New York regulators on Thursday suspended Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher for 10 days, fined him $1,000 and his colt Forte — the favorite in last week’s Kentucky Derby until he was scratched due to injury — disqualified as the winner of a September final stakes race in Saratoga Springs, NY
The foal tested positive for meloxicam, a powerful nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used to control pain and swelling, according to the New York State Gaming Commission. The drug, widely prescribed for the treatment of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, is not approved in the United States for the treatment of racehorses in training.
The positive test and suspension shed another inappropriate 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.
Forte’s disqualification in last September’s Hopeful Stakes means they won’t be cashing the $165,000 check for first place.
On Saturday, Forte was the 3-1 favorite in the morning line to win the Derby until he was scratched just hours before the race when Kentucky state vets declared him unfit for competition due to a bruise on his right front hoof.
Neither Pletcher nor his attorney, Karen Murphy, called or texted back seeking comment. Repole declined to comment. A representative from Viola did not return calls or texts.
State regulators said they could not resolve the doping issue sooner because Pletcher was exercising his right to have a residual sample tested but had difficulty finding an accredited lab to accept the sample. When the positive result was confirmed, Murphy repeatedly tried to postpone the hearing on the violation, according to regulators.
Doping and horse deaths have long plagued racing, but take center stage in one of the few times each year when the public turns to the sport: the Triple Crown season, starting with the Derby and followed by the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. The explosion of online sports betting and the declining interest in horse racing are also major challenges for the industry.
The Breeders’ Cup requires competitors to disclose previous drug offenses when entering the championships. A spokeswoman said neither Pletcher nor the owners of the horse told organizers about the Hopeful’s failed drug test two months before Forte competed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. She said Forte passed all pre-race legal, veterinary and drug testing requirements to race in Kentucky, which hosted the Breeders’ Cup races at Keeneland last year.
“Situations like this are exactly why our sport cannot tolerate further delays in implementing HISA’s enforcement policies,” said Drew Fleming, president and chief executive of the Breeders’ Cup, referring to the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority.
The authority, overseen by the Federal Trade Commission, was created to come up with strict medication rules and meaningful penalties for violations. It is also expected to streamline an arbitration process that varies from state to state and has often taken months or even years. The authority will take over on May 22.
Under the authority’s rules for dealing with drug violations, the public will know the name of the horse and trainer involved, as well as the drug detected, within weeks. A finding will be made within four months and, if necessary, a penalty will be imposed.
Pletcher has been named trainer champion seven times and has won two Kentucky Derbys and two Belmont Stakes. He had a medication violation in New York in 2004 for the drug mepivacaine, a local anesthetic. He served a 45-day suspension and was fined $3,000, according to depthbredrulings.com, a website maintained by the Jockey Cluba trade association.
Pletcher appears to have at least one other drug offense pending.
Louis C. Linder Jr., a Pennsylvania trainer, said in an interview Thursday that he had been unable to collect $38,000 in purse money because he finished second to Pletcher’s horse Mind Control at Parx Racing on Sept. 24, 2022. Linder told Jeff Matty, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, told him the money was withheld pending a ruling on the failed test.
Matty didn’t respond to phone calls.
“I’ve had medication violations and they suck,” Linder said. “But you take your responsibility and move on. It must be dealt with within a reasonable time. The money is important for little outfits like mine.