Wong Suspended Two Years and Fined $25,000, Says He'll Appeal

Jonathan Wong | Benoit photo

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Trainer Jonathan Wong has been suspended for two years and fined $25,000 for a post-race metformin positive from last June after a Jan. 9 hearing before the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority's arbitration panel.

The two-year period of ineligibility retroactively starts July 1, 2023, when Wong's initial provisional suspension was first imposed.

He will also pay $8,000 of HIWU's share of the arbitration, in addition to his own arbitration fees.

As the maximum possible sentence for such a violation, the ruling marks the latest twist in a case that became entangled in the evolving rules of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act's (HISA) enforcement efforts. While the arbitrator rejected that this was contamination, several other Metformin cases have called into question whether or not possible environmental contamination should be treated the same way that other positives are treated.

The case also appears far from over. In a short statement, Wong wrote that he had appealed the ruling which could now go before the Federal Trade Commission, head to federal court, or both. Wong also explained that he would seek a temporary injunction against the ban.

“By the time this new story breaks, we will have already filed or will be filing our appropriate appeal, whether in Federal Court or with an Administrative Law Judge through the Federal Trade Commission. It is entirely possible we will dual-path this situation and file in both. In all instances, we will seek an Emergency Order with Injunctive Relief.  The facts and merits of the case will be heard,” Wong wrote, in a joint statement with his long-time owner, Brent Malmstrom.

Wong-trainee Heaven and Earth (Gormley) broke her maiden at Indiana Grand June 1 but subsequently tested positive for the prescription drug Metformin, a type 2 diabetes treatment that HISA has classified as a banned substance.

As a matter of protocol at that time, HIWU initially provisionally suspended Wong at the beginning of June when the A sample returned a positive finding for Metformin.

The HISA Authority subsequently announced that it had modified the rules surrounding provisional suspensions. Under the revised provisions, responsible parties who request B Sample confirmation following a positive test for a banned substance would no longer face a provisional suspension until the B sample findings are returned.

In Wong's case, he was notified on Aug. 9 that the B Sample confirmed the Metformin positive.

Though Wong was technically permitted to return to training for a brief period while the B sample was being processed, he explained at the time that his owners did not wish to transfer the horses back with the B Sample results expected imminently, and effectively has not trained since July 2.

Metformin ranks as the nation's third-most-prescribed human medicine, according to the consumer healthcare website Healthgrades, with more 20 million patients taking it. As a banned substance under HISA, a metformin positive comes with a possible two-year suspension and $25,000 fine.

Because of the possible severity of the sanctions and its ubiquity in the environment, metformin has been at the heart of several cases since HISA's anti-doping and medication control program went into effect that have led some to question whether HIWU is deploying too strict an enforcement approach to the drug.

In justification of its stance, HISA CEO Lisa Lazarus told the TDN last month that “we do have intelligence that metformin is being used intentionally to enhance performance.”

Furthermore, in October HIWU announced that internal reviews of its six contracted laboratories uncovered different limits of detection in blood for metformin, triggering a process of testing harmonization in blood across the labs for the drug. Until that point, all the metformin positives originated from just the one lab.

The Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit (HIWU) has posted a detailed explainer of the ruling on its website.

The report details how the A sample was sent to the HIWU-accredited Industrial Laboratories in Denver Colorado, while the B sample was sent to the Chicago Analytical Forensic Testing Laboratory in Chicago, Illinois, for confirmatory analysis.

According to the report, the Kenneth L. Maddy Equine Analytical Chemistry Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, conducted “Further Analysis” on the A blood sample “received from Industrial,” and on the “remainder of the B urine sample” received from the Chicago lab.

“Apparently, they can swing till they're happy,” said Malmstrom, when asked about that development.

Wong's legal team presented several defenses during the hearing, including that Heaven and Earth had a groom who urinated in the stall and frequently touched the horse on the mouth. They said that the groom was on Metformin, and had fled to Mexico after the finding, for fear he had contaminated the horse, and could not be found. He argued that the sample being sent to the Maddy lab for further testing—a third laboratory–suggested questionable conduct on the part of HIWU. The samples at all three labs were positive.

“There is, unfortunately, the simple fact that Mr. Wong has been untruthful in this proceeding. I find that Mr. Wong has not met his threshold burden of establishing the source of the contamination and thus there is no mitigation that might possibly be considered for Wong, and his sanction should be two years of Ineligibility,” wrote arbitrator Nancy Holtz in her finding.

“There is no doubt that Mr. Wong is an experienced, highly successful trainer who has climbed the ranks of this industry from the bottom up. His conduct and performance as a trainer presents a mixed bag: He has submitted numerous letters of support and praise from a constellation of highly regarded people in the horse racing industry. There is also no doubt that Mr. Wong has suffered financially, professionally, and emotionally from the Provisional Suspension and this will no doubt continue during the balance of the Ineligibility period. Balanced against these facts, however, is a record which does not support that Mr. Wong did much to prevent this contamination from occurring. If Mr. Wong was engaged in routine, frequent trainings of his staff regarding not urinating in the stalls, keeping hands clean and so on–which I do not believe–he certainly did not couple this with any level of monitoring, enforcement, or deterrence such as through imposing consequences for violators. Mr. Wong is no doubt a decent person who, in his own way, has tried to put the safety and welfare of his horses first. But despite his best intentions, the evidence is clear that Mr. Wong has abdicated his obligation as a Covered Person to protect the safety and welfare of the horses under his care consistent with ADMC Rules.”

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