Did someone urinating in a horse’s stall lead to an Iowa Derby disqualification?

The horse that failed a drug test after placing second in the 2019 Iowa Derby may have fallen victim to someone urinating in his stall. (Photo courtesy of Prairie Meadows Casino, Race Track and Hotel)

The horse that failed a drug test after placing second in the 2019 Iowa Derby may have fallen victim to a worker who urinated in his stall.

The circumstances surrounding the disqualification of the horse Shang are detailed in a new lawsuit filed by the horse’s trainer against the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission.

Steve Asmussen, the state-licensed trainer for Shang, alleges that he brought Shang and five other horses to Prairie Meadows in July 2019 to compete in several races. The six horses were assigned stalls in Prairie Meadows’ Stakes Barn, and Shang later placed second in the Sweepstakes for 3-year-olds during the 21st running of the Iowa Derby.

Blood and urine specimens were collected from Shang after his second-place finish. Two weeks later, Industrial Laboratories, the primary lab contracted by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission to perform analytical testing of specimens, reported that Shang’s urine tested positive for Atenolol. That finding was later confirmed when a separate sample tested by the University of California came back positive.

Last May, the matter came before the Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino’s Board of Stewards, where Asmussen presented evidence that Atenolol is a common contaminant in water supplies in metropolitan areas, including Des Moines.

The board ruled against Asmussen, disqualifying Shang, ordering the forfeiture of $49,700 in winnings, and requiring Asmussen to pay an administrative penalty of $1,000. In its ruling, the board noted “Asmussen’s extensive medication violation history.”

The board also found that the Atenolol in Shang’s system was “extremely low” and that “there was substantial persuasive evidence provided showing Atenolol can be an environmental substance.” It determined that Shang had been subject to “inadvertent exposure” to the chemical and there was no “deliberate administration” of the substance.

The precise nature of Shang’s exposure to Atenolol is alluded to in the board’s ruling, which suggests the chemical “most likely came from a person closely associated with the horse … Mr. Asmussen feels prohibiting persons who are caring for his horses from urinating in stalls is ‘a practice that is impossible to stop.’ ”

The board noted that regulations pertaining to horses state that in the absence of substantial evidence to the contrary, the trainer is responsible for the presence of any prohibited drug in a horse’s system and that a positive test for a prohibited drug is prima facie evidence of a regulatory violation.

Asmussen appealed the board’s ruling to the commission and the case went before an administrative law judge who upheld the board’s actions while noting that Asmussen had argued the Atenolol exposure “could have been caused by a worker urinating in the horse’s stall” or from general environmental exposure. “To be sure, these are all theoretical possibilities,” the judge ruled, adding that the “amount of Atenolol present in Shang was at an extremely low level and would not have given the horse any competitive benefit.”

Asmussen appealed the judge’s ruling to the commission, which affirmed the findings of the board and the administrative law judge.

Asmussen is now seeking judicial review of that decision, arguing that the  Board of Stewards’ decision to impose a penalty for a trace amount of Atenolol was arbitrary and capricious.

“To maintain such a policy stance only darkens the reputation of the entire racing industry and does nothing to identify and deter the real threats to the racing industry or protect our racehorses,” Asmussen’s lawyers state in their petition.

The commission has yet to file a response to the lawsuit.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.