By: T.D. Thornton
A New Mexico-based trainer who continued to race Thoroughbreds unsanctioned for nearly two years despite having two horses test positive for a Class 1, Penalty Schedule A drug in 2015 now faces a $75,000 fine and a four-year suspension.
The New Mexico Racing Commission (NMRC) handed down the hefty sentence to Jose Alfredo Gonzalez Apr. 18, although the fine and suspension won’t take effect until May 5.
In a Wednesday phone interview, NMRC executive director Ismael “Izzy” Trejo described the drug in question, Nikethamide, as a powerful stimulant that is currently banned in the United States. In previous decades, it had been used on humans to reverse overdoses of barbiturates, but it has long since been replaced by safer alternatives.
“It’s a very unusual drug that has no place to be in a horse, ever,” Trejo said. “The most infamous approach to describing what this drug is [is that] it was a drug they once used on Adolf Hitler to revive him after a drug-induced overdose.”
Trejo added that Nikethamide is produced only in Argentina and Europe, and that it has gained black-market favor with high-altitude mountaineers who use it in lozenge form to gain a respiratory efficiency boost.
The last-known Thoroughbred positive for Nikethamide resulted in a six-month suspension and $5,000 fine for West Virginia-based trainer Chris Grove in 2013. In recent years, the banned substance has turned up in some human athletes who tested positive for it, most notably professional tennis player Marin Cilic, also in 2013.
According to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, “It is well known that Nikethamide is metabolized very rapidly…Hence, there is difficulty in proving that Nikethamide has been used as a doping substance.”
Nikethamide was detected in the post-race test for the Gonzalez-trained Go Autumn Go (Copelan’s Pache), who won the seventh race at SunRay Park Aug. 2, 2015. The drug also showed up in Cope’s My Goat (Copelan’s Pache), who was second in the fifth race at SunRay six days later. The two mares are full sisters.
Gonzalez is a lifetime 14%-win conditioner who has been training since 2000. However, since the positive Nikethamide test Aug. 8, 2015, he has won only 5 races from 128 starts. Attempts to reach him via a mobile phone number provided by the NMRC were unsuccessful.
Trejo explained that Gonzalez had been allowed to continue to race in New Mexico without facing any sort of suspension because of an outdated rule that has since been changed. Prior to Trejo being hired as executive director in March 2016, NMRC rules stipulated that Class 1 and 2 drug positives bypassed sanctioning by the track stewards, and instead went directly to a hearing officer.
“On paper, it seemed like a great idea to send them straight to a hearing officer, because they were probably going to appeal a stewards’ ruling anyway,” Trejo said. “As of Dec. 16, 2016, we have reversed that rule, and now the stewards are hearing them, and [that enables the NMRC] to utilize summary suspensions for Class 1 and 2 penalty classifications. This way, we can get them out of the game right away.
“A typical scenario that I observed here was [Class 1 and 2 violators] requested continuances, and they’d drag it out so they could continue to run until they had their day in court. It was a system that was abused quite a bit by the horsemen,” Trejo said. “They’d hire a lawyer one day before they’d be scheduled to go before a hearing officer…to ask for a continuance, and it was granted….It was a painstaking process to move at a snail’s pace to get these guys out of the game.”
Trejo went on: “Our constituents were complaining that [violators] continued to participate in the sport, and [some of them] continued to win big races and continued to win at high percentages. It leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. An alleged cheater got to continue to participate in the game, continue to cheat the betting public, continue to cheat the other participants in the race, and the state couldn’t do anything about it. So that was why it was very important that we got that rule changed to utilize the summary suspensions. Now, as soon as we get those test results back from the lab, those guys are out of the game on a summary suspension.”
Trejo said that the rule change hasn’t quite eased the NMRC’s backlog of drug violations up for adjudication, though. New Mexico recently had 50 positives come back from a 56-day meet at Zia Park, and there are some 35 or 40 cases pending from the just-concluded Sunland Park meet.
“We just deal with volume as far as drug violations go,” Trejo said. “We have a lot of them because we test a lot. We probably test more than any other state in this union. But our results with the high number of positives [show] that we’re catching them.”
Trejo added that the NMRC has not seen the end of its Nikethamide cases.
“There was just a rash of them that occurred around the same amount of time as Mr. Gonzalez’s case,” Trejo said. “We’re waiting on a hearing officer’s report for one other one that should be coming within the next month, then another one [is pending] for [Jose Gonzalez’s] brother, Carlos Gonzalez.”