By: Nicholas Bergin

GRAND ISLAND — An unusual torrent of race horses have tested positive for therapeutic drugs in Nebraska this spring.

The owners and trainers of more than a dozen thoroughbreds appealed the penalties for the tests to the four member Nebraska State Racing Commission at its monthly meeting held Thursday at Fonner Park.

They argued that they have followed the same medication practices for years, the amount of drugs found in the horses was miniscule, and they suspect the positive results could be due to the company doing the tests using more sensitive equipment.

Nebraska has a zero-tolerance policy for horses testing positive for certain drugs. The policy has become problematic over the years as tests become more sensitive.

The racing commission last month approved new standards that would allow for horses to test positive for certain thresholds of drugs but those new rules still have to be reviewed by the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, the Governor’s Policy Research Office, approved by Gov. Pete Ricketts and filed with the Secretary of State’s Office.

The drugs for which the horses tested positive are considered therapeutic to help with issues such as swelling and pain, and at the levels tested generally would not improve performance. Owners aren’t allowed to give horses the drug when racing because doing so could mask an injury. But they are allowed to treat horses during training, like taking an aspirin after a workout, as long as it is out of the system by race day.

Monte Hehnke of Grand Island, whose horse Hyperbolizer tested positive for the anti-inflammatory drug Methylprednisolone, said he has run more than 1,000 horses and been before the commission only twice. He asked the commission to consider owners, who could be scared away from racing in Nebraska.

“If they don’t come, we have no horse races,” Hehnke said.

Commission members voted to uphold the positive tests but restored forfeited purses and changed most of the punishments to a verbal warnings and issued two fines of $250, all of which is within the guidelines recommended by the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

In other news, commissioners approved the Lincoln Race Course’s one and only live racing day for Sept. 8, a Thursday, with a post time of 4 p.m.

The one-furlong dash typically lasts less than 15 seconds but attracts hundreds of spectators. The Lincoln Race Course is required to hold at least one live race a year to qualify for a license to offer wagering on simulcast races from across the nation. It simulcasts events year-round.

Commissioners also approved plans by nonprofit South Sioux City Racing and Events Center Inc. to build a short horse track, sports bar and simulcast wagering facility at the site of the former Atokad Downs in Dakota County. The project is being funded by Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

Organizers there plan to hold a single live race day on Sept. 10 with a 5 p.m. post time.