By T. D. Thornton
Strychnine, the active ingredient in rat poison, has been detected in post-race drug testing of three horses from the same owner/trainer at Turf Paradise.
All three horses additionally tested positive for caffeine. A fourth horse from the same outfit tested positive for caffeine alone.
Alex Torres-Casas, the owner/trainer of all four horses, was fined $2,625 and suspended 180 days for the offenses according to Arizona Department of Racing (ADR) ruling 18-19TP107 dated Feb. 27.
Torres-Casas appealed the ruling the same day it was issued, according to Caroline Oppleman, the public information officer for the Arizona Department of Gaming.
Strychnine is listed as a Class 1 Penalty/Category A substance on the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI) Uniform Classification of Substances list–the most dangerous level. Caffeine is listed as 2/B. The ARCI's recommended penalty for a 1/A violation is a minimum one-year suspension and a minimum fine of $10,000.
But this is not the first Class 1/A offense for Torres-Casas. According to the May 30, 2017, ADR ruling 16-17TP126, he was also fined $2,650 and suspended 180 days for a cocaine positive in horse he raced at Turf Paradise in February of that year.
The ARCI guidelines for a trainer's second lifetime Penalty Category A offense in any jurisdiction call for a minimum three-year suspension and a minimum fine of $25,000.
TDN attempted to contact both Rudy Casillas, the ADR director, and the Turf Paradise stewards to find out if there were mitigating circumstances that resulted in a penalty well below what the ARCI recommends.
A voicemail left with Casillas was returned by Oppleman, who said she did not know whether investigators are pursuing the case as intentional doping or if the horses accidentally ate rat poison. The person who answered the phone at Turf Paradise said the stewards won't be at the track until Saturday. A working phone number for Torres-Casas could not be located prior to deadline for this story.
The three Turf Paradise horses that tested positive for both strychnine and caffeine were:
Windi's Moment, an 0-for-11 maiden claimer who ran third in the first race at 26-1 odds on Jan. 15.
Straightcash Homie, an 0-for-11 maiden claimer who ran second in the seventh race at 85-1 odds on Jan. 16.
Giro Candito, a 2-for-13 claimer at the $3,000 level who was pulled up and vanned off at 5-2 odds in the eighth race Jan. 23.
The caffeine-only horse was S S Taylor, a 1-for-19 claimer at the $3,500 level who ran fifth in the eighth race at 25-1 odds Feb. 2.
Unless the case gets overturned in the appeals process, all of the above horses will be disqualified from purse money and placed on the stewards' list for 60 days. They then would have to be retested and be proven to be clear from foreign substances prior to being allowed to race.
According to Equibase, Torres-Casas has been a licensed trainer since 2016 with a 9% lifetime win percentage.
Although strychnine would seem like an unlikely performance-enhancer given its widespread use as a rodenticide, over a century ago it was one of the first substances to cause a major sports doping scandal in America. At the time, it was believed that in very small concentrations, strychnine boosted neuromuscular capabilities.
In 1904, Thomas Hicks, the Summer Olympics marathon winner in St. Louis, openly downed a mixture of egg whites and brandy laced with strychnine handed to him by an assistant during the running of the race. A formal protest was lodged, but the Olympic Games director refused to consider it and the results stood.
According to published reports at the time, it was not Hicks's chemical consumption that caused the controversy. Rather, the outrage stemmed from strychnine cocktails not being available to all Olympic runners in the searing, 90-degree heat.