By: Frank Vespe
The Maryland Racing Commission Tuesday decided that the Struth – and the absolute insurer rule – outweighed what it perceived as the truth and Mike Trombetta.
The case, which could have had wide-ranging implications not just in Maryland but across the country, instead simply upholds the sport’s longstanding regulatory scheme.
Struth, trained by Trombetta for Fitzhugh LLC, was disqualified after testing positive for clenbuterol following a second-place finish in allowance company on July 24.
That, said Trombetta, “was very upsetting to me” because he does not use clenbuterol or even keep it in his barn. “I didn’t know how it could be possible,” he said of the positive.
Trombetta came to today’s Commission meeting to appeal the disqualification of his trainee and, he said, “to declare my innocence.”
He accomplished the second part of his goal: convincing the Commission that he did not administer or cause to be administered to Struth the clenbuterol that Truesdail Laboratories found in the horse’s system.
What he did not accomplish, however, was to overturn the stewards’ decision disqualifying the horse.
“We truly, honestly believe your testimony,” Commission chairman Michael Algeo told Trombetta in announcing the ruling. “[But] what has been definitively established is this horse had clenbuterol in his system.”
And Maryland’s rules state that the trainer is “the absolute insurer of, and responsible for, the condition of each horse the trainer enters in a race, regardless of the acts of third parties.”
Which means, in the Commission’s eyes, it didn’t have much choice.
The final result: Struth will be disqualified from purse money, and Trombetta will be slapped with two multiple medication violation points. The Commission did decide to waive a 15-day suspension the stewards had imposed. The decision was made unanimously by a four-person panel of the Commission, including commissioners Tom Winebrener, Tammy Lafferty, David Hayden, and chairman Michael Algeo.
The case came to the Commission as a result of Trombetta’s appeal of the stewards’ October 4 ruling. In that case, the stewards disqualified Struth from a July 24 race, suspended Trombetta for 15 days, and slapped the trainer with two multiple medication violation points after Struth was found to have clenbuterol in his system in post-race testing.
Clenbuterol, a bronchodilator, is on the state’s list of substances permitted up to a threshold amount; the threshold is 140 picograms per milliliter in urine or the limit of detection – basically, any measurable amount – in blood.
Struth, who finished second in the allowance contest in question, was found to have 136 picograms per milliliter in his blood – well in excess of the limit of detection standard in place. In his urine, however, Struth had just “a few picograms per milliliter,” Commission chief investigator Joe Poag testified he was told by Truesdail.
Clenbuterol is typically found in higher numbers in urine than in blood, making Struth’s situation – the exact opposite of what is typical – unusual. Trombetta’s attorney, Steve Allen, seized on the anomaly to suggest that Struth must have been “environmentally exposed” to the medication sometime between the end of the race, which went off at 4:52 p.m., and the time when blood was drawn, at 5:33.
In the interim period, Struth, like all runners, would have been unsaddled near the Laurel Park paddock, walked to the test barn, cooled out in the test barn, and given water to facilitate urination prior to having blood drawn. He would have been accompanied at each step of his journey by one of Trombetta’s employees.
“This horse was exposed post-race by circumstances not involving Mr. Trombetta,” Allen claimed.
His position was backed up Dr. Kathy Anderson, of Equine Veterinary Care, who is the veterinarian for Trombetta’s Fair Hill string. She said that not only does the trainer not use the drug but that, on infrequent occasions when she has suggested it for a horse with a breathing problem, “he always declines.”
And Dr. Scott Stanley, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California-Davis, said that in his opinion, the high blood level of clenbuterol, coupled with its low presence in urine, pointed to Allen’s theory.
“This horse either has a small recent exposure, or I can’t explain” the measurements, he said.
The timing matters; had Struth been exposed to clenbuterol – or even had it administered to him – following the race, there would be no cause for disqualification.
But Assistant Attorney General Catherine Bellinger, arguing for the stewards, urged the Commission to focus on two main concepts: that the state’s regulations say that any clenbuterol in the bloodstream past the limit of detection is a positive, and that responsibility for that falls on the trainer’s shoulders.
“What we’re left with is just our regs say level of detection,” she pointed out.
In the end, after a 4 hour 40 minute hearing, the Commission concurred, leaving participants to ponder the absolute insurer rule. Both Trombetta and Allen were quick to call the Commission’s treatment “very fair,” and neither went so far as to call for scrapping the rule.
But Allen called the absolute insurer rule “a very difficult rule to overcome.”
And Trombetta added, “When you throw a big net in the ocean, you catch a lot of different fish. I feel I’m one of the ones that really did no wrong, but yet I’m pulled in.”
“Mr. Trombetta was a very impressive man, and I think the Commission certainly believed him,” Algeo said. “But we are bound by the statute.”