By: Matt Hegarty
A 25-year-old groom at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pa., has been arrested and charged by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office with one count of rigging a horse race after allegedly administering the regulated medication clenbuterol to multiple horses trained by Ramon Preciado, the attorney general said on Thursday.
According to a criminal complaint, Marian Vega was charged following an investigation by the state’s horse-racing commission, a probe that was then handed off to the Office of the Attorney General’s Organized Crime Section and Gaming Unit. Investigators allegedly found a bottle of clenbuterol in Vega’s possession, and testing of horses under her care showed that Vega “clearly administered clenbuterol beyond permissible guidelines,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.
The arrest is related to an investigation into multiple clenbuterol positives for horses trained by Preciado, according to an affidavit describing the investigation. Preciado has been suspended for six positives for the drug this year at Parx, but the trainer has appealed, claiming that a former employee had tampered with the horses.
Alan Pincus, Preciado’s attorney, said Vega worked for Preciado from last October until April, when his barn foreman found her in a dorm with a clenbuterol bottle, Pincus said.
“The foreman went to find her on the afternoon of April 10 because he needed her to walk some horses, he found her in her dorm and noticed the bottle of clenbuterol, he asked her why she had that, she said, ‘None of your business,’ and slammed the door,” Pincus said. “The foreman went to the racing commission the next day, and investigators showed up on April 12 and found her with the bottle.”
Preciado was charged with six clenbuterol positives earlier this year by the Pennsylvania Racing Commission in horses who ran from March 1 to April 12. Preciado has claimed that he stopped administering clenbuterol late last year after a spate of positives for the drug in his barn in 2015 at Parx and Delaware.
Preciado won 159 races from 569 starts in 2015, for a strike rate of 28 percent. In the prior year, he won 137 races from 477 starts (29 percent). His success has been accompanied by chatter that he was administering illegal substances.
An affidavit filed in the case states that Vega admitted to investigators that she administered clenbuterol to “all of” Preciado’s horses “over a long period of time.” The affidavit says that Vega administered clenbuterol knowing it was illegal because of her “hatred” for Preciado, his failure to pay her promptly for her work, and because he often “humiliated her.”
The affidavit states that Vega’s license was revoked on April 25 by the racing commission after she signed a statement confessing to administering the medication. A single count of rigging a publicly exhibited contest carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail.
The attorney general’s office said Vega was released from jail Thursday morning after her bail was set at $20,000. A preliminary hearing has been set for Aug. 31.
Clenbuterol, a bronchodilator, is a regulated drug in nearly all U.S. racing jurisdictions, and when it is used regularly, it can have effects similar to anabolic steroids. Pennsylvania recommends that veterinarians or horsemen should not administer the drug within 14 days of a race so as to avoid violating the drug’s threshold level, in line with the sport’s model rule.
Over the past several years, Pennsylvania prosecutors have aggressively pursued criminal charges against trainers and veterinarians based at Penn National Race Course in Grantville for the illegal use of medications. In most states, allegations of medication use in violation of state regulations is typically prosecuted by the racing commission under existing racing rules and penalties, rather than as a criminal matter.
Jeffrey Johnson, a spokesman for the attorney general, said that the Vega matter was referred to the attorney general’s office “because it involves an alleged criminal matter the parties thought our office was best suited to handle.”
Pincus said that the arrest and results of the investigation vindicate Preciado, at least in the six positives that were announced this year.
“I think this clearly shows that he is the victim here,” Pincus said. Preciado’s appeal hearing is currently ongoing, Pincus said.