“I loved horseracing.” Chris Grove pauses a moment and gathers himself. “Past tense. I still love horses but I’m done with racing.”
Charles Town Race Track
Chris Grove’s life changed forever on July 28, 2012 at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town. It was a typical Saturday at the track that had mostly morphed into a casino with live racing taking place. Ironically, he wasn’t even there when his career as a trainer was derailed.
Charles Town race track was built in 1933, a three-quarter mile track known in the racing parlance as a “bullring,” a track shorter around than the most common one-mile oval. It initially gained fame for running during the winter, a time when almost all the northeast and mid-Atlantic tracks were closed. By the mid-90’s the track had fallen on hard times and was near closing when Penn National Gaming stepped in as the new owner and managed to get video lottery games approved as a condition of keeping the track going, eventually parlaying that foot in the door to construction of a full-service casino with slots and table games.
While the purse structure for horse races at Charles Town is attractive to owners and trainers – casino gambling can have that effect – the track is still considered by most racing fans as one of the minor league players. But it is part of the mid-Atlantic circuit – Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware – that offers a smorgasbord of races to trainers who ply their trade in that region.
Chris Grove was based in Maryland but was very familiar with West Virginia. He had a sizeable stable overall – maybe 50-80 horses at his peak – but there were never more than 7 to 14 in West Virginia at any given time. One of the horses in West Virginia on that July night was a marginally talented $5,000 claimer named Bubba de France. While Grove had no idea before Bubba ran in the fifth race, that horse became as significant to Grove as all his stakes winners.
The Early Years
While Chris Grove was raised in a racetrack family – his father Phil was a well known mid-Atlantic rider with almost 4,000 wins – his family did not push him into horseracing; in fact, quite the opposite.
“My parents gave me riding lessons for my fifth birthday. After the first time the instructor took me out he told my parents I was a natural. That was not what my dad wanted to hear,” Chris said, laughing. “He knew how hard and how dangerous being a jockey was, and he didn’t want to see me have to make my living that way. That was the last riding lesson I had.”
Chris’ first love was soccer, starring at Frederick High School, going on to play one year at a D3 school, and then one year in junior college where he was an all-state JUCO selection. Still, the allure of the track had infected him, and after leaving college he took a job on a horse farm, learning to be an exercise rider. Grove’s first riding instructor was right – he was a natural on a horse. Aside from gaining a reputation as a top exercise rider, he was a three time ARCA (Amateur Riding Club of America) Champion.
After his stint at the farm, Grove moved on to Upper Marlboro, both riding and grooming for another seven years, apprenticing with well-known trainers like Richard “Dickie” Small at Pimlico and Meredith “Mert” Bailes (famous for having been the trainer who broke Secretariat) at Bowie. Eventually he decided to start his own career as a trainer.
“My first horse was named Runny Babbit. I bought him in 1997 for $2,000. We ran him at Charles Town at four and a half furlongs. He ran fifth in that race and we brought him back at a mile and a sixteenth. I told Mark Johnson, the jockey, to put him in front and don’t look back. I can tell you there is no feeling like watching your horse cross the wire first.”
Grove struggled as a trainer for a while, but caught his big career break when noted Maryland breeder and owner William R. Harris gave him his string. That pairing was successful through the first decade of the 2000’s, with horses like Greenspring and Sweet Goodbye winning multiple stakes.
It was also during that time that Grove earned the nickname “Big Ticket.”
“I had a couple of $100 plus winners. Someone called me Big Ticket after that and the nickname stuck.”
Grove describes himself as coming from humble beginnings. In his own mind he was one of the 16% guys, trainers with a lot of blue collar horses who won by working harder than the next guy and playing fair. He never had the name that a trainer like King Leatherbury had, but he had something just as important – the faith of his owners and the respect of his peers.
Racing took a backseat in 2004 when Chris’ four year-old son Noah, an active boy who loved soccer as much as his dad, was diagnosed with bone cancer in his leg. Doctors delivered the grave news to the Groves that Noah would have to have his leg amputated at the knee. It was a difficult time for the family but in the end the news was good. The surgery and the subsequent treatment arrested the cancer, and today Noah is on the national amputee soccer team and the national developmental team for sled hockey and living a full life of his own.
Chris went back to training with a new understanding of just how quickly things could change. What he didn’t know was that Noah’s cancer wouldn’t be the last time he would be hit with devastating news.
Absolute Insurers Rule
In the world of horseracing, there is a long-time rule known as the absolute insurers rule. It can take slightly different forms in different jurisdictions, but in general the rules are similar to the one in West Virginia.
The trainer is the absolute insurer of and responsible for the condition of the horses he or she enters in an official workout or race, regardless of the acts of third parties. If testing or analysis of urine, blood or other bodily substances or tissues prove positive showing the presence of any prohibited drug, medication or substance, the trainer of the horse may be fined, suspended, have his or her occupational permit revoked, be prohibited access to all grounds under the jurisdiction of the Racing Commission, or may be otherwise disciplined. In addition, the owner of the horse, the foreman in charge of the horse, the groom and any other person shown to have had the care, or attendance of the horse may be fined, suspended, have his or her occupational permit revoked, be prohibited access to all grounds under the jurisdiction of the Racing Commission, or may be otherwise disciplined.
It is a draconian rule designed to make sure the trainer takes all possible precautions to ensure his horses do not ever fail a post race test. It has been challenged numerous times, and consistently upheld from state courts to federal courts. It is one of the places in American jurisprudence where a violator is presumptively guilty, the only necessary proof being a positive blood or urine test.
The more interesting part of the rule is the section that makes the trainer responsible for the acts of third parties, including people of whom the trainer has no knowledge or over whom has no control. The rule makes the absurd assumption that all trainers could have 24/7 control over their part of the backside. The backside at most racetracks is not a high security area, even if it is limited to authorized personnel. Grooms, hotwalkers, trainers, veterinarians, farriers, feed delivery people – all have close to unfettered access to the stable area. At many tracks there are not security cameras. It is somewhere close to miraculous that there are not more instances of horses being contaminated to the surprise of their trainers. A fired employee, an unscrupulous vet, someone from the barn next door with a grudge – any of them could kill a trainer’s career, and even if the trainer had proof that it was outside tampering, he’s still just as guilty as if he did it himself.
Grove would find out first hand just how unforgiving the absolute insurers rule could be.
Charles Town, West Virginia
Chris Grove’s main base of operations was the Bowie Training Center in Maryland. Most of his career highlights occurred in Maryland, including having a starter in the Preakness, Norman Asbjornson. Norman finished 11th of 14 in that race, never a threat to the winner Shackleford, but for a guy who never expected to have a Triple Crown starter it still felt like a victory.
Grove kept horses stabled at two other locations – Penn National and Charles Town, maybe seven to fourteen horses at each track. It was often a grind for Grove to manage three simultaneous operations. The day started at 5 a.m. with phone calls to the out of town operations to go over schedules, races and any issues that had come up. Usually Grove would stay in Maryland watching his horses work until 8, then he might take the short drive to Charles Town to watch the late workers there. Back to Maryland to watch the any horses he had entered, and then back again to West Virginia for the evening card there. The next day’s schedule was emailed out at 10 p.m. and in a few short hours after that the next racing day began. Sunday was reserved for Penn National. It was a long week, even for a guy as dedicated as Grove.
Charles Town had been more troublesome for Grove. His first assistant trainer there was a woman named “Ashley” who functioned as both exercise rider and assistant trainer. Jurisdictions require a licensed trainer in the paddock before the races, and if Grove was unavailable she turned out to be a good choice for a while. Unfortunately, when Grove examined the monthly feed and straw bills he found them to be higher than he might have expected. After three months he confronted Ashley and fired her on the spot. While she never confessed that she had been using feed and straw bought by the Grove operation to supply seven other horses she had in training, after she left the bills went down markedly.
But that left a critical hole in the Charles Town operation, one that needed to be filled quickly or else he would lose his stalls. None of the other workers had a trainer’s license so Chris talked with Mike Elliot, backstretch manager for Charles Town and some others more familiar with Charles Town. Someone suggested he talk with Misael Ceciliano, a familiar figure on the Charles Town backside. Ceciliano had the right qualifications – he could exercise horses and had a trainer’s license – so Grove interviewed him and gave him the job in November of 2010. He was encouraged by the assurances he received from other track people and head steward Danny Wright who told Grove that Ceciliano “was a good guy.”
For the most part Ceciliano did his job without creating any serious problems for Grove. There was an incident three months before July 28 where Grove was not able to reach Ceciliano by phone. When Grove confronted him at the track Ceciliano claimed his phone had died and he was too broke to afford another one. Perhaps it should have been a red flag that Ceciliano was so in need of money that he couldn’t afford a critical piece of equipment, the phone that would keep him in close contact with his boss. Still, at the time Grove didn’t have any reason to blow the broken phone out of proportion – those things can happen and Ceciliano had been doing a good job. Later during testimony at the hearings, it never occurred to anyone to ask Ceciliano how desperate he was for money. It never occurred to anyone to ask Ceciliano if he had any bitterness toward Grove or a perception that Grove might be responsible for his unenviable financial position.
Grove only had seven horses at Charles Town at the time, and Ceciliano was paid $90 per horse per week, with a $50 bonus every time a horse won. That wasn’t a lot of money – $630 plus bonuses a week – and while Ceciliano knew working as an exercise rider and assistant trainer wasn’t the road to riches, living so close to the edge was bound to occasionally cause stress. Grove had started Ceciliano with ten horses, but when a few of them weren’t having success in West Virginia he moved them to one of his other operations, leaving Ceciliano with a thinner paycheck.
The other thing was that the small number of horses only merited Grove a part of a larger barn. His string shared the area with Joe Painter, Jeff Snyder, Michael Sterling, Jacob Dill and Freddie Johnson, as well as all the associated grooms and other stable personnel. The fact was that there were a lot of people who had access to that barn, and because Charles Town was a night track, there was a long stretch of time between the end of morning training and post time for the first race where the backside was relatively empty and quiet. As far as the record goes, it appears that none of the other potential witnesses who may have seen something were questioned by the investigator – a fact significant in light of West Virginia’s contention that their investigation was exhaustive.
The track on Thursday July 26 at Charles Town was sloppy, but Grove decided to show up and run his three entries. He checked Bubba de France in his stall that night before he headed home, noting Bubba looked as good as he had in a while. Grove drove home that night exhausted, and left the Charles Town operation in Ceciliano’s hands. While he normally might have returned to watch Bubba run, he had a family function that Saturday night. He called Ceciliano Saturday morning as usual and detected nothing off base. He took time away from his family party to call Ceciliano again 20 minutes before the race, and again was assured Bubba was ready to go.
Bubba de France did run in the fifth race, a $5,000 non-winners of two claiming race, on the night of July 28, 2012, finishing first. He was naturally taken to the testing barn where the usual urine and blood samples were drawn. On August 5, 2012 the West Virginia Board of Stewards got a certificate of analysis from Dalare Associates – the official equine testing laboratory for West Virginia – stating that the sample taken from Bubba de France needed further testing. On August 8 chief steward Danny Wright had a conversation with Joseph Strug from Dalare. Strug indicated the presence of the drug nikethamide.
Nikethamide is an unusual substance to find in a blood sample. In the last ten years, there have been only two positive tests for the drug – Chris Grove’s and one for Julio Cartagena in Delaware a year after the Grove violation. After the fact, it turned out that Cartagena’s violation may not have been simply coincidence.
Chemically nikethamide acts as a stimulant that mainly affects the respiratory cycle. In other words, it makes heart-lung function more efficient. It was originally used as a countermeasure for tranquilizer overdoses, but its use was eventually discontinued because of the development of better therapies and its potential to actually be dangerous. Under Racing Commissioner International classifications, nikethamide is a Class I substance, the worst of which a trainer can be found in violation. Manufacture of nikethamide has been discontinued almost worldwide, and currently there are only two sources of the drug – a lab in Argentina that manufactures the drug, and a lozenge manufacturer in Europe. However, given the chemical makeup of the drug, it is not that difficult to compound with the right basic inputs. Still, someone would have to be specifically connected to get a dose of nikethamide. It just isn’t carried by veterinarians or available at the pharmacy.
The amount of nikethamide in Bubba’s system (3.5 ug/mL) led the lab to conclude he had to have been injected less than 12 hours before the race, most likely 3-4 hours prior to post. Nikethamide metabolizes very quickly in the horse, making it necessary to use it closer to post time to get the maximum benefit. This bit of information should have brought the veterinarian who administered the Lasix shot into the investigation. If the nikethamide was administered intravenously, the veterinarian could have testified regarding whether he noticed any needle marks or blood leaking from a puncture. In another strange lapse in the investigation, the vet did not testify at the hearing, nor did there appear to be an investigator’s interview report questioning him.
On August 8 the stewards conducted a standard barn search and found nothing out of the ordinary. Grove was not at the track, but Ceciliano, in the words of the chief steward, “was very cooperative.” The investigator returned the next day to collect any supplements Grove might have been using. These were collected and tested, but nothing problematic showed up.
On August 10 official confirmation arrived from Dalare that a positive for nikethamide was found. Steward Wright called Chris Grove with the bad news and asked if he wanted to exercise his right to a split sample. Grove said he did and the sample was sent to the testing lab at Louisiana State University, which confirmed the presence of nikethamide on September 14. The stewards then set a hearing for January 4, 2013, but the date was moved to February 22 after Misael Ceciliano’s attorney, Matthew Harvey, asked for a continuance.
Misael Ceciliano had been a fixture in West Virginia since 2000, mostly exercising horses. He emigrated to America from Costa Rica in May 1990 with a friend who found work at Finger Lakes. His friend introduced Ceciliano around, eventually getting him a job on a farm. Ultimately, Ceciliano migrated over to the track and obtained his trainers license.
Ceciliano had been around animals all his life. His father owned a cattle ranch and Ceciliano went to college, getting a degree in farm management, assuming he’d one day manage the family ranch.
The issue of Ceciliano’s drug positives didn’t come out during Grove’s interview or when he was given positive recommendations from people like Danny Wright, but it turns out Ceciliano had been suspended once before at Finger Lakes. This is the rambling story Ceciliano told at the racing commission hearing.
“I have six, seven horses in Finger Lakes and that was pretty good – my horses running in the money, you know, seconds there. All them were my horses. And normally I get at the barn at like four o’clock in the morning. I walk the horses I was supposed to walk. I gallop horses for other people until nine o’clock and come back and finish my training schedule. And they were doing good.
They put somebody in the barn that had a bad reputation, and my friends, they told me, they said, ‘Be careful with that person.’ And usually, I don’t judge anybody for what people tell me. You know, I just get to have a…get to know him, and I can have my own opinion about it.
So anyways, I ended up buying a horse from him, and then, um…then he had a record before that he was…he was a gambler. He made the horses…he used to train the horses in the morning. The day the horses are in, the horses get tired, and then run them in the afternoon, but that wasn’t my business. You know, I just do my things and then go home. And that day that we got the bad test…I had a bad test on the horse…he had a horse in the third race and I have a horse in the last race. So I went home, changed, take a shower and come back because my race was around 4:30 or so. It was the last race in the afternoon and I win the race.
The horse…I bought the horse from him, from the same guy, from Chip, Chip’s horse. I was doing good. So I said, well, maybe I can…the horse got a class and drop him to a $4,000, I think it was. Maybe I can win races or maybe, you know, I can do a little bit better, and then, um…
Anyways, he…I win the race. He won the third race and I won the last race, and the horse test…I got a bad test of one tranquilizer, one kind of tranquilizer. So I got suspended. And I was doing the horses up, you know, in the regular basics, working with the horses. It was around one o’clock, 12:30, one o’clock, and a lot of people came to the barn, but you know, I am just told they’re both to see my hands, and I see two people standing by this stall door in black and all that. They told me that I had a bad test, and I got astonished, surprised, because I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ So they told me about it. So they searched the whole barn. They turned that barn, my tack room and the feed room upside down, looking for whatever you know, but they never find nothing on me.
And the problem was, it was a gambling pot on the betting that day on the third race and the last race. Well, that guy, he has…he had a bad test also. It’s the same product. And then when they did that investigation in the morning, Thursday, they see his family gambling, brothers, wife, son, his self, and they bet in Las Vegas too. So the people who were there complained about it because they cleaned the pool in that case. So they complained and they start an investigation. They find out it was a bad test. And when I went to the stewards with my hearing and everything else, they…they don’t have proof. I mean, they don’t ever see me gambling. They never see me in the money purse, in the videos. I didn’t cash no bet. I give them my check account, go to the bank and see if I have any deposit, big deposit, or anything like that. Nothing.
The boy that they proven, he make like a quarter million dollars and, um…he gambled on both horses. Normally, my horses used to pay like $18, because I got all the pictures I made average, how much they were paying. So it was good for him to sell me the horse and bet on it, you know. So anyways he bet on the horse. The horse paid $23, and he didn’t bet the horse itself. He bet the super…I think, ended up paying like $5,000. So he don’t have to bid a lot of money to make money.
And so I have to hire a lawyer because they want to suspend me, but I say, ‘I will not take no suspension because I didn’t do anything.’ So I lost…they gave me nine months suspension. I appealed and they ended up giving me two years…
We appealed it to the racing commission, and we keep going on because I say, ‘I am not taking it.’ The lawyer recommended me…recommend to me that I take the suspension; and I say, ‘I can’t take it. I didn’t do anything. Why should I?’”
While Ceciliano’s testimony was confusing and rambling, the state’s attorney was trying to introduce the drug positive from Finger Lakes before the defense attorney did in a more negative way. Ceciliano learned the hard way that if you don’t take the initial penalty ordered by the stewards or the racing commission, the court may worsen sentence.
The drug Ceciliano used was Romifidine, a large animal sedative and analgesic administered by injection. The interesting thing about the case at Finger Lakes was that this was the first time Romifidine showed up in a horse at the track, and the speculation was that because it wasn’t a legal drug in the United States, it may have been bought overseas, although like with the nikethamide, this was never confirmed. Once again, nobody thought this might have been an eerie similarity to the appearance of another drug only obtainable overseas, nikethamide. Ceciliano was apparently associated not once, but twice with drugs possibly obtained from foreign sources, but nobody dug deeper.
The experience in New York sobered Ceciliano. In his mind fighting a suspension could only have a bad outcome, so he decided if it happened again he’d just take the days and save a slew of lawyer fees.
The stewards hearing went forward on February 22. Greg Bailey, Grove’s attorney, moved that the hearing be held directly in front of a hearing examiner, citing the usual due process argument. Bailey pointed out that the stewards were assigned by the Racing Commission to act as investigators, prosecutors, and judges. They were privy to ex parte communications with the defendants, meaning they had interviewed them before the hearing, and further could use any facts that were presented outside the hearing in making a decision. In other words, the same requirements that apply to a criminal case – a Miranda warning before questioning and the requirement that any juror or judge familiar with the case be dismissed so that the people judging the case were unbiased and were only judging based on evidence presented in the hearing – had no pertinence in a stewards hearing. This is the often-made argument that the defendants were denied due process under the United States Constitution’s 5th and 14th amendments that read, no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
Unfortunately for Grove (and most trainers) due process in horseracing has a different meaning than it does in the real world. In horseracing, due process means that the racing authorities followed the administrative rules laid out by the Racing Commission. The Constitutional due process argument, as trainers have found out, is a non-starter.
Danny Wright rejected Mr. Bailey’s motion and continued with the hearing.
Chris Grove was not unfamiliar with hearings in front of the stewards, although he had never faced anything so serious. He had been found in violation of drug/medication rules four times before the nikethamide positive, although never at a track in West Virginia. In January 2009 William Harris sent a horse named Our Sue from the farm to the track, but he didn’t inform Grove that she had been treated with pyrimethamine, sold as Deraprim, a medication used to treat Equine Protozoal Myoenchephalitis, a nasty infection caused by a protozoan. While the disease is serious and can be fatal, horses are often completely normal while on the medication. In other words, Grove would have no way of knowing the horse had been treated unless Harris informed him. When the horse came back positive, Grove was fined $500 and given no days by the Maryland stewards, a fairly nominal amount because of the mitigating circumstances.
In December 2009, the horse T.M.’s Treasure was found positive for fluphenazine, an anti-psychotic medication used to treat horses with certain behavioral issues. T.M.’s Treasure had a tendency to flip in shed row. Grove’s Maryland veterinarian recommended the drug, often referred to as “the 30-day” treatment, and informed him Maryland required 14 days between the administration of the drug and the next race. Grove looked for a race in Maryland for the horse, found one but it didn’t fill. He found another one in West Virginia, where the withdrawal time was 7 days, but the same thing happened. He finally found one in Pennsylvania 32 days out from the administration of the drug. The horse won, was tested and came back with a positive. Unfortunately for Grove, Pennsylvania was zero-tolerance for fluphenazine, meaning any measurable amount was a violation. In fact, Grove was told by the stewards that he should keep any horse treated with that medication off the track for six months.
Under the absolute insurers rule, it was ultimately Grove’s responsibility to know that Pennsylvania had more restrictive rules than Maryland or West Virginia, but this instance exposes two weaknesses in the medication rules. First, they can vary greatly from state to state. Either West Virginia is too lenient, or Pennsylvania too tough, but in any case it would make sense to standardize the violation levels, especially when trainers often see the mid-Atlantic circuit as having interchangeable tracks. Second, fluphenazine at 32 days out is at trace levels and the drug is no longer having the therapeutic effect. An important question for racing is, should withdrawal time be the primary standard, the actual level in the horse’s system, or some combination of both? The fact is that a withdrawal time of 45 days (instead of 30) would be enough to ensure almost all the horses would test negative. It is important because horses will metabolize a drug like fluphenazine at varying rates, and in rare circumstances may have residual amounts up to 90 days from administration. This means trainers would either have to (1) keep a perfectly healthy horse off the track for three months to be safe, or (2) pay for a pre-race blood test to ensure the horse wouldn’t test positive post-race.
The down side for Chris Grove was a $1,500 fine, but no days, again because the circumstances were mitigating enough to cause the stewards to go lightly. But the more devastating outcome was a Class 2 substance violation, a mark that would be used by the stewards in West Virginia in dealing with the Bubba de France violation.
The third violation was in January of 2010 when a horse named Greenspring tested positive at Laurel for the medication, diclofenac sodium, sold as Surpass. It is a topical anti-inflammatory cream used commonly on two year olds that are shin-bucked. In the case of Greenspring, one of the grooms treated a different horse, contaminated himself and then transferred the drug to Greenspring, who happened to be in the next stall. Another unintended violation and another $500 fine with no days.
The fourth violation was in December 2010 in Pennsylvania where a horse named Congar Light tested positive for isoflupredone. The background story would have been hilarious had it not led to such an unfortunate violation. One of Grove’s stable girls had a cat, despite Grove’s rules that there be no cats in the stable area. The cat developed an ear infection and the stable girl was given isoflupredone, a glucocorticosteroid commonly used in such cases, by her vet to treat it. After administering the drug to the cat, she failed to wash her hands. She then put a bit in Congar Light’s mouth, and the horse tested positive post race. Despite bringing the explanation, along with the tube of isoflupredone, to the stewards, Grove was saddled with a $1,000 fine but again no suspension.
In Chris Grove’s mind he was a clean trainer. Sure there were four violations on his record, but anyone who looked into them could see he was only at fault given the unforgiving absolute trainer’s rule. Grove was confident the stewards in West Virginia would hear his case and understand that he had nothing to do with the nikethamide violation; further, Grove was confident that the stewards would actually see the truth about who actually spiked the horse and why. At worst he thought that like the other instances, any punishment would be mild based on the facts that would emerge. Unfortunately for Grove, West Virginia was not Pennsylvania or Maryland.
Grove was shocked by the nikethamide positive, but it did not initially occur to him that his assistant, Misael Ceciliano, could have been involved. But the more he learned about the positive, the more he started to wonder about whether Ceciliano had a part. It turns out that the amount of nikethamide that was found in Bubba de France indicated it had to have been injected within 12 hours of the race time, and more likely 3-4 hours ahead. Four hours is a critical time because that is when a horse receives its Lasix shot and would show evidence of an injection site.
Grove initially talked to Ceciliano at the barn the Saturday after he found out about the positive, and during that conversation Ceciliano teared up. Grove said, “I didn’t think too much of it at the time, other than the fact that, you know, the severity of it was felt by everybody.”
On the following Monday morning Grove asked Ceciliano to meet him at a local McDonald’s in Charles Town to talk about getting the supplements tested. There was some initial hope that one or a combination of supplements led to a false positive. Grove’s brother-in-law worked at the FDA and Grove was hoping he could help out with getting the samples analyzed. Ceciliano hesitated because he was scheduled to leave town on vacation to visit his mother, but agreed to meet on his way out of town. Once Ceciliano and Grove started talking Ceciliano again began to weep openly, and this made Grove wonder if he wasn’t overcome with guilt. After all, Ceciliano had access and knew the schedule for injections.
This feeling was intensified when Ceciliano said that he was set up in New York, and now he’s being set up all over again. Grove knew that Ceciliano had started his career at Finger Lakes and moved to West Virginia in search of more success, but the revelation of a problem in New York caught Grove off guard, and made him even more suspicious about Ceciliano.
While Ceciliano’s behavior left Grove wondering, he got nothing from him that would help explain the nikethamide positive. He bid Ceciliano good-bye, told him to have a good vacation. At that point Grove went back to the barn to collect the remaining supplements, still assuming they could have been critical to the nikethamide positive. He also hoped to talk with some of the stable staff.
Bubba’s groom, Josefat Reyes, left the track after the Bubba de France race, most likely heading back to Mexico. It wasn’t uncommon for grooms who still had family in Mexico to move back and forth between there and the United States. While it may have seemed on the surface suspicious, no real effort was made to locate Reyes, and it only came up as an aside in the hearings. Reyes was never seriously considered as a suspect. Grove did run into one of the other grooms, Chris Villeda, and asked him if he had any idea how Bubba could have shown up with a positive. Villeda hesitated, but when he answered, Grove’s suspicions were heightened. Villeda accused Ceciliano of injecting two horses – Athena Grand and Chinquapin Cutie. Grove confirmed that both horses had run on April 24.
There was no question that Ceciliano was not authorized to give injections of any substance, and if Villeda’s observation was true, it seemed an important piece of circumstantial evidence.
Right after that, Grove not only made a decision not to allow Ceciliano near the barn again after his return from vacation, but also decided to disband the West Virginia operation totally. Grove continued questioning the other barn workers and uncovered some allegations that Ceciliano was not following the training schedule Grove laid out. In fact, based on what Villeda told him, Grove suspected Ceciliano was keeping a set of books that paralleled Grove’s schedule, and a separate set that documented their actual workouts. The second set of books was never found, and Grove was left with a feeling things in West Virginia were not quite what he thought.
West Virginia tested the supplements they found at Grove’s barn and found nothing that would explain the nikethamide positive. However, by that time Grove was past wondering about the supplements, and was focused on Ceciliano.
Chris Villeda was a typical backside worker, not highly educated and willing to work hard and at long hours for short pay. According to Villeda, when Grove first approached him he said he didn’t know anything because he didn’t want to get involved, but eventually he said he was overcome with guilt and told Grove he had seen Ceciliano give two horses an injection, but only to Athena Grand and Chinquapin, and never again after that. As Villeda tells it, his initial hesitation to tell Grove what he saw was based on a desired to avoid the hearing – there is a great fear on the part of most backside workers to get called in front of the stewards – and because he thought that if Ceciliano returned to the operation he would be immediately fired.
When Villeda testified at the stewards hearing, he clarified the issue of the separate set of books. According to Villeda, Ceciliano simply made the set of books correspond to what Grove set out as the training schedule. Villeda accused Ceciliano of not actually training horses, but simply walking them and then putting bandages on to make it appear like they had worked.
In the hearing the stewards seemed overly focused on the second set of books, spending far more time on that than the potential injections given to Athena Grand and Chinquapin. As it turned out, they had in fact gone into the hearing with a bias regarding Villeda’s testimony that came from their investigator, Arthur Wood. Wood took Villeda’s initial statement and questioned both Grove and his investigator, Trevor Hewick, about the story Villeda told about witnessing Ceciliano injecting horses. Wood had concluded that the story the three of them told was too pat, lacking in sufficient variety if you will. Wood concluded that the three of them had concocted the story as a way of throwing the blame at Ceciliano, and as a result should be given no credibility.
Villeda’s credibility took another blow when the stewards questioned him about why he didn’t report the violations when he saw Ceciliano administering needles to the two horses. Villeda didn’t help matters when he dismissed the concern expressed by Chief Steward Wright, suggesting it wasn’t his job to find violators, it was the stewards job. In Villeda’s world that was a perfectly reasonable stance – in essence he was saying, nobody on the backside rats because it would be too easy to cast suspicion on anybody for any reason. Trainers don’t turn in other trainers, even if they know something underhanded is going on. Grooms have to be especially careful because they are considered far more replaceable than most other workers. But from the stewards’ point of view, it was one more reason to suspect Villeda was just protecting his boss, Chris Grove.
Villeda actually approached Grove after the hearing, expressing what Grove thought was a sincere fear of retaliation for being a rat. He asked Grove to move him to the Maryland stable, and Grove agreed. Unfortunately, without actually knowing the story, this added to the stewards’ speculation about collusion – Villeda was in their minds being rewarded for his loyalty to Grove. In any case, Villeda was all but ignored in the decision.
After Grove talked with Villeda, he figured the next step was to figure out where the nikethamide came from. To help him with that he enlisted Trevor Hewick, an investigator. Hewick immediately focused on the Argentina connection and the potential connection Ceciliano might have had with Argentineans at the track. While everyone else seemed completely unaware of nikethamide, Hewick stated he was aware of the drug and was sure it was bought from Argentina.
Hewick’s testimony was circumstantially damning to Ceciliano. He stated that there were private barns adjacent to the track, barns controlled by trainers suspected of drug use, including drugs from Argentina. Hewick testified that
“Back in the mid-2000’s, when I came back into horseracing in late 2005, the red barn [identified as Steve Spears’ barn] and Ms. Angela’s barn had horse trainers and people acting as trainers but weren’t licensed trainers training their own horses. Drugs were being brought from Argentina and these drugs, there were three specific drugs being bought from Argentina and they were used by Julio Cartagena, Renee Schlessinger, Timmy Collins, Kevin Joy, and Ms. Cartagena’s family, and Misael was associated with all those individuals.”
Eventually they required horses from the private barns to walk over to a receiving barn. There was speculation this was in response to suspicions the horses were being given some illegal substances. Interestingly, at the time, the West Virginia officials didn’t show any knowledge of the shenanigans at the private barn when they required them to walk over to a receiving barn. Chief Steward Wright clarified that an outbreak of an equine virus was the primary reason the horses from the private barns were shuttled to a receiving yard. So either the stewards were unaware, or they were keeping the allegations to themselves, but in any case they apparently did no in depth investigation.
Hewick went on to say that from an ex-employer and associate of Ceciliano he was told how to purchase the drugs, and specifically nikethamide. Hewick decided that this was a much larger issue than just the positive for Bubba de France and gave the racing commission this information. They in turn sent Art Wood, the investigator, to meet with Hewick. Hewick gave him the name Kevin Joy as a person who might know who drugged the horse and how the nikethamide was obtained. Wood went to Joy’s house, Joy wasn’t home, and incredibly no further effort was made to talk with him. Hewick also steered him to Renee Schlessinger, one of the people mentioned as having an Argentine connection, but Wood concluded Schlessinger didn’t have any useful information.
Despite what seemed to be the importance of Kevin Joy to the investigation, the stewards never pushed to have him interviewed and explain Ceciliano’s role if he had any. Joy was the one person who could not only implicate the Argentineans, but who had explained to Hewick how the nikethamide could be purchased. It was the most glaring of the instances where the stewards were lax in the investigation, despite their subsequent assertions that the investigation was exhaustive.
Hewick had concocted a plan to actually buy nikethamide from the Argentina source he was told about and gave this information to Wood. Hewick ordered what he believed to be a drug containing nikethamide, and once the drug arrived in the United States for some reason Wood had postal inspectors seize the package, despite Wood knowing the entire plan Hewick had devised. Hewick had previously arranged for the drug to be taken into custody by the Jefferson County sheriff, and they would be responsible for securing a chemical analysis of what was shipped from Argentina.
Hewick testified the postal inspectors had the package a week before it was turned over to him. The postal inspectors at first thought that Hewick was importing an illegal, controlled substance into the country, a serious offense. The postal inspectors opened the package, and once they decided no illegal drugs were being imported, they resealed the package and released it to Hewick. However, the chain of custody was at the least compromised at the post office, and while there was no suggestion of tampering, the postal inspectors did carefully examine the contents.
Hewick then gave the resealed package with the drugs to investigator Art Wood, who was responsible for getting them tested. Hewick testified that Wood had the drugs analyzed and despite the label’s promise of nikethamide, the samples came back negative for that drug.
Hewick naturally was puzzled by the failure of the samples to contain the promised nikethamide, and requested that whatever part of the shipment had not been analyzed be sent back to him for additional testing. By the February hearing, Hewick testified they weren’t given the drugs back.
This was of concern in the Grove camp. Grove had paid for the drugs and was in the strange position of never having actually seen the bottles that were shipped or having the chance to have a confirmatory test done by a second testing lab.
Eventually they got around to questioning the lab director, Strug at Dalare, who testified that the product he was given a link to on the Argentine web site was called Corpoten, which indeed was promised to have nikethamide, but that the product he was given to test was MV Chinfield, which said it contained sodium succinate and uridine triphosphoric acid. It was tested and as expected, did not contain nikethamide. Interestingly, nobody ever explained what a drug with those compounds might actually do for a horse.
The ordering and testing of drugs from Argentina turned out to be a bust for Grove. Hewick ordered a drug containing nikethamide, but apparently got something different. Of course, Hewick had no idea what was in the package before it was handled by the postal inspectors, nor did he afterward since he turned the resealed package over to Art Wood without opening it. The stewards concluded he got the wrong drug, but that ended the investigation into whether you could order nikethamide from Argentina. It was another instance of the stewards’ exhaustive investigation actually stopping short of a conclusion that could have shed light on the source of the nikethamide.
It pointed out one of the underlying weaknesses of the absolute insurers rule. Once the horse tests positive, all efforts to find out what happened fall on the accused. The racing commission has no additional responsibility to investigate or to dig to the bottom of what may have happened. This was underscored when Hewick testified that he would have been able to trace purchases of substances from Argentina if someone used PayPal or Western Union for the purchase, but he didn’t because he turned everything over to the Racing Commission for follow-up investigation. Based on the hearing record, it was another place where it does not appear that West Virginia followed-up.
Chief Steward Wright responded to Hewick’s testimony, saying
“…we felt an obligation to take this as high as we could to find out what the sources would be to ascertain this particular illegal medication. So we did everything humanly possible. And as a result of that extensive investigation which I’ve already mentioned, a statement was made. We’ve already had that individual make that statement as part of the investigation. Unfortunately, it didn’t go much further than that as far as being able to get one person to make one statement to the facts that are here.”
Everything humanly possible was certainly a matter of perception.
Misael Ceciliano’s attorney then asks Wright who that one person was. Wright responds, Chris Villeda. Wright continues that Villeda was the only one the Board believed worthy enough of testifying. The result of the exhaustive investigation was to talk with one person Chris Grove identified to them as having probative testimony, an unsuccessful visit to Kevin Joy’s house, and a conversation with Renee Schlessinger that revealed nothing.
Amazingly, everyone accepts Wright’s statement and moves on. At that point Hewick talks about his meeting with Kelli Talbott from the state Attorney General’s office and a U.S. Attorney named Paul Camilleti to discuss the Argentine cabal possibly dabbling in the use of performance enhancing drugs. Camilleti initially gets excited, but suggests any investigation would take two years. Hewick tells him Chris Grove doesn’t have two years – more like two months and essentially tells Camilleti two more years of animal abuse and defrauding the racing public is unacceptable. Camilleti reacts poorly to Hewick’s assertion, Hewick departs the meeting, and apparently Camilleti decided not to investigate. Ceciliano’s attorney asks if Ceciliano’s name came up in the conversation with Camilleti. Hewick answers it did, that there was talk of arresting him.
At that point Wright excuses Hewick and asks Ceciliano’s attorney if Ceciliano will testify. The attorney says that it was his belief that if Ceciliano refused to testify it would be held against him. Wright tries to calm the Ceciliano camp by emphasizing the only thing the Board is interested in is the nikethamide positive and the allegation Ceciliano injected two horses. Wright then tells Ceciliano’s attorney that it would be in Ceciliano’s interest to be questioned by his attorney and Wright further tells him that the federal investigation Hewick brought up has nothing to do with the case, although that begs the question, if it was irrelevant why did the Board allow Hewick to testify on it for the record?
Once again, the weakness in the system is that the due process rights, the evidentiary rules, even the hearing procedure all are very different than in a court of law. Despite the fact that two men are fighting against losing their livelihood, the Board advises the attorney very subtly that Ceciliano is better off if he testifies. Of course, they already have a written statement gathered by Art Wood, so they are not completely in the dark about what Ceciliano might say. In the American justice system, defendants are protected by their rights against self-incrimination and by the requirement that the prosecution prove the case against them beyond a reasonable doubt. That is not the case in horseracing.
Wright tells Ceciliano’s attorney that the investigation didn’t go anywhere and tips the Board’s hand with regard to Chris Villeda’s testimony. Wright says, “How can we even take [Villeda’s testimony] into consideration?” Wright continues to try to convince the attorney that Ceciliano should testify because essentially most of the previous testimony against Ceciliano either wasn’t credible or was irrelevant to the matter at hand.
This is another strange moment from the hearing. Wright essentially tells Ceciliano’s attorney that they had already decided to dismiss Villeda’s testimony well before consulting with the other stewards during deliberation, and that the testimony Hewick gave about meeting with the U.S. attorney was irrelevant.
Nobody objects and Ceciliano’s attorney requests a continuance and when Wright hesitates, asks for a recess to talk things over with his client. Wright agrees and breaks for 15 minutes.
When they return, Ceciliano’s attorney renews the request for a continuance and Wright says, “We gave you the opportunity to go out and speak with your client and come back to see if you had changed your mind on that request.” Ceciliano’s attorney presses for more time, and Wright finally says no. Ceciliano then takes the witness stand.
Ceciliano’s attorney goes right to the heart of the matter and has Ceciliano testify that he never injected a horse with anything, he is completely unfamiliar with nikethamide, and that Villeda could not have seen him inject any horses because he never injected a horse. Ceciliano testifies that there are all kinds of medications that are administered without syringes and Villeda probably mistook a dose syringe (one used for oral medication) for an injectable syringe. He said he followed Grove’s schedule as it was transmitted, except that if he got on a horse and he thought the horse didn’t feel right he might change from a gallop to a walk, and this was fine with Grove. Ceciliano criticized Villeda as a groom, suggesting he wasn’t skilled at putting bandages on the horse and the only reason Villeda was kept on was the lack of availability of grooms at the track.
Ceciliano previously had a two-hour interview with Art Wood, the Commission investigator, and while the report reads blandly, Ceciliano accused Wood of threats, intimidation, foul language, and trying to put words in his mouth. Wood got a call late during the interview with Ceciliano and decided to break it off and try to continue it later. Ceciliano was highly agitated after the Wood interview and went to Radio Shack to buy a recorder for the second interview when Wood called and abruptly cancelled. No explanation for not finishing the interview with the most likely suspect was offered.
Ceciliano was upset enough with Wood’s behavior that he testified he went to the police to make a statement about how he was treated. He filled out a complaint form and was told he would have to be interviewed, and when he decided to leave before any interview the complaint form was trashed.
Ceciliano’s testimony covered a wide range of issues. Cameras that had been installed weren’t working and that he had seen unauthorized people around the barn. He talked about his relationship with Grove (according to Ceciliano at the hearing, it was good, he thought Grove was an excellent trainer). Ceciliano saw himself trying out for the assistant trainer job, whereas Grove believed he had de facto given him the title. Most of the testimony wasn’t particularly relevant to the matter at hand – more the kind of building blocks lawyers lay for some known or unknown future purpose.
With that the lawyers made their closing statements, and the case went to the stewards for decision.
The Stewards Decision, Racing Commission and Appeals
In the stewards hearing it was clear they weren’t interested in digging far beyond the surface. A number of circumstantial situations – Ceciliano’s conviction in New York for a drug that may have come from offshore, the connection to the Argentines, the large number of grooms, hotwalkers, and other trainers who had close access to the stalls occupied by Chris Grove’s horses, and more – all those things could have been investigated to get to the bottom of where the nikethamide came from and who might have administered it. The questioning of Ceciliano, quickly the prime suspect, certainly could have been more effective. The chief inspector, Art Wood used little finesse in trying to corner Ceciliano, instead getting him to close down, and not even finishing the questioning. The attempted purchase of nikethamide from Argentina was hardly a matter of concern for the stewards, and considering that might have been the only place it could have been obtained, it would have made far more sense for the stewards to want to get their own investigator working on that.
The contention that the investigation did everything humanly possible was perhaps a stretch. In many cases Wood indicated he tried to talk with people, but they weren’t available. Virginia, one of the stable hotwalkers, had been fired by Ceciliano once Grove reduced the Charles Town stable size. Ceciliano claimed she was angry about losing her job, and may have been a reasonable suspect if the stewards’ investigator had found and questioned her. Josefat Reyes had skipped town after the race. Ashley, the former assistant trainer fired by Grove, was never mentioned at any point in the investigation. Kevin Joy, perhaps the keystone to explaining where the nikethamide may have come from, wasn’t home. In actuality Wood tried to talk with a number of people that he never actually got to interview but still the Commission agreed with the stewards’ assessment that Wood’s efforts were sufficient. The testimony of Villeda was all but dismissed, primarily based on two things: Art Wood’s opinion that Villeda, Grove and Grove’s investigator Hewick all told the same almost exact story, implying it was too “pat” and likely made up to throw blame at Ceciliano, and Villeda’s perceived credibility. The similarity of their stories may have made more sense if the stewards considered Grove and Grove’s investigator were simply repeating the story they heard from Villeda. Grove insists he didn’t coach Villeda, but as a star witness Villeda left a little to be desired. The other thing the stewards concluded was that Villeda’s contention that he had seen Ceciliano with needles was not relevant to the case of Bubba de France.
The stewards later stated they conducted a separate hearing on Villeda’s allegation against Ceciliano and concluded there was not sufficient evidence to find Ceciliano guilty, so the charge was dismissed. However, this seems unlikely on two counts. First, even if Ceciliano was injecting horses, Chris Grove was the trainer of record, and ironically would have been responsible for the actions of his employee under the absolute insurers rule. Grove was never informed of a hearing being conducted into the matter, and there seems to be no hearing record available. Even if Ceciliano was found to have injected two horses, the Grove decision had already been rendered, although Ceciliano’s guilt may have had a bearing on the appeal.
The stewards looked into the possibility of a betting coup and concluded there wasn’t one, but that particular evidence was never brought forward in the hearing. If anyone had spiked the horse, the question of why was never ascertained, other than for the stewards to conclude they couldn’t find a reason why either Grove or Ceciliano would do it. Ceciliano was so broke at one point he apparently couldn’t afford a cell phone. Needing an injection of funds is certainly a relevant reason to look more in depth at someone. There was no evidence that Cecilano’s bank accounts were examined, usually an early step in any criminal investigation. What do the cops say? Follow the money. More astonishingly, Ceciliano’s computer – the one where he received email from Chris Grove – was never examined. If there was any evidence in the communications Ceciliano received or sent, the stewards never even looked. If Ceciliano had ordered the nikethamide by internet the same way Trevor Hewick did, the stewards wouldn’t know because they ignored the computer.
None of Ceciliano’s potential motivation was investigated beyond the initial Wood interview. The stewards, the racing commission, and the court all agreed that the investigation had been sufficient, but it mostly appears that the effort was minimal – Art Wood did most of the legwork and missed a lot of potential witnesses – and in some instances amateurish. In the end, the absolute insurers rule and a positive for nikethamide was all that was really necessary to seal Grove’s fate.
The power that resides with the stewards was evident from the way they treated Ceciliano’s lawyer. Without using the exact words, it seemed that the message they were sending was, 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination were not an issue they were concerned with. If Ceciliano didn’t testify, there was at least an inference it would count against him.
But in the end the hearing was really not about figuring out who might have administered the nikethamide. The stewards ultimately believed Grove had nothing to do with the horse getting nikethamide, but that fact is irrelevant in the face of the absolute insurers rule. Unless Grove could have proven who actually administered the injection, he was never going to be found not guilty, and even then he may not have escaped punishment. For their part, the stewards were almost certainly right that the evidence introduced against Ceciliano was not sufficient to conclude he was the culprit, but considering their self-described exhaustive investigation really made no attempt to find out who might have been, the mystery was allowed to stand unsolved. The irony for Grove was that even if Ceciliano was the guilty party, the absolute insurers rule accounts for third party interference and Grove would have been guilty anyway because Ceciliano was his employee.
The incentive for the stewards to do a more robust investigation was minimal. With the evidence offered they concluded Grove had nothing to do with the nikethamide violation, seemingly putting them in the perverse position of finding a trainer innocent and having to punish him anyway because of the absolute insurers rule. Going into the hearing Grove and Ceciliano were presumed guilty, and nothing in the hearing did anything to change that fact. As expected, the stewards found both Grove and Ceciliano guilty and assigned them each a six-month suspension and a $5,000 fine. Later comments by adjudicators during the appeals would suggest they got off lightly, in essence telling them, we took the fact that Grove was certainly not involved and gave him a penalty less than the recommended penalty, and just decided we couldn’t give Ceciliano more.
The stewards listed the aggravating and mitigating factors. As expected, Chris Grove’s past record of four drug/medication convictions, including a Class 2 substance (fluphenazine), counted against him, with the stewards reminding Grove it wasn’t their job to re-adjudicate past violations.
Grove was livid and appealed to the Racing Commission. It was his belief that everyone knew he had nothing to do with the nikethamide positive and that should have been the determining factor on whether he was fined and suspended. Grove also threw a lot more energy into trying to show Ceciliano had to have been the culprit. Ultimately this became ironic when the circuit court pointed out that even if the absolute insurers rule had had an excuse for administration by an unknown third party (like New York), Ceciliano was his assistant. There was simply no way around the rule whether Ceciliano was guilty or not. The only hope Grove had was that if the Commission believed Ceciliano had administered the drug, they may have adjusted the judgment against him.
The Racing Commission was more thorough than the stewards but sustained the six-month suspension and $5,000 fine. The Commission reaffirmed
- There was no evidence to establish how or exactly when Bubba de France was given nikethamide;
- There was no evidence to conclude Grove administered the drug. Further, there was no reason to conclude Grove knew about the administration of the drug, including no evidence that Grove gave anyone instructions to administer the drug;
- There was no evidence Ceciliano administered the drug or had any knowledge of its administration.
- There were a large number of people who had access to the stall of Bubba de France, and from about 1:00 until the horse was scheduled to receive its Lasix shot, the horse was unattended and only general security was on duty.
None of that mattered. Grove was guilty as soon as the horse came back positive and nothing short of proving the testing was wrong or finding the actual culprit was going to get him off. Still Grove pressed on, appealing to the Kanawha County Circuit Court. That court found no reason to not support the report of the Racing Commission, noting
“There is clearly nothing wrong with the Commission’s findings on this issue that would cause this court to disturb them on appeal. Essentially what the Petitioner [Grove] wants is for this Court to re-weigh the evidence and find there is support for his allegation Ceciliano gave the drug to the horse, in direct contradiction to what the Racing Commission and its hearing examiner found. But this Court is not the fact-finder in this case. It is not this Court’s job to re-weigh the evidence and come to a different conclusion. The findings of fact made by the Commission and its hearing examiner are entitled to substantial deference upon appeal.”
The Court also launched into a long discussion of the absolute insurers rule and how it has been consistently upheld in courts around the country.
Grove fired his last bullet and appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court. In April 2015, he got the bad news that they had rejected his appeal. The case was finished.
The Cartagena Connection
Trevor Hewick, Chris Grove’s investigator, did his best to steer the stewards in the direction of the Argentina connection, suggesting both they were known to be alchemists and Argentina was where the nikethamide had to come from. Hewick pointed out that Ceciliano was somehow connected to the group, but no specifics were offered.
A year after Bubba de France tested positive for nikethamide the second nikethamide violation in the last decade occurred when trainer Julio Cartagena had the horse Chinglish come back positive after a race in Delaware. John Wayne, Executive Director of the Delaware Racing Commission said that there were suspicions about Cartagena and made sure the stewards selected Chinglish for testing.
Wayne knew that Cartagena had essentially been run out of Florida through a consent decree for multiple drug/medication violations, and had a long history of running afoul of drug/medication standards. Cartagena also was keeping horses at a nearby harness horse farm, out of the watchful eyes of the stewards. Unfortunately, Delaware didn’t discover the source of the nikethamide either, taking at face value the positive and not looking deeper into where Cartagena obtained the drug.
Julio Cartagena was one of the names Hewick mentioned, but he didn’t pinpoint the most significant connection. When Charles Town refused to take entries from Cartagena and his daughter Keisy in 2008, Cartagena transferred the horses to the care of…Misael Ceciliano. In essence they were more than just casual acquaintances. Cartagena had employed Ceciliano to front for him at Charles Town. This was documented by getting the career training records of both Cartagenas and Ceciliano, and it was easy to match up horses that had been trained by Cartegena, flipped to Ceciliano when they raced at Charles Town, and then back to Cartegena in another state.
What is perhaps puzzling is why Danny Wright, who was a steward at the time the Cartagenas and Ceciliano were getting around the Charles Town’s refusal to take Cartagena’s entries, either failed to put two and two together or chose not to let Chris Grove know Ceciliano had been involved in a scheme with a serial drug violator in 2008, instead insisting Ceciliano was a good find for Grove. Inquiries to Wright for comment on the story have so far gone unanswered.
The question that has to be asked is, how much of a coincidence could it be that there were only two Nikethamide violations in at least the last ten years, and they occurred a year apart, and the people involved had been connected in a scheme to run horses in defiance of a Charles Town stewards order not to take entries from the Cartagenas?
Chris Grove served his suspension and paid the fine and started training again in September 2013. His first horse back was named Denver Duel and he finished first. That may have seemed like the beginning of a happy ending, but while Grove was back on the track, his heart was not in the game the way it had been. As expected, he lost a number of clients. Even some of his old supporters had an issue being associated with a trainer with a Class 1 violation. Grove had always been about a 15% trainer, a good percentage for a guy with a blue-collar stable and a reputation for running a clean operation. In his last year of training Grove won at 10% with limited stock. On November 1, 2014 Chris Grove ran his last horse as a trainer, a horse named Smouldering Haze who finished 7th in a $5,000 claiming race at Penn National. After that race he walked away from racing.
When you talk with Chris you can hear the pain he still carries. He desperately wants his good name back, not only for himself but for his father Phil, who still works as the chief steward in Maryland, as well. You can also hear the bitterness.
“They knew I didn’t spike the horse. They knew that,” he says. “They relied on the absolute insurers rule to excuse them from giving me justice.”
English jurist William Blackstone famously wrote, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” It is a thought that horseracing has consciously rejected. Ask most racing fans or officials, and they will tell you the absolute insurers rule prevents drug/medication positives from creating chaos. The fact is that a lot of very guilty trainers, including Julio Cartagena, protest their innocence when they are cited. If tracks were required to prove a trainer consciously created a drug/medication positive, some substantial number of trainers who are in fact guilty would never be punished. It is racing’s necessary evil. Even the courts have not been sympathetic, noting that even though the rule is set up so that innocent people may be punished, the good of the absolute insurers rule outweighs the bad. Still, there must be a way to keep the clearly innocent from suffering the way Chris Grove did. What should racing do when the evidence proves innocence? Does punishment regardless represent justice?
The adversarial relationship between the stewards and the trainers also does not always serve the cause of justice. Had the stewards conducted a better investigation, perhaps the question of where the nikethamide came from, or who had incentive to administer it might have come out. The question for racing should not be only as simple as who was the trainer of a horse that tested positive, but how can trainers and authorities work in concert to identify the sources of illegal drugs.
It is of no concern in most cases that one of the good guys – and make no mistake, everyone including Danny Wright after the hearing thought Grove was a good guy – gets labeled as a Class 1 violator for life, affecting his ability to even make a good living. There has to be some “out” available to the stewards and the racing commission when the great weight of the evidence points toward innocence. There has to be a way to make sure the good guys are not swept up in the zeal to excise the bad guys.
In life, there are few absolutes. But in racing there is one that stands written in stone. It needs to be looked at. There needs to be a recognition that finding the truth and executing justice is a higher priority than simply executing.
Chris Grove is not looking for pity. He expected to be handed nothing in his life. What he got, he got by working twice as hard as the next guy. He landed on his feet after quitting the game. He is the Chief Creative Officer in a company called Recellerate. Grove hasn’t been defeated, and it would be no surprise to hear his name again helping horses to race.
“We’re working on some incredible projects that will benefit horses. Once we’re ready to roll out, it will be a game changer, believe me.”
Like he said, he still loves horses and one way or the other he’s just as determined to succeed for them. Racing may have lost a good guy, but the horses – he’s still working for them.