio, it was not illegal to possess the medication.
Then everything changed on May 22 when the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit (HIWU) took over, handling the drug testing at most U.S. racetracks and levying the penalties for those who were found to have violated HIWU rules. Under the new Anti-Doping and Medication Control (ADMC) rules, the mere possession of Thyro-L was a serious violation as the drug had been designated a banned substance. Suspensions for banned substances carry suspensions of up to two years.
Jeff Poole was in a lot of trouble.
“I was totally unaware I had (Thyro-L),” he said. “I would have thrown it away. I wasn't even using it and they don't accuse me of using it. All they've accused me of is having it. It is not a performance-enhancing drug. This is a joke.”
Poole got the prescription for use on a horse named King Andres on Sept. 27, 2022 while the horse was training at Thistledown. After that race, he was transferred to the barn of trainer Randy Faulkner. The Thyro-L prescription was written by Dr. Scott Shell. In what may be nothing more than a coincidence, Shell was provisionally suspended by HIWU for being in possession of banned substances, none of which were Thyro-L.
From Thistledown, Poole shipped to Tampa Bay Downs and then to Gulfstream. He said that on each occasion his employees packed up everything that wasn't nailed down in his tack room and office, which included the tube of Thyro-L. While it should have been thrown away, it was simply forgotten and thrown in with the rest of Poole's belongings.
One thing Poole cannot do and has not tried to do is claim ignorance. He admits that on March 15, 2023, while at Tampa Bay Downs, he sat in on a presentation from HIWU Chief of Science Dr. Mary Scollay in which Scollay warned trainers that new rules were about to go into effect and that they needed to get rid of medications that were about to fall into the banned substance category. Thyro-L was specifically mentioned.
“I'm hitting myself over the head,” Poole said. “This is so stupid. I could have gotten rid of the stuff. I just didn't think about it. Too much else on my mind.”
Poole decided to fight, which led to having a hearing before an arbitrator that took place on July 26. That gave him plenty of time to think, beginning with why someone would have inspected his barn in the first place.
“They said someone tipped them off that it was in my office,” Poole said. “As far as I'm concerned, they must have sent a stool pigeon into my place. I never would have let anybody in my office who wasn't a friend. And if a friend saw it and knew what was going on, they would have said 'Jeff, get rid of that stuff. You're not allowed to have it anymore.'”
He's also followed other HIWU cases and claims a pattern is emerging whereby it seems that the majority of those who have been suspended are small-time trainers with limited resources. (Ironically, in his ruling, arbitrator Jeffrey Benz referred to Poole as a “high-level trainer of thoroughbred racehorses.”)
“(HISA CEO) Lisa Lazarus talks about how they're not trying to get rid of the little people but it looks to me like that's exactly what they're trying to do,” Poole said. “They gave me 22 months and I never had a bad drug test on a horse ever. They don't care about destroying a man's life when it's totally unnecessary. Horses are my life.”
Lazarus has had to respond to accusations that HISA is targeting small stables many times. When asked to comment on Poole's accusations she said “The ADMC program is completely unbiased” and referred to a letter to the editor she wrote to the TDN that addressed that issue.
During the first weeks of his suspension, Poole did nothing. He remained convinced that his side of the story would hit home with whomever was to decide his fate and that he would be exonerated. He was, of course, wrong.
“I thought this would all be straightened out,” he said. “I never dreamt they'd do this to me. I sat for months with no income. It got to the point where I couldn't keep doing it. I couldn't make a red cent. There was nothing but money going out.”
Once the arbitrator ruled against him, upheld the 22-month suspension plus a $10,000 fine and ordered Poole to pay $8,000 in arbitration costs, he knew he had to do something. While most trainers who have been provisionally suspended by HIWU have sat on the sidelines, Poole moved his stable to Mountaineer Park. HISA does not have jurisdiction over West Virginia racing. The same goes for Louisiana. So Poole is free to race in both states.
“West Virginia is not my home,” he said. “This is not where I want to be. My home is in Tampa, Florida. Every year I look forward to going home. After Mountaineer closes, my only option is to try to get stalls in Louisiana at the Fair Grounds. That's not a place I ever wanted to go to in my life, but it's either that or welcome to Walmart.”
Poole realizes he made mistakes. He was told by Scollay that Thyro-L was going to become a banned substance and that he needed to get rid of it if he had any in his barn. He ignored her warning. He also understands the trainer responsibility rule. No matter what he might think about the rules regarding Thyro-L, he was in possession of a banned substance and under the trainer responsibility rule he had set himself up for a penalty.
But what he can't understand is why he was suspended 22 months and fined $18,000 for what he considers to be a very minor offense.
“I expected to probably be fined for not discarding it,” he said. “But 22 months? If they think that's fair, that's beyond me. Officials, trainers, owners, everybody is telling me how unfair it was what they did to me. But I didn't see it coming. I don't think I deserve anything more than a possible fine.”