Three-year fight over horse’s failed drug test nears the finish line

By: - April 13, 2022 10:51 am

A judge is now considering the case of a horse that failed a drug test at Prairie Meadows after placing second in the 2019 Iowa Derby. (Photo courtesy of Prairie Meadows Casino, Racetrack and Hotel)

A Polk County District Court judge is considering the case of a horse that failed a drug test at Prairie Meadows shortly after placing second in the 2019 Iowa Derby.

Steve Asmussen, the state-licensed trainer for the horse, has alleged that his horse may have fallen victim to a worker who had the chemical Atenolol in his system and then relieved himself in the horse’s stall, contaminating the area. At a hearing on the matter, Asmussen argued that workers urinating in stalls was a practice that is impossible to stop.

More recently, Asmussen’s attorneys cited what they characterized as published evidence of Atenolol contamination in Altoona, where the Prairie Meadows racetrack is located, but they appear to have confused Altoona, Iowa, with Altoona, Pennsylvania.

According to a lawsuit Asmussen filed last year, he brought six horses to Prairie Meadows in July 2019 to compete in several races. The six horses were assigned stalls in Prairie Meadows’ Stakes Barn, and one horse, 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, a laboratory reported that Shang’s urine had tested positive for Atenolol. That finding was later confirmed when a separate sample tested by another lab came back positive.

In May 2020, 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 the water supplies of metropolitan areas.

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 Shang had most likely been subject to “inadvertent exposure” to the chemical and there was no “deliberate administration” of the substance.

Asmussen appealed the board’s ruling and the case went before an administrative law judge. The judge upheld the board’s action, which prompted Asmussen to file an appeal to the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, which affirmed the findings of the board and the administrative law judge.

Asmussen then took the commission to court, arguing the decision to impose a penalty for a trace amount of Atenolol was arbitrary and capricious, especially given published newspaper accounts of Atenolol contamination in Altoona.

“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 told the court.

The commission argued some of Asmussen’s evidence appeared to be based on an error.

“Crucially, part of the evidence Asmussen presented was about a different city named Altoona,” the commission’s lawyers told the court last month. “He offered an article from the Altoona Mirror, dated May 2020, discussing the Department of Environmental Protection’s announcement that it would review the Altoona Water Authority’s water management practices. Problem is, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Altoona Water Authority are Pennsylvania government entities, and the Altoona Mirror is a Pennsylvania newspaper.”

In response, Asmussen’s attorneys told the court that even if what the commission says is true, the court has been given more than a dozen other articles and authorities indicating Atenolol is generally found in the environment.

Two weeks ago, the two sides submitted their arguments in the case to Polk County District Judge Celene M. Gogerty, who has yet to issue a decision.

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Clark Kauffman
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.