The Week in Review: After a Nightmare, Ray Handal Returns to the Winner's Circle

Ray Handal | Sarah Andrew

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It was just a claiming race, but when Ray Handal was standing in the Saratoga winner's circle Friday after a win by his Thinkaboutit (Upstart) in the day's eighth race, he was overcome with emotion. It was a victory he will never forget, understandable considering what he had just been put through.

“A short time before that, I didn't know if I'd ever be in the winner's circle again,” the 34-year-old trainer said. “To come back and win with a horse who we didn't have much in the way of expectations for and win in that kind of fashion, especially in Saratoga, was a special win. I felt like I had won a graded stakes race.”

In the moment, everything seemed normal again. His barn was full, he had just won a race in Saratoga and his reputation as one of the best young trainers on the NYRA circuit was in tact. But there was nothing normal about the first five days of July when Handal was issued a provisional suspension issued by the Horseracing Integrity Unit (HIWU), which meant he faced what could have turned into a career-crippling permanent suspension of up to two years.

“My world was ending,” he said.

Toward the end of training hours on June 30, he was approached at his barn by members of the HIWU team. He was told that a horse he trained named Barrage (War Dancer) had tested positive for a banned substance called Zeranol after finishing second in an optional-claiming allowance at Belmont May 28. Under HIWU rules, when a trainer has a positive test for anything on the banned substance list, they are suspended almost immediately, before a split sample can be reviewed and before the charged trainer is allowed to have a hearing. Handal's suspension began July 1.

He had been suspended and evicted from the grounds. He had to turn his horses over to someone else and faced having to spend two years on the sidelines. Under HIWU's policy of suspend now, ask questions later, it was unclear what could be done to overturn the suspension and how long that process might take. Handal feared the worst.

“It was horrible,” he said. “It felt like you just got a letter from the doctor saying you've got cancer and you've only got a few months to live. My heart dropped. I wasn't sad, upset or mad. I was in shock. I didn't know how to react.”

Handal was sure that he didn't do anything wrong. He had been training since 2014 and the worst thing on his record was a $500 fine issued by the Delaware Thoroughbred Racing Commission when a horse of his tested positive for Phenylbutazone and Flunixin. He said he didn't even know what Zeranol, which is synthetic nonsteroidal estrogen, approved for use to promote growth in livestock, including beef cattle, was.

“I have always played by the rules and I take pride in that. I care about my horses,” he said.

Handal turned to lawyer Clark Brewster, who, in racing circles, is best known for defending Bob Baffert through his many ordeals with Churchill Downs, NYRA and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Brewster quickly came up with an explanation as to how the Zeranol got into the horse's system. After receiving a report from UC Davis, which tested the horse, Brewster saw that there was also a finding of Zearalenone, a common feed contaminant. He said that, therefore, mycotoxins in the feed had caused the positive. Handal, he argued, could not be blamed for having contaminated feed. HIWU agreed. On July 5, the provisional suspension was lifted.

Handal's nightmare was over. Thinkaboutit was his third starter and his first winner since the suspension was overturned.

The case may be over, but questions remain. Before HIWU took over the process of drug testing and issuing fines and suspensions after a positive has occurred, Handal's case would have been treated differently. This would have been handled by the New York Gaming Commission and it would have allowed Handal to have a hearing before a suspension could go into effect. Presumably, Brewster could have presented his findings at that hearing, the Gaming Commission would have accepted that the positive was the result of environmental contamination and Handal would not have been sanctioned and the original positive would not have been reported. He wouldn't have been put through four days of hell.

“They are shooting first and asking questions later and that needs to be addressed,” he said. “I don't know if specifically HISA and HIWU is trying to attack horsemen. But when this was planned out, it might have seemed ok on pen and paper, but, in action, it really doesn't work.”

He hopes that HIWU will reconsider the policy of issuing provisional suspension immediately after the finding of a banned substance comes in and before someone can have a hearing. HIWU showed that it can be flexible when it announced last week that there will be a lesser set of penalties going forward when a trainer violates rules regarding inter-articular injections.

“They have already revised some rules, so it doesn't seem like they are so close minded that they won't be open to making changes,” Handal said. “And they listened to our case. At the end of the day, they could have dragged it out, but they reacted quickly and swiftly and realized that it should have been handled as an atypical finding. They corrected themselves right away.”

Being a trainer in Saratoga can be challenging, especially if you're not named Chad Brown or Todd Pletcher. Handal won just four races at the meet last year, and, while his stable is improving every year, he's won just one graded stakes race. He's got that to worry about. But a two-year suspension that hung over his career when it appeared that he did nothing wrong, that is no longer an issue and he's winning races again. He will gladly take it.

Saratoga Handle Declines Sharply Over First Three Days

While it's far too early to panic, business at Saratoga was slow over the first three days of the meet. After the track broke records for total handle for the meet in 2022 and 2021, could Saratoga's numbers finally be evening out?

A total of $65,527,927 had been bet on the meet through Saturday. That's a decline of 21.3% from 2022 when $83,241,031 was wagered through the comparable period.

As far as the first two days of the meet go, there were extenuating circumstances. On opening day, NYRA had to speed up post times in order to get the card in before a storm struck. That could have been why handle was off 6.2%. On Friday, the races were washed off the turf, and handle was, understandably, dismal. They bet $13,366,687 on the card, a 45.2% decline from 2022.

The real concern is the numbers posted Saturday, when an 11-race card included three graded stakes and the races stayed on the turf. In what looks like an apples-to-apples comparison to 2022, the handle was $31,744,186. That's a 14.4% decline from 2022 when $37,068,005 was bet on the card.

And don't blame the Chad Brown factor in the GI Diana S. Brown had four of the five starters in this year's field, which some argued made it an unappetizing betting race. In 2022, Brown had four of the six starters.

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