By: Matt Hegarty
An investigation involving a 25-year-old groom who has been charged with criminally administering the regulated medication clenbuterol to horses trained by Ramon Preciado at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa., remains open and is ongoing, a representative of the state attorney general said on Friday.
The arrest on Thursday of Marian Vega, who was employed by Preciado for approximately six months in late 2015 and early 2016, has given credence to Preciado’s claims that a former employee tampered with his horses, leading to six clenbuterol positives from early March to mid-April, coinciding with Vega’s employment in his barn.
Preciado is appealing a 270-day suspension handed down by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission based on the positives.
Alan Pincus, Preciado’s attorney, has raised questions about whether Vega was acting alone or on behalf of a separate party, citing Preciado’s unpopularity on the backside and among regulators and racing fans. The six positives occurred after Preciado claimed that he stopped administering clenbuterol, a bronchodilator that can have steroid-like effects when used regularly, because of six other positives for the drug in 2015 at Parx and Delaware Park.
In an affidavit, Vega admitted to administering clenbuterol to Preciado’s horses because of her “hatred” for the trainer, but the affidavit does not include any reference to the involvement of a second party. However, the affidavit notes that in her first interview with investigators, she would not answer questions related to how she obtained the medication, which is extremely costly and should require a veterinary license to obtain.
Pincus has cited the cost of the medication to introduce questions about the involvement of another party.
“How does a hotwalker afford that on her salary?” Pincus said in an interview.
The arrest of Vega is also providing an opening for Preciado to argue in his appeal for an exception to the absolute-insurer rule, a regulation in place in every U.S. racing jurisdiction that holds the trainer ultimately responsible for the condition of the horse, regardless of circumstances. As the term implies, regulators rarely grant exceptions, except in cases in which there is overwhelming evidence that a trainer should not be held responsible.
The rule allows regulators to issue penalties against licensees without complying with strict evidentiary standards that would apply in civil and criminal courts. As a result, many attorneys for trainers charged with violations of state racing regulations are highly critical of its application in cases in which veterinarians or other actors have acknowledged making mistakes that led to the trainer being charged with violations.
Still, courts have upheld the legality of the rule despite the limitations it places on a licensee’s due-process rights, citing the need for racing commissions to protect the integrity of the sport.
Pincus has been arguing for the exception during Preciado’s appeals process, but he has also stated that the racing commission has not yet allowed Vega’s affidavit to be introduced as evidence during the appeal.
Now that Vega has been charged with a criminal offense – rigging a publicly exhibited contest, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail – Pincus likely will turn up the pressure on regulators to grant the exception, especially in consideration of Vega’s statement in the affidavit that she has been administering the drug to “all of” Preciado’s horses “for a long time.”
“I think it’s pretty clear that Ramon is the victim here,” Pincus said. “Yet the commission is still acting like he should take the blame.”