Gary Contessa

So Gary Contessa is doing seven days for having one of his horses test positive for 2.3 nanograms/mL of cocaine. For those not flashing on the measurement, that is 2.3 billionths of a gram of coke. To give you some perspective on a billion:

  • A billion seconds ago it was 1984.
  • A billion minutes ago the Roman Empire was at its greatest extent.
  • A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.
  • And my favorite, if you sat down to count from one to one billion, you would be counting for 95 years.

If it sounds like not much cocaine to have in a 1,400 pound racehorse, that’s right. Of course, given the current standards and the absolute insurer’s rule, the amount of cocaine measured is irrelevant. It is a zero tolerance substance in Florida and Contessa is presumptively guilty for its presence since he was the trainer of record at the time.

You can argue that however harsh the system may seem, trainers know the rules going in and it is their responsibility to make sure they aren’t broken, whether by them or their employees, and for the most part you would be right. Unfortunately, trainers are not able to control for everything that could result in an environmental positive. Everyone from the person who transports the horse, to the state vet, to the person who checks the horse’s identifying tattoo, to the owners in the paddock could potentially contaminate the horse. Should the trainer be held responsible for them as well? A system that cannot discern between guilt by commission and guilt by proxy is broken. I suggest nothing more than putting yourself in Contessa’s position. If you knew yourself to be innocent, do you simply accept the punishment as the cost of doing business?

I went through the pertinent issues in the case of Kellyn Gorder and methamphetamine, and I’m not going to do the same thing here. Instead I’ll focus on three issues that continually come up in these instances.

First is the amount of time it took to resolve the case. The positive was for Jeremy’s Song, a horse that finished second in a maiden race on March 8, 2014. It took close to two years to close the case and that is simply too long. The system is clearly broken if it takes that long to adjudicate a case, especially when the excess time was not related to digging for the truth.

Second, the issue of environmental contamination has to be resolved once and for all. The test used to determine a cocaine positive is for a metabolite of cocaine called benzoylecgonine. In the real world (say professional sports), a human urine test that shows less than 300 nanograms/mL for that metabolite (or 150 nanograms on a retest) is not considered a positive, although that number is an arbitrary result of discussion by scientists. That’s an eye-opener.  A level orders of magitude higher than what was found in Contessa’s horse doesn’t get you busted by football or baseball, or even in some racing jurisdictions. 2.3 nanograms is only indicative of cocaine exposure at some point in the recent past and certainly does not represent a level at which it could influence performance.

The stewards and the racing commission are in over their heads when it comes to something like environmental contamination. Other than the medical directors, who are often not expert in pharmacology, stewards and commissions are forced to look outside for expertise on environmental contamination, and even when they receive the testimony they cannot bring themselves to excuse the trainer. The fear is that the first trainer who gets excused for a Class 1 violation sets a precedent for all future cases. It is racing’s version of Pandora’s box.

In the case of Contessa, the commission resolved nothing. A $500 fine and seven days for a Class 1 substance was essentially a concession that Contessa was not likely guilty of purposely drugging his horse. They emphasized this fact by not changing the result or redistributing the purse. Why would a trainer feed a horse something like cocaine not less than four or five days BEFORE a race, when it could do no good at all for the horse’s performance on race day? It isn’t like an anabolic steroid, where the muscle built is still there weeks after the steroid has been withdrawn. It makes no more sense than taking two ibuprofen on Wednesday to deal with a headache on Saturday. Why would a commission issue such a light punishment for a Class 1 substance if they truly believed Contessa knowingly drugged the horse?

Finally, I’ve argued in favor of doing in depth investigation. Does the commission understand the mechanism by which cocaine can be transferred from human to horse and did they rule this out? Were all the stable personnel tested? Did all the people who had contact with the horse get tested? Racing commissions are among the few places in America where due process only means a trainer gets a hearing before the inevitable hanging, and nothing has to be proven beyond any reasonable doubt. At the very least, a fact-finding mission gives some credibility to the assignment of punishment.

At the end Contessa still has his record stained with a Class 1 violation. The fact that he accepted the punishment was surely indicative that the commission was never interested in letting Contessa off the hook completely. His only real option was to negotiate for the mildest punishment possible.

There is a great cry by many horseplayers to rid the sport of the drug cheats. As laudable a goal as that may be, how do you accomplish it without metaphorically throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Contessa’s case is nothing similar to Kirk Ziadie, but in the minds of those looking to denigrate racing, they both may be equally symptomatic of the problem. If Contessa was not guilty beyond the language of the absolute insurers rule, then racing did itself no favors by insisting he must be punished. Despite consistent statistics to the contrary, racing is still marked with the stain that a great number of trainers are cheaters and that illegal drug use is rampant.

I’ve pointed out a need to do proactive testing and enforcement because obviously once the race is run, all the damage is done. The goal should not be to wait and catch violations after the fact, but to prevent them from ever happening. Don’t the tracks get it that horseplayers are screwed every time a result is posted official and one of the horses in the money tests positive? Don’t they realize the only win for all of us is a clean result? An ounce of prevention, is worth….you know the rest.

Perhaps if Contessa stays clean, in time people will forget the positive for cocaine. Perhaps owners will see it as the environmental contamination Contessa argues for. But as I’ve learned from the trainers I have previously written about, there are owners that will simply not be associated with a trainer with a Class 1 conviction. There is every reason for Contessa to be concerned about the rest of his career, about whether he will miss out on a potential champion because of the stain of the cocaine positive.

Who actually won here? Not the horseplayers, not Contessa, and not horse racing. It’s one more unsatisfying moment in a history of unsatisfying moments.