TIMONIUM, MD., JAN. 30 -- The Maryland Racing Commission upheld suspensions today of trainers King Leatherbury, the state's all-time leading thoroughbred trainer, and Lou Nichols after each had a horse fail a postrace drug test.
With three of nine members present at the special hearing, the commission backed the stewards in suspending Leatherbury and Nichols for 15 days apiece, during which they will be barred from all racing jurisdictions in Maryland.
Leatherbury was cited after Wait for the Lady showed an excess of phenylbutazone, a non-steroidal analgesic, following a victory at Pimlico Sept. 15. Nichols's horse, Never Count, tested positive for the prohibited skeletal muscle relaxant methocarbamol after a win at Laurel Oct. 14.
The commission's ruling disqualifies Wait for the Lady and Never Count and removes their purses, which are to be redistributed to the horses who finished behind them; any wagers, of course, are unaffected.
Leatherbury and Nichols said they would not appeal the decision and planned to complete their suspensions before the Pimlico meeting begins March 14. That shouldn't prevent Leatherbury from winning the current Laurel meet, in which he has a 19-win advantage.
Neither trainer formally disputed the test results, although Leatherbury characterized Wait for the Lady's Bute overage as "sabotage of some kind." A Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently upheld the "absolute insurer" rule that holds a trainer accountable for the condition of his or her horse during a race.
Leatherbury and Nichols used the time before the commission to protest the structure of drug-related penalties and to recommend that allowances be given trainers such as themselves who are involved in horse ownership. Leatherbury told the commission he owns 12 horses and will be "doubly punished" by having to pay an assistant a total of $480 per day to train them during his suspension. He added that it is unfair to penalize the person with whom he shares ownership of four horses, saying, "His only crime is knowing me and being in partnership with me."
Leatherbury could not explain how Wait for the Lady registered 6.7 micrograms of Bute per milliliter of blood plasma -- the state limit is 2.0. To his knowledge, he said, the massive 4-year-old filly received no Bute in any of her races, including last Saturday's upset victory in the Gala Lil Handicap, her first stakes victory.
Because of the absolute insurer rule, Leatherbury said he runs a greater risk of having a horse test positive because he has more starters and wins more races than any other Maryland conditioner. As a result, he said, a 15-day suspension is more costly to him than to the trainer of a smaller stable.
"This is a severe penalty," he said. "It seems like the more active you are in this industry, the harder you get hit. Some kind of leniency has to prevail or some kind of rule changes need to be made."
Commission members said they had revised drug-related parameters in July and likely would not re-examine them unless the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association recommends changes.
Leatherbury, who ranks third among North American thoroughbred trainers with almost 4,800 career victories, said he has served two other suspensions in more than 30 years of training.
In other matters, the commission declined to reinstate jockey Anthony Agnello but said he could reapply in six months after completing a drug-counseling program in Delaware. Meantime, Agnello also must submit to urinalyses in Maryland.