New York regulators on Thursday suspended the Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher for 10 days, fined him $1,000 and disqualified his colt Forte — the favorite in last week’s Kentucky Derby until he was scratched because of an injury — as the winner of a stakes race last September in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
The colt tested positive for meloxicam, a potent nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used to manage pain and swelling, according to the New York State Gaming Commission. The drug, widely prescribed to treat osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, is not approved in the United States for the treatment of racehorses in training.
The positive test and suspension shine another unseemly light on a sport already reeling after seven horses, including two on the Kentucky Derby undercard, died at Churchill Downs in the week leading up to the Derby.
In the eight months since Forte’s failed test, he won his next four races, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November and the Florida Derby last month. Both races are considered important tests for potential Triple Crown horses. Forte was named horse racing’s 2-year-old male champion, a title that greatly increased his value as a potential stallion for his co-owners Mike Repole and Vincent Viola.
The disqualification of Forte in last September’s Hopeful Stakes means they will not collect the $165,000 first-place check.
On Saturday, Forte was the 3-1 morning-line favorite to win the Derby until he was scratched just hours before the race when Kentucky state veterinarians declared him unfit for competition because of a bruise to his right front hoof.
Neither Pletcher nor his lawyer, Karen Murphy, returned calls or text messages seeking comment. Repole declined to comment. A representative for Viola did not return phone calls or text messages.
State regulators said they were unable to resolve the doping issue earlier because Pletcher exercised his right to have a residual sample tested, but had trouble finding an approved laboratory to accept the sample. When the positive result was confirmed, Murphy repeatedly sought to postpone the hearing about the violation, according to regulators.
Doping and horse deaths have long plagued racing but are taking center stage at one of the few times each year that the public is focused on the sport: the Triple Crown season, beginning with the Derby and followed by the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. The explosion of online sports betting and falling interest in horse racing are also significant challenges for the industry.
The Breeders’ Cup requires participants to disclose any previous drug violations when entering its championships. A spokeswoman said neither Pletcher nor the horse’s owners told organizers about the failed drug test from the Hopeful two months before Forte ran in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. She said Forte passed all of the pre-race regulatory, veterinary and drug testing requirements to race in Kentucky, which hosted last year’s Breeders’ Cup races at Keeneland.
“Situations like this are exactly why our sport cannot tolerate further delays of the implementation of H.I.S.A.’s enforcement policies,” said Drew Fleming, president and chief executive of the Breeders’ Cup, referring to the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority.
The authority, overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, was created to come up with strict medication rules and meaningful punishments for violations. It is also expected to streamline an adjudication process that has varied from state to state and has often taken months or even years to play out. The authority takes over on May 22.
Under the authority’s rules for handling drug violations, the public will know within weeks the name of the horse and trainer involved, as well as the drug detected. Within four months, a finding will be made and, if necessary, a punishment issued.
Pletcher has been named champion trainer seven times and has won two Kentucky Derbys and two Belmont Stakes. He had a medication violation in 2004 in New York for the drug mepivacaine, a local anesthetic. He served a 45-day suspension and was fined $3,000, according to thoroughbredrulings.com, a website maintained by the Jockey Club, an industry organization.
Pletcher appears to have at least one other drug violation pending.
Louis C. Linder Jr., a Pennsylvania trainer, said in an interview on Thursday that he had been unable to collect $38,000 in purse money for finishing second to Pletcher’s horse Mind Control at Parx Racing on Sept. 24, 2022. Linder said Jeff Matty, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, told him the money was being withheld pending a ruling on the failed test.
Matty did not respond to phone calls.
“I have had medication violations and they suck,” Linder said. “But you take responsibility and move on. It has to be handled in a reasonable amount of time. The money matters to small outfits like mine.”
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