By: Matt Hegarty

Two trainers, including Jorge Navarro, have been fined by the New Jersey Racing Commission for positive tests for Class 1 substances in post-race samples of horses under their care, but the commission did not levy suspensions, citing “mitigating circumstances” that point to contamination of the samples.

Navarro was fined $2,500 for positive findings of cocaine and its metabolites, while Joe Sharp was fined $1,500 for a positive finding of methamphetamine. Both rulings said that the fines were issued “based on the level of the foreign substance and other investigative evidence” obtained by the commission. Typically, positives for Class 1 drugs draw lengthy suspensions.

Frank Zanzuccki, executive director of the New Jersey Racing Commission, said that, “by law,” he could not disclose the mitigating circumstances, but he characterized the concentration of the drugs in both cases as “at low levels.”

However, Brad Beilly, attorney for Navarro, said that the presence of cocaine in the urine sample – rather than just its metabolites – indicated that the drug was introduced to the sample post-race. A test of the horse’s blood revealed no cocaine or metabolites, and tests of the personnel in Monmouth’s test barn have been sealed by the racing commission, Beilly said.

As a result, Beilly has appealed the ruling. Navarro’s horse, George Cross, was disqualified, and the first-place purse of $10,500 in the $17,500 claiming race on June 17 was forfeited.

“You would not find parent cocaine in the sample unless it got in there post-race,” Beilly said. “It would have been fully metabolized. This shouldn’t have even been called a positive.”

The Sharp horse who tested positive, Phat Man, won the $100,000 Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth on July 8. Phat Man also was disqualified and the purse redistributed.

Clark Brewster, the attorney for Sharp, said that he has appealed the ruling, and he called the positive for Phat Man a “clear case of environmental contamination” that had been acknowledged by the commission in its decision to forego a suspension. He said the concentration of methamphetamine found in the post-race sample was 30 picograms per milliliter.

“This is not a fight over a $1,500 fine or the loss of a $60,000 purse,” Webster said. “This is a fight against being held responsible for something you have absolutely no control over.”

While not commenting directly on the cases, Zanzuccki confirmed that both were adjudicated under similar circumstances. He noted that test-barn personnel and the employees of both trainers were tested for drugs in the cases.

When asked why the commission would issue fines if there was proof that substances were introduced to the samples after the race, Zanzuccki said: “Had the commission determined conclusively during the investigation that the sample had been contaminated after it was collected, we would not have applied a penalty to the owner or trainer.”

Navarro, who through Friday had won 134 races from 421 starts this year, also has a case pending in Florida for a trace level of cocaine in a horse that raced at Tampa Bay Downs earlier this year. The appeal hearing has not yet been scheduled, Beilly said. Navarro has denied administering the drug, which is a common environmental contaminant.

In other New Jersey cases, trainer Nick Zito was suspended 15 days for an overage of the regulated medication phenylbutazone, a painkiller that cannot be administered with 48 hours of a race. Zanzuccki said the 15-day penalty is standard for a phenylbutazone overage in the state.

Also, Kathleen O’Connell, who through Thursday had won 70 races from 475 starts this year, was suspended 15 days for a positive finding of acepromazine, a regulated sedative that can calm horses down and is frequently used as a pre-anesthetic.

All of the suspensions will begin at the start of the Monmouth season in May next year.