Geographical Mix-Up Adds Confusion to Legal Spat Over Beta-Blockers at Iowa Derby

Racehorse trainer Steve Asmussen is awaiting an Iowa judge’s decision on whether Prairie Meadows Racetrack imposed an “arbitrary and capricious” penalty on him after one of his horses failed a doping test in July 2019.

Steve Asmussen
Steve Asmussen
Steve Asmussen, pictured, says his horse could have been exposed to Atenolol by a worker urinating in its stall. (Image: Gulfstream Park)

But The Iowa Capital Dispatch reports a geographical mistake made by Asmussen’s legal team could dent his case.

The horse, Shang, tested positive for the banned substance Atenolol, a beta-blocker. That was shortly after placing second in the Iowa Derby’s sweepstakes for three-year-olds.

In May 2020, Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino’s Board of Stewards ordered Asmussen to forfeit $49,700 in winnings and pay an administrative penalty of $1,000.

The ‘Wrong’ Atloona

But Asmussen says that the very low traces of the Atenolol in Shang’s system would not have given the horse a competitive advantage. He says it points to inadvertent exposure to the drug and suggests Shang may have come into contact with the chemical via a worker urinating in the horse’s stall.

Asmussen’s lawyers argue that Atenolol is a common contaminant in the water supplies of metropolitan areas. In court, they presented published evidence of Atenolol in the water supply in Altoona. The problem was, they got the wrong Altoona.

Atloona, Iowa is home to the Prairie Meadows Racetrack and part of the Des Moines metropolitan area. Atloona, Pennsylvania is a city 860 miles away, reportedly with a high concentration of Atenolol in its faucets.

Crucially, part of the evidence Asmussen presented was about a different city named Altoona,” the board’s lawyers told the court last month, as reported by the Capital Dispatch.

“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,” they continued. “Problem is, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Altoona Water Authority are Pennsylvania government entities, and the Altoona Mirror is a Pennsylvania newspaper.”

Unjustly Punitive

In reaching its decision, the board agreed that the traces of Atenolol in the horse’s system were extremely low. But they said when a horse tests positive for a prohibited drug it is clear evidence of a rule violation, and the buck stops with the trainer. That includes preventing workers from relieving themselves anywhere near the horses.

Asmussen argues this is unjustly punitive and needlessly tarnishes the reputation of the horse racing industry. Before seeking a judicial review in the Polk County Court, he challenged the decision via the Iowa Racing Commission, which upheld the board’s ruling. Asmussen wants the ruling overturned.

“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 wrote in their complaint.

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