Morfin Meth Case Highlights Backstretch Substance Abuse Problems

Coady Photography

By

Towards the end of December, the Sergio Morfin-trained Grazen mare Wishtheyallcouldbe was loaded onto a van from her stable at Los Alamitos to be shipped to Santa Anita for a $12,500 claimer. She would ultimately finish second.

Isidro Paez was the freelance groom hired to care for the horse that day. In February, Paez had his license suspended for 90 days by the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) for disorderly conduct “under the influence of Amphetamine and Methamphetamine” on Jan. 27, at Santa Anita.

According to the stewards' minutes of the hearing, Paez voluntarily provided a urine sample that day which resulted in a positive finding for both methamphetamine and amphetamine. In explanation, “Paez stated he snorted methamphetamine while attending a New Year's party on January 1, 2024,” the minutes state.

On March 3, Morfin was issued an interim suspension by the Horse Racing Integrity and Welfare Unit (HIWU) as a result of Wishtheyallcouldbe's positive post-race test for methamphetamine, a banned substance under the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA).

Since then, Morfin has remained provisionally suspended while his case is being processed.

According to John Tyre, Morfin's attorney, because of Paez's chronicled history of methamphetamine use, he has reached an agreement with HIWU that on April 6, Morfin's suspension will be lifted after some 30 days. Crucially for this more lenient sanction, Morfin did not pursue a formal hearing, said Tyre.

The length of Morfin's suspension also reflects a recent shift by HIWU in applying lesser sanctions than in the past for violations stemming from common drugs of human abuse like cocaine and methamphetamine, in accordance with proposed rule changes pending approval by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Rather than confront a possible two-year ban and $25,000 fine for a methamphetamine positive, say, trainers will face a maximum 60-day suspension and $5,000 fine under the proposed rules, if they are indeed approved.

In a note on HIWU's website, it states that the organization “has elected to stay all pending Anti-Doping and Medication Control (ADMC) Program cases whose potential periods of Ineligibility would be affected by these rule updates, including due to either the reduction of the applicable periods of Ineligibility or the removal of the automatic application of penalty points for certain violations.”

“[Morfin] will be back to training the first week of April. And then, that'll be the end of it,” said Tyre, who was quick to add that rampant substance abuse problems among backstretch employees–and its overlap with positive tests in racehorses–is an issue that's far from over, despite the proposed lessened sanctions.

“I've been doing criminal defense work for many, many years, and if it wasn't for methamphetamine, alcohol and marriage, I'd be broke,” said Tyre.

As such, the ultimate insurer rule that places the burden of responsibility solely on the trainer's shoulders is leading to decisions that don't always reflect the complicated nature of the problem, Tyre said. “HIWU and HISA need to conduct some kind of investigation to determine how widespread [substance abuse] is around the backside of the racetracks.”

Coady Photography

THE PROBLEM AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Tyre's suggestion hardly comes as a bolt from the blue.

The long hours, early mornings, sometimes poor pay and living conditions, coupled with the dangerous nature of backstretch work make drink and drugs something of an all-too convenient crutch–especially while blind eyes are turned in an industry where hard-drinking and hard-partying have long been worn as a badge of honor as much as a release from the grind.

Indeed, there's a reason so many exercise riders say they ride better after a drink, why so many shed-row ice machines have bottles of beer nestled in them, and why so many see the antidote to the dreaded four-a.m. alarm clock as an inhalable stimulant. Just look at the numbers.

Since HISA's ADMC program went into effect last year, there have already been 13 either pending or resolved cases for methamphetamine positives, and another two involving cocaine.

Darin Scharer is executive director of the Winners Foundation, a presence at every California track to provide information, support and referral services for backstretch employees and their families going though addiction issues.

Scharer said he was unable to estimate just how many backstretch workers have substance abuse problems. But he doesn't argue with the contention it's significant.

“We're not having the fentanyl problem or the heroin issues that other places have,” said Scharer, about California's backstretches. “But we definitely have a marijuana issue. And we definitely have a methamphetamine issue.”

Indeed, veteran California trainer Hector Palma was suspended for 81 days for a methamphetamine positive, a portion of that time after multiple grooms in his care tested positive for the drug. The positive occurred near the start of the ADMC program going into effect, before the new rules were proposed.

What Scharer bemoans is the lack of any unified approach to providing support to racing's phalanx of essential workers.

“Unfortunately it's only us, Kentucky and New York. That's the only three that I know of,” said Scharer, about the number of jurisdictions armed with substance abuse support programs like the Winners Foundation. “I would love to be involved in a program where we make this more uniform across the country.”

One key obstacle to meaningful movement in this arena is an ongoing cult of shame that surrounds the issue. “There's still a lot of stigma associated with people that have drug problems and mental health problems,” said Scharer. “For people accessing services, it's still a scary thing.”

Another reason appears to be more mercenary.

At a time when the industry grapples with a profound dearth of good, reliable help, there's a fear among some in the industry, said Scharer, that tackling the problem head-on could lead to an even more attenuated workforce. “Sometimes people don't want to know the truth of how bad it really is,” he said.

Though not everyone is as averse to such truth-telling. “I know that Richard Mandella tests everybody in his barn before they go work for him,” said Scharer. “He doesn't want anybody who works with his horses to be working under the influence.”

At the same time, some substance abuse rehabilitation programs offer a tantalizing answer to the industry's staffing woes.

“It could turn the backside upside down,” said Frank Taylor, director of new business development at Taylor Made Farms, about a joint venture he's helped build between Stable Recovery and the Taylor Made School of Horsemanship for men and women suffering substance abuse problems.

The partnership includes two halfway houses and a 12-step program, along with vocational rehab to teach those going through the 90-day course the basics of horsemanship. The idea is to provide them with an avenue towards meaningful employment–in the process, providing a new workforce source for the Thoroughbred industry.

Graduates of this program, said Taylor, have found work at a variety of key farms in the area including Coolmore, Darley and WinStar. “We've got about 10 farms that are currently working with us,” he said.

“If trainers started hiring these people, they would absolutely love it,” Taylor added. “It's just the right thing to do to help these people, give them an opportunity in life. Plus, we're putting them with the most therapeutic animal on earth.”

Taylor estimates upwards of 50 percent of backstretch employees have a potential substance abuse problem. And it's a topic Taylor knows well.

A recovering alcoholic, Taylor quit drinking a few years ago, which is when he visited the DV8 Kitchen, a Kentucky restaurant that provides employment to those in the early stages of substance abuse recovery.

DV8, said Taylor, proved the inspiration for the second chance venture he's built at Taylor Made. What's more, their program works.

“Generally, somebody goes into a 90-day program only about 15% of them stay sober to the end of the 90-days,” said Taylor. “We're running more like 85%. The reason is, they get completely out of their old environment and come out and work immediately.”

While the program is primarily geared towards those with little to no prior horse experience, they've taken on individuals from the racetrack–jockeys, trainers, even farm managers–who act as tutors, said Taylor.

“We'll have them helping the green guys coming in,” said Taylor, who explained how they adapt their program to the skill sets of the individual.

“Folks from the track, they're going to see some guys in there, picking feet and whatnot, and they're going to say, 'do this, do that,'” said Taylor. “The thing about addiction, to get and stay sober, you've got to help another addict.”

Ultimately, Taylor envisages a recovery program with a racetrack backstretch-located dormitory.

“The idea would be to put them through our program, get them sober 90-days, then move them into that dormitory with a house manager and keep the drug testing going,” said Taylor.

“I don't know how it's going to go or how it's going to grow,” Taylor added. “But I know there's a huge need for it. And I know it's a win-win for the industry, for the horses and the horsemen.”

Lisa Lazarus | Carley Storm

HISA'S ROLE?

Substance abuse on the backstretch is on HISA's radar, said the organization's CEO, Lisa Lazarus.

“If we have a significant amount of our population that we depend on to run racing that is struggling with addiction or abusing drugs, I think we have a moral obligation to help those people and to do something for them,” Lazarus said, adding that she's already discussed the need for providing a stronger network of industry treatment programs with those already working on the problem.

For the sake of improving safety and integrity in racing, “it's just not acceptable to say that meth in the workplace is okay. And I think it's everyone's job to fix it,” Lazarus said. “The trainers deserve to have a whole lot of help from racetracks and other organizations to help prevent employees from using meth on the backside. It's not only their responsibility.”

That said, “I would like to encourage more trainers to think to themselves, 'you know what? For $25 more, I don't need the cheaper groom. I could find a groom that I actually know and feel more comfortable with and use them instead,'” Lazarus said.

But given how ubiquitous drug use is on the backstretch, what about those trainers unable to find reliable drug-free help because of the industry's chronic staffing shortage? Or those struggling trainers unable to fork out premium prices?

“I recognize that sometimes it's not achievable,” said Lazarus. “But obviously, the anti-doping system is based on a system of fault. So, when trainers have come forward and have evidence of workers in their stable that are on the drug, they obviously get a much more relaxed penalty because they have an explanation. And that's only fair.”

The “complicated question,” said Lazarus, is how to find the correct balance between “being fair to horsemen and what they can control while also requiring some level of responsibility.”

At the launch of HISA's anti-doping and medication control (ADMC) program, the screening limit for meth was the same as for the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC), said Lazarus. “We've ended up quadrupling it,” she added, of the screening limit.

Though many cases have been dismissed as contamination, has HISA's approach been a fair one for the horsemen and women so far?

“It may be that the science shows that in time the screening limit needs to be raised,” said Lazarus.

“The one thing I would say is there is no racing jurisdiction in the world or horse sport in the world that doesn't test for and sanction for meth. And actually, our rules are amongst the most lenient with regards to meth because we do take into consideration the risks on the backside,” Lazarus said, pointing to the recent case of Harness racing trainer Clarence Foulk suspended for one year stemming from a 2023 methamphetamine positive.

When asked if the way Morfin has been treated has been reasonable, his attorney, Tyre, responded that the constraints of the system guided their approach.

“If we were to fight the case forward it would take months,” said Tyre, adding how his client could have remained suspended for that period. “This was the best way to get him back to work,” he said.

Not a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the daily PDF or alerts.

Copy Article Link

Liked this article? Read more like this.

  1. Diodoro Resurfaces At Lone Star Park
  2. Weaver Trained Horse Tests Positive for Metformin
  3. HISA, Sports Medicine Concepts Launch Comprehensive Emergency Preparedness Initiative
  4. HIWU Releases 2023 Annual Report
  5. The Road Back: Robert Osbourne Spreading the Word on Stable Recovery
X

Never miss another story from the TDN

Click Here to sign up for a free subscription.