It’s sort of like a game of Whack-A-Mole. As soon as the racing industry has a couple of performance enhancing drugs issues addressed, another pops up summoning its attention.
In a search of trainer Patrick Biancone's three Kentucky barns in late June, cobra venom, a powerful painkiller forbidden by racing, was found in a refrigerator in a tack room, according to the Daily Racing Form. The cobra venom was in crystalline form.
Biancone, 55, is a third generation French trainer. The search was conducted after one of his horses tested positive for a pair of substances that are banned on race day.
Cobra venom is injected under the skin in very small quantites to deaden the nerves that lead from the horse’s source of pain to the brain. Once “blocked,” the horse can ignore a leg injury and have severe, even fatal complications. How cruel and reprehensible is that?
The substance reportedly is 1,000 times more powerful than morphine, and is effective when adminstered within four hours of a race. It rarely shows up in a horse’s blood stream or urine sample.
It’s defined as a Class 1 drug, having no therapeutic value for a horse, yet has a high potential to affect racing performance. Currently, no test exists in the racing industry to detect administration of the drug.
Possession of cobra venom is not a crime, but it is prohibited for use on racehorses. Dr. John Lee of Unionville Equine Associates remembers experimenting with bee venom when at Cornell’s Veterinarian School.
“Venom, in both bees and snakes, stuns their prey then they pounce to kill,” said Lee. “Some trainers bend the rules when they know tests can’t detect foreign substances. Certain trainers would rather medicate than train.”
The French-born trainer entered Asi Siempre in this year’s $1 million Delaware Handicap. Racing as the second favorite, she finished sixth. Biancone has won the famed Arc d’Triumph twice and he spent a decade in Hong Kong winning the Hong Kong Derby twice. However, the trainer was ticketed with a 10-month ban in 1999 for the repeated use of illegal medications.
He landed in this country in 2000 and runs top tier horses for some of the sport’s most potent owners. Obviously, he’s well connected. Last year Biancone earned $5.3 million in purses and as of early September, the trainer was ranked 12th nationally with earnings of nearly $3 million.
The trainer was hit with a 15-day suspension earlier this month because one of his horses was found with prohibited drugs in its system after winning at Churchill Downs this spring.
Cobra venom turned up in harness racing at Saratoga last October. The upshot is a father-and-son training tandem have pled guilty to felony-race fixing for injecting a horse with the substance. Their licenses could be permanently revoked and the men could also face four years in prison.
Trainer Biancone, who just served a 15-day suspension for a medication violation in Kentucky, was recently fined $10,000 by California stewards for use of a banned substance in January.
On August 24 The Kentucky Horse Racing Authority (KHRA) suspended the license of Biancone’s veterinarian Rod Stewart indefinitely. Stewart had not complied with two orders to produce records of medication purchases, possession and use from this year as well as computer records in relation to the cobra venom case.
The race industry is maddeningly fragmented. There is no commissioner. No Roger Gooddell or David Stern to dish out swift, and decisive, action. KHRA has yet to set a hearing date for Biancone, so he is free to run horses in Kentucky and elsewhere.
If the damning allegations prove true, however, Biancone and his veterinarian could soon join