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Trainer Steve Asmussen challenging positive drug tests

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen was suspended for 30 days and fined $3,500 this week by Kentucky racing authorities after two of his horses failed post-race drug tests.

But as we saw a few months back with Bob Baffert and the scandal of Justify’s scopolamine positive, the story may be a bit more complicated than the headlines would lead you to believe.

Asmussen — whom a friend of mine refers to as “Racetrack Jesus,” a tribute to his facial hair and sometimes long, flowing locks — is best known for guiding horses like Curlin, Gun Runner and Rachel Alexandra to glory.

But according to reports in the thoroughbreddailynews.com and horseracingnation.com, the 54-year-old was hit with the penalty because two of his winning runners last year tested above the permitted threshold for acepromazine.

That sounds sinister until you learn that “Ace,” as it is commonly known, is a tranquilizer, used to keep horses calm during veterinary procedures, shoeing and long-distance travel. Doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you’d want to give a horse to improve his or her chances of winning, does it?

Asmussen is appealing the ruling by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, focusing on the test that was used to determine his guilt.

As Asmussen’s lawyer, Clark Brewster of Oklahoma City, told horseracingnation.com, the test came back positive even though his client followed the rules laid out by the state regulators, which say that the drug cannot be administered to a horse within 48 hours of a race.

At the same time, Brewster argues, studies have shown that oral doses of the drug can produce “inert metabolites” that can remain in a horse’s system for up to a month and trigger a “positive” test result long after the substance has been metabolized.

We’ll have to wait and see how that defense holds up, but there have been other cases where positives later determined to be caused by metabolites were forgiven after the chemistry was explained.

California trainers looking far afield

Longtime trainers Jerry Hollendorfer and Doug O’Neil both are looking to establish bases outside the Golden State. Their situations are different, but the controversy over horse deaths is playing a role in both moves.

Hollendorfer, a 73-year-old Hall of Famer, really has no choice in the matter. With The Stronach Group, which controls the racing calendar for the first half of the year in California, standing firm on its decision to ban him after four of his horses broke down during Santa Anita Park’s star-crossed meeting this year, he told the Daily Racing Form this week that he intends to relocate the approximately 25 horses remaining in his care to Oaklawn Park for its meet that opens on Jan. 24.

O’Neill, meantime, told the Thoroughbred Daily News this week that he is considering establishing a beachhead in Dubai, which would make him the first U.S. based trainer to establish a long-term presence in the Middle Eastern emirate.

He also said the cloud hanging over racing in California played a role in his thinking.

“The prize money is great in Dubai, but that’s not the only thing I am looking at,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in California right now and Dubai could be a wonderful place to race if you have the right horses and your owners want to do it.”

#RJhorseracing featured races

The #RJhorseracing handicappers are zeroed in on some top-notch races at Aqueduct on Saturday: The $250,000 Remsen Stakes (Grade 2) for 2-year-olds and the prestigious $750,000 Cigar Mile Handicap (Grade 1) for older horses.

In the former, which will see these talented youngsters test their mettle at 1 1/8th mile for the first time, the handicapping crew is narrowly backing 3-1 morning line favorite Forza Di Oro over Cleon Jones (6-1) and Chase Tracker (7-2).

I agree that Forza Di Oro looks tough, but I’m looking for Alpha Sixty Six (4-1) to bounce back from his disappointing fifth-place finish in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont, when he broke a step slow from the rail and then was clobbered by his next-door neighbor. He nonetheless finished strong and sure looked to me like he’ll relish the extra furlong. I’ll use Forza Di Oro to place and Shotski (15-1) to show.

In the Cigar Mile, two obvious class horses — disqualified Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile conqueror Spun to Run — figure to dominate the betting.

The crowd ‘cappers certainly see it that way, but they also believe that Maximum Security, the 3-2 morning line favorite, has the upper hand over Spun to Run, the 5-2 second choice. They have Whitmore (8-1) closing from far back to complete the trifecta.

This is a very interesting race from a pace perspective, since the two favorites may get locked up in a pace duel in the early stages of the race, possibly setting the table for a big surprise. The most likely upsetter in my eyes is True Timber (15-1), runner up in this race last year. Trained by the always patient Kiaran McLaughlin, I like the way his preparation this year almost mirrors the way he was brought up to that race, which produced his best lifetime Beyer of 104. If he can work out a trip from the 11 post and improve on that just a little, he may be able to reel in the top two in the final yards.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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