Forte FAQ: Why Did It Take So Long To Find Out About That Positive Test? And Other Questions, Answered - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Forte FAQ: Why Did It Take So Long To Find Out About That Positive Test? And Other Questions, Answered

Forte passes Mage in deep stretch to win the Florida Derby (G1) to collect his sixth win in seven lifetime starts.

There has been a lot of news in the racing world over the past week, and as any Paulick Report reader knows, it hasn't all been focused on Mage's impressive Kentucky Derby win last weekend.  

Much of the recent news has been focused on two different issues with morning line Derby favorite Forte – his veterinary scratch on Saturday morning, and news that a post-race drug test after his win in the Hopeful Stakes revealed meloxicam.

Stewards in New York held a meeting with trainer Todd Pletcher regarding the failed drug test this week and disqualified Forte from his Hopeful Stakes win, then suspended Pletcher for 10 days and fined him $1,000.

We've seen a few questions/concerns/points of confusion from racing fans about these situations and have addressed the questions we're equipped to answer below.  

Why did it take so long to get the test results back after Forte's run in the 2022 Hopeful Stakes on Sept. 5?

The delay does not seem to have been in getting preliminary testing done on the post-race sample. By all accounts, that seems to have been completed on a normal timeframe – according to reporting from The Blood-Horse, Forte's connections said in a news conference this week that he was notified about the positive on Sept. 28, 2022. That was the day entries were taken for the G1 Champagne Stakes, and prevented Forte from being entered there. This, the connections say, is why he appeared a week later at Keeneland, where he won the G1 Breeders' Futurity.

There are two different explanations as to why the stewards only just had a hearing about the case this week. In reporting this week from the New York Times, the gaming commission blamed Team Forte, claiming that their attorneys delayed the hearing for the intervening eight months. In this week's press conference, Team Forte said the delays were the fault of the commission. Team Forte says the commission took a long time — reports vary on how long, but possibly four months — to provide them with a list of laboratories that were authorized to conduct split sample testing for meloxicam.

Split sample custody has historically been a problem for New York's laboratory, as we reported in 2015.

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-Ok, then why are we just finding out about it now?

Officials cannot legally acknowledge a pending positive test until after the stewards have met with the trainer to hear their side of the case and have issued a ruling. The stewards can't hold such a meeting until after a split sample is tested, if the trainer requests such a test.

A horse's connections can divulge a pending positive, wherever they are in the adjudication process, at any time they choose. That's why the public knew about Medina Spirit's post-Derby positive so quickly. Trainer Bob Baffert called a press conference the day after he was informed there had been a positive test.

The only reason we knew about this case earlier this week, prior to the stewards' meeting with Pletcher, is because the New York Times broke the story, citing two unnamed sources.

-Did Forte's connections delay the hearing to avoid a positive interfering with his Kentucky Derby run?

Probably not. The Hopeful doesn't carry any Kentucky Derby qualifying points, so his disqualification would never have impacted his ability to run there.

It is true that they knew this matter was pending as they headed into the Derby. 

-Does this have anything to do with his Kentucky Derby scratch — is this a sign the horse has been dealing with the same problem this whole time?

Not necessarily.

Pletcher said the horse has never been given meloxicam under his care, and that the positive is likely the result of environmental contamination. Team Forte also claim that the New York laboratory implied they also thought the test was the result of environmental contamination, though how that could have occurred is still unclear. Lab director Dr. George Maylin told The Blood-Horse he said that was one possible explanation for the presence of meloxicam. According to Maylin, there is zero tolerance for meloxicam in post-race samples.

Pletcher said this week that after an internal investigation, he could not find that any employee in his shed row had been taking the drug.

Forte's connections said after his scratch the morning of the Derby that he'd been battling a foot bruise in the days leading up to the race. Video of a pre-race veterinary exam by Kentucky officials shows the horse reacting slightly when the inside heel bulb of his right front was palpated by veterinarian Dr. Nick Smith, which is consistent with a foot bruise. While bruises can be slow to heal, he could not have won four races in between the Hopeful and the Derby on the same foot bruise, nor would he likely have passed pre-race veterinary examinations with a bruise.

Meloxicam is used in both people and horses for arthritis, but it's not approved for use in Thoroughbreds in training. It's not something a veterinarian would commonly reach for to address a foot problem in a racehorse.

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-Is this a case of doping?

'Doping' is a trigger word for a lot of people in horse racing. To those inside the business, the accepted use of the word refers to willful administration of a substance that has no legitimate purpose in the horse in an attempt to advance the horse's performance beyond his natural abilities. Substances like EPO fall into this category. Anabolic steroids have limited therapeutic use but are usually thought of the same way, since they increase a horse's ability to build muscle beyond his natural capacity to do so. Meloxicam isn't approved for use in horses in training for racing, but it is federally approved for prescription use in horses generally. Whether it was given willfully or not, there is currently no evidence it's going to make a slow, sound horse into a fast, sound horse. When used therapeutically, it can make a sore horse more comfortable.

-Is this why he's not going to Preakness?

No. Currently he's ineligible to run in the Preakness because he is on the veterinarian's list in Kentucky. Any horse that is scratched the morning of a race for unsoundness by a veterinarian is automatically placed on the vet's list for 14 days, and in order to come off the list, they must perform a workout before an official veterinarian and have their blood tested for any anti-inflammatories or painkillers. At the earliest, Forte could work for a state vet on Preakness morning, but there wouldn't be time for drug tests to come back before post time.

Fourteen days is more than enough time for most foot bruises to clear up, but the rule doesn't have any flexibility depending on the source of unsoundness on race morning. It's not the job of regulatory veterinarians to perform complicated diagnostics to pinpoint the reason for lameness. That's probably for the best, since it would subject veterinarians to additional pressures surrounding the reason they record for their scratch.

As for the suspension, Pletcher is appealing the case and has been granted a stay of suspension while the appeal is handled. That means he'll be clear to train until he drops or loses his appeal, so it's likely he'll be saddling horses somewhere in the country on Preakness Day.

-What about HISA? Aren't they supposed to prevent all this?

The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act created a centralized national authority to do two things – oversee safety regulation, and oversee a medication control program. At the time of the Hopeful (and even at this moment) the safety program is in place, but the medication control program is not. The safety rules do not deal with drug testing, although they do outline the use of a veterinarian's list, which coincide with Kentucky officials' actions here. Kentucky regulation also reflects the 14-day stay on the vet's list after a scratch for unsoundness, so even if HISA didn't exist, Forte would be in the same situation.

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