Where does the ‘Absolute Insurer Rule’ extend?
Louis Canchari has owned and trained horses at Canterbury Park for 32 years. His love and passion for the sport and the horses were inherited by his two sons, Patrick and Alex, who practically grew up there and today are successful jockeys. At 62, Canchari is broke and had to sell his stable of nine horses. But, he can’t imagine returning to Canterbury Park until he gets his reputation back. In horse racing, a reputation is all you have really.
And in horse racing, that reputation can be tainted in a nanosecond by a picogram of an illegal substance no matter how it got there. The trainer has the “Absolute Insurer” responsibility. But does he or she have the absolute control?
In 2014, Canchari’s reputation took a hit when his horse, Smart Masterpiece finished second and he was approached by the steward. “He said ‘your horse got a bad test’, I said ‘bad test’, he said, ‘methamphetamine,’ ‘I don’t even know what it is, methamphetamine,’” he recalled to Fox 9 Investigators. Smart Masterpiece was disqualified. Canchari was fined $2,000 and suspended for 90 days.
Then, three years later, in 2017 another Canchari horse, Carson’s Storm, tested positive for methamphetamine with a microscopic, trace amount: 126 picograms (per mil of blood). A picogram is one trillionth of a gram. This time, the Minnesota Racing Commission dropped the hammer with a $25,000 fine and a three year suspension. On appeal, the penalty was upheld by an administrative judge but was later reduced to $10,000 and one year.
“No one comes to a track to watch horses running with meth in their system,” said Tom DiPasquale, executive director of the Minnesota Racing Commission. “It has a high potential to effect performance in a horse and has no purpose in a horse, so as a class one violation, it’s the most serious offense in racing,” DiPasquale said.
Under the Minnesota Racing Commission’s zero tolerance policy, the trainer is ultimately responsible for the welfare of the horse. The Absolute Insurer Rule. Canchari had to essentially prove his innocence. “This is not a criminal trial and fault is not required, and that’s what Mr. Canchari has misunderstood,” DiPasquale said. The commission’s view is while Canchari may not have intentionally given methamphetamine to the horses, he failed to protect them from exposure.
This is not an isolated incident. Another trainer, Shane Miller, had a horse test positive in 2017. He paid his fine and left racing. It also happened to Mac Robertson, the most successful trainer in Canterbury Park’s history. He had a horse test positive in 2015. On June 7 Purest Form won in a $7,500 claiming race in which he was the favorite. A couple of weeks later, Robertson was summoned to a meeting with the stewards. He was told Purest Form had tested positive for meth.
“I asked, ‘How much?’ And they said, ‘It’s small’ … they didn’t give me a number,” Robertson said. “Wouldn’t have meant much to me, anyway, because I didn’t know what a picogram meant with meth. I don’t know anything about meth, except we’ve had a few cases on the backside where people were found with it.” Eventually, the number came back from the split sample at 74 picograms. “What would meth do to help a horse win a race?” Robertson remarked in an interview with The Star Tribune.
Kellyn Gorder is a well-regarded thoroughbred trainer. His then three-year-old filly, Bourbon Warfare, won a maiden race at Churchill Downs on November 22, 2014, and was drug tested with split tests. Bourbon Warfare’s tests both came back with a trace of methamphetamine — the first split at 57 picograms and the second at 48 picograms.
There were also incident of the same in Australia. In 2016, Australian racehorse trainer Ben Currie came under scrutiny after his horse, Party Till Dawn, tested positive for methamphetamine. This was the second time in just more than a year that a racehorse in Queensland has tested positive for methamphetamine. In October 2015, trainer Cassandra Marsh was fined $5,000 after her horse Island Tang was found to have a trace amount of the substance in his system. She blamed the failed tests on one of Island Tang’s handlers, a regular user of methamphetamine, who she said inadvertently transferred trace elements of the drug to the horse.
Both Miller and Robertson told the FOX 9 Investigators they believe their horses were contaminated by methamphetamine users working behind the scenes at Canterbury. Drug and alcohol use is not uncommon on the backside.
“I think it is probably an incidental transfer from a human substance abuser, likely through contact with the human hands to the horse’s mucus membranes,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, based in Kentucky. That would be the mouth, nostrils, eyes. Others speculate it could happen if a methamphetamine user urinates in a stall or washes their hands in the horse’s water bucket.
At horse racing tracks around the country there are a scattering of positive methamphetamine tests every year. “It is not that common. In any given year, there may be a half dozen findings out of 10,000’s of post-race tests,” Dr. Scollay said.
There are no studies testing the effect of methamphetamine on horses because it would be unethical to conduct such research. But, like humans, the prevailing belief is methamphetamine could cause an irregular heartbeat, which could result in atrial fibrillation, the most common cause of fatalities among race horses.
Dr. Scollay says on a practical level, it is perception that matters. “I don’t know how much medication it takes to gain or lose fractions of a second, but if I am the one who runs second to a horse that has meth in its blood, I am going to say I was cheated,” she told the Fox 9 Investigators.
Thermoscientific recently wrote about this issue and steps being taken within the industry to aid in resolving these issues. The impact of drugs in the environment is an emerging problem, but not just for forensic or public health agencies. This issue has also entered the paddocks of horse racing.
Failed equine drug tests have placed blame on everything from tainted feed, to stables contaminated with human urine, to handlers who inadvertently transferred traces of methamphetamine to horses. The proliferation of environmental contamination has proven to be a challenge in the interpretation of drug test results. Increasingly sensitive equipment used in screening has led to horses testing positive for drugs reportedly not administered to them by trainers or veterinarians. Low quality data can sometimes lead to false conclusions. How can officials be aided to determine what is environmental contamination and what is actual equine doping?
What drugs or substances are in the racing environment that may contaminate the horse’s body and affect testing? Without any concrete evidence as to the levels of drugs present in the environment, it’s still just speculation.
The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission is trying to find some answers. The growing concern about environmental contamination and increasing levels of sensitivity in equine drug testing has led to an approved analytical study by the Commission. The study, announced in May of 2018, will collect samples from Kentucky racetracks using broad-based, high-sensitivity full spectrum analysis instruments designed to quantify various substances and drugs found in different areas of the racing environment.
However, until this research is completed we still have the Absolute Insurer Rule. The trainer has the ultimate responsibility for their horse. But they do not have absolute control over every human their horse comes into contact with?
Louis Canchari said after the second positive result in 2017, all of his employees took drug tests and passed. Canchari even took a voluntary polygraph. He believes his horses could have been contaminated by the starting gate crew because it’s the one part of the race a trainer has no control over. When Canterbury Park tried to randomly drug test the starting gate crew in 2017, a half dozen members quit and left a month early for a track in Arizona.
In 2014, a month after Canchari’s first horse tested positive, Shakopee Police arrested two members of the starting gate crew, Dustin Matthew Shanyfelt and Devin Lynn Stortzum, both of whom were in possession of methamphetamine. In a dorm room behind the track, police found a gram of methamphetamine, a pipe used to smoke it, a scale, and a bottle containing urine to falsify a drug test.
The Fox 9 Investigators also discovered at least five other horse handlers at Canterbury busted for drugs during this period. A stable worker, Helene Elizabeth Bowen, was caught with a ball of meth, as well as morphine and oxycodone. A jockey from Iowa, Siegmore Richard Karl Golibrzuch, has a small amount of methamphetamine in his locker, along with a device used to shock horses during a race. And exercise walker, Scott Russell Hawkins, was arrested with methamphetamine near Canterbury in 2015. He also lost his license in Oklahoma for testing positive for the drug. But the Minnesota Racing Commission granted him a license anyway, even though the stewards determined he was “unfit for licensure due to his history of methamphetamine use.”
Regardless of these findings the Commission is adamant who has the responsibility. The commission’s view is while Canchari may not have intentionally given methamphetamine to the horses, he failed to protect them from exposure. Under the Minnesota Racing Commission’s zero tolerance policy, the trainer is ultimately responsible for the welfare of the horse. Canchari had to essentially prove his innocence.
“It has been the basis of horse racing, someone has to be responsible for the horse, but we live in a more complicated world than perhaps when the rules were written,” Dr. Scollay added.
For Canchari, that means reputation, will always place second. “When I die, I’m going to die with nothing like all the jockeys and the trainers,” he said. And he said he will never go back to Canterbury. “I refuse to go. When I go, I want to run with my horses. I’ll be happy man, and my life will come back again,” Canchari said. Earlier this year, an administrative law judge upheld the racing commission’s discipline of Canchari, but he still refuses to pay his $10,000 fine.
“The only reason I’m talking to [Fox9] today is because my dignity, my honor, is more important than anything. More important than the racing commission, more important than Canterbury, because that is all you’ve got — your dignity,” Canchari said.