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Owner Believes HISA Claiming Rules Need Tweaking

John Fanelli has owned Thoroughbreds for 16 years, and in that time he estimates he has claimed about 400 horses.

He claimed Math Wizard  for $25,000 out of his second win and won a grade 1 stakes with a horse that ultimately earned $1.1 million.

Much more often, he has claimed horses that never won a race for him.

Yet in all that time, Fanelli has never experienced a claim that has unfolded like that of Deplane , whom Fanelli, Longball Stables, and new trainer Harold Wyner grabbed for $7,500 out of the fourth race Feb. 6 at Parx Racing. Deplane won that race but would be disqualified after the Horseracing Integrity and Welfare Unit alleged the presence of a banned substance (cobalt salts) or its metabolites or markers in the horse. That case, posted to the HIWU website March 4 as a pending violation, has not been resolved.

The finding has created problems and tough decisions for Fanelli. While HISA claiming rules allow two business days for new owners to consider returning horses to the previous connections after such an allegation, Fanelli elected to keep the 5-year-old He’s Had Enough  gelding. Fanelli said he did not want to return the horse to the connections accused of using a banned substance, owner Luis Orantes and trainer Patricia Farro.

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Because the alleged violation involves a banned substance, Deplane was summarily suspended for six months in order to ensure his safety. But before the new connections were aware of that suspension, Fanelli and Wyner ran Deplane in a Feb. 14 claiming race at Parx in which he finished third. That effort should have landed the owners $4,928.

Because the immediate suspension tied to the alleged cobalt violation by the previous connections should have prohibited Deplane from running in that Feb. 14 race, the new owners must surrender the $4,928 in purse money. Deplane is not allowed to race until August.

As the sport attempts to put safety before all other concerns, either rules will need to be tweaked for rare circumstances such as this one, or owners will need to adjust to the new reality. Fanelli believes owners who claim horses need to be treated fairly.

“Here you are punishing the wrong people. You are hurting people who are doing things the proper way,” Fanelli said. “The penalties should only impact the people who did something wrong. People think all owners are rich, but we can’t take all the risks in this sport. It’s not fair. It’s an enormous amount of money to care for a horse for six months. We need a better rule than this. One with more flexibility given the circumstances, that’s for sure.”

But there most assuredly is a safety concern. Dr. Mary Scollay, HIWU’s chief of science, said the six-month ban “was determined based on the horse’s welfare, racing safety, and the integrity of competition. There was not a punitive component placed in the rule.”

Cobalt salts are a category S2 banned substance and carry a penalty that includes, but is not limited to, a two-year suspension for the trainer, a six-month ban for the horse, and a fine of up to $25,000. Scollay said cobalt is a component of vitamin B12 and in very low concentrations it can be found in some commercially prepared feed and grain mixes. There is a tolerance of 0.025 mcg/ml of cobalt in a horse’s system, which was exceeded in Deplane’s test.

Scollay said the reason cobalt salts fall in the banned substance category is that they can be used as a doping agent, increasing the production of red blood cells that can deliver improved stamina. Besides that performance-enhancing concern, Scollay also said there is an increased risk of heart attack for horses given cobalt salts.

“When cobalt is administered in massive doses, typically it is done as cobalt salts. It increases red blood cell production and it’s a blood-doping agent. A cobalt violation would not be the result of consumption of a normal diet or supplements,” Scollay said. “There are concerns in risk to horses using blood-doping agents. Cobalt helps with oxygen delivery to muscles but using it runs a risk of sudden death during exertion.”

While every horse is different, Scollay said the six-month racing prohibition protects horses.

“You have to get the red blood cells count lower, which could take 30 days or more. The horse’s body has to normalize. You have to get rid of the (increased) red blood cells and have the bone marrow functioning normally. So there needs to be a stand-down time to allow that. It is about the horse’s welfare,” she said. “I am confident the cobalt would be eliminated from the horse’s system before the six months are up but the effects of the cobalt in the bone marrow can take months to resolve. I’m not going to say that six months is the exact number. Maybe four and a half months could work for some horses.”

Fanelli said several veterinarians told him the cobalt should be out of Deplane’s system in 15-20 days and the red blood cell count back to normal in 30-45 days. He would like the chance to have Deplane tested, and if cleared, allowed to return to racing.

To that end, Marc Guilfoil, HISA’s director of stewarding and state racing commission relations, said he saw some merit in Fanelli’s feelings about keeping the horse and would forward his case to the proper committee to review the rule.

“We’re open to suggestions and tweaks. We are open to listening to them,” Guilfoil said. “What (Fanelli has) mentioned is a point I will bring up to the committee. It needs to be discussed. We have an open door and will consider it. It will not go into a black hole.”

Guilfoil said a new claiming rule being forwarded will help address some of the details in this situation. Guilfoil said the new rule would warn new owners that if they run a horse before the runner’s previous test returns, they must keep the horse even if it tests positive in the previous race. Fanelli said he might have handled the situation differently had he known about the violation before the Feb. 14 race.

Fanelli said for that rule to be effective it should include a provision that calls for tests of claimed horses to be expedited and returned within five to seven days.

“Tests in general should not take 17 days, but for claimed horses the tests should come back immediately,” he said. “Cases like this create a big problem.”

At the moment, Fanelli is uncertain of his plans for Deplane. Should the split sample come back negative, the ban could be lifted and Deplane could resume racing at Parx. Otherwise, Fanelli says he has “no other option” than to send the gelding to Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, which is not under HISA regulation.

“That’s the problem with having jurisdictions that are not on board with HISA,” Guilfoil said.

Fanelli hopes the rules will be changed so that other owners will not be placed in the same position that he’s in.

“I know I can’t win this case, but my main goal is to fix this rule going forward for other owners, so that they don’t have to go through what I am,” Fanelli said. “HISA should not be punishing the people who did nothing wrong.”

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