Wellington, Fla.—Feb. 8
Larry Glefke and Kelley Farmer’s legal team held an open forum at the White Horse Tavern adjacent to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Festival to lay out the details of their legal wranglings with U.S. Equestrian over the past year. (You can read detailed reporting on each of the various steps of that process in COTH’s coverage of it.)
Glefke and Farmer’s legal team won their case over USEF in a private arbitration proceeding, a common out-of-court settlement procedure, and both Glefke and Farmer’s fines and suspensions were immediately lifted. Bonnie Navin, one of Glefke and Farmer’s attorneys, started the forum off by clearing the air.
“We have a lot of respect for the USEF; I don’t want anyone to think we’re here to trash the USEF,” Navin said.
Navin said U.S. Equestrian was invited to send representatives to the meeting, and in fact Navin says she met with USEF President Murray Kessler privately earlier in the day, but USEF declined the offer to attend.
“We are very happy about the changes made and the memos that were put out. It shows you two things: one, that your organization is going to get a lot better,” Navin said. “But two, it tells you that you should stand up and applaud Larry Glefke and Kelley Farmer, because they took the time and the money to dig and get down to the truth of what’s happening here.”
After an introduction to the case Navin handed the microphone over to Paul Regensdorf, an attorney who joined Glefke and Farmer’s team when it went to arbitration. Glefke and Farmer’s case went through two USEF hearings, a U.S. Olympic Committee hearing and two arbitration proceedings before Glefke and Farmer settled with USEF—and Regensdorf touched on the many factors at play in their case.
In the original findings in the case, Unexpected tested positive for excessive levels of GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, at the Kentucky Summer Horse Show in a pre-green hunter 3’3″ class on July 28, 2016. Glefke was identified on Unexpected’s entry blank as the trainer. Farmer was identified as Unexpected’s owner and rider. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, which can act as a tranquilizer, and is found naturally in the horse’s body, but the USEF considers “gamma-aminobutyric acid in excess of normal physiological levels” as a violation.
Glefke and Farmer’s team argued that the USEF’s tests for GABA levels are not scientifically valid, and they argued that Glefke and Farmer’s lawyers weren’t allowed to ask USEF lab technicians to testify at the hearing and that USEF didn’t provide them with documents they requested.
But at the end of the day, Glefke and Farmer’s case came down to a small, green-topped test tube.
“Remember that name for it if you ever get tested: tiger top test tube,” Regensdorf said.
This is a term for the vials blood is collected into when a horse is tested at horse shows. USEF is supposed to provide veterinarians testing at horse shows with specific tubes for blood that are then centrifuged at U.S. Equestrian’s lab in Lexington, Kentucky, to separate the plasma from red blood cells.
The interior of green-topped vials are coated with an anticoagulant, heparin, which ensures that the sample is a whole blood/plasma sample instead of clotted blood plus serum. Plasma separator tubes contain a barrier gel in the tube. The specific gravity of this material lies between that of the blood cells and plasma. During centrifugation, the gel barrier moves upwards, providing a stable barrier separating the plasma from cells. This barrier allows for the stability of certain parameters in the primary tube under the recommended storage conditions for up to 48 hours. The plasma is what’s screened for the various drugs USEF bans or limits.
As is typical, the veterinarian collected three vials of blood from Unexpected, two for the A sample screening and one to be held as the B sample. Glefke and Farmer’s legal team argue that the USEF testing veterinarian froze all three samples after collecting them and before delivering them to the USEF lab, causing the samples to be invalid.
Regensdorf said that the type of tubes used by the USEF testing veterinarian is not designed to be used in freezing a whole blood sample. “You don’t put it in a freezer. You don’t freeze blood in this tube. Fluid expands when it freezes, and if you freeze whole blood, all those red blood cells expand as they freeze. And when they thaw, some of them rupture. That’s called hemolysis. That means that what used to be inside the red blood cells has been spilled into the plasma, contaminating the plasma with what was in the red blood cells,” he explained.
“Our experts told us that red blood cells contains different things than plasma does—that’s why you keep the plasma separate from the red blood cells. Nobody knows for sure, but the best guess is that the red blood cells contain between six and 14 times more GABA than the plasma. So if the red blood cells get ripped open and dump some of their materials into the plasma, guess what happens to the GABA concentration? It goes up,” Regensdorf continued.
“And that’s precisely what happened in August of 2016, because the [USEF] veterinarian, by mistake or otherwise, put the [three vials of A and B] blood samples in the freezer and froze them. So when they came to the [USEF testing lab] and were thawed out again, they were partially hemolyzed.”
When Glefke and Farmer were told the A sample had tested positive for GABA, the B sample was thawed and tested, but another round of freezing and thawing resulted in increased hemolysis.
Regensdorf said the lab tried to re-spin the blood to separate it out again, but the test results weren’t adding up: The A sample tested at 300 parts per million of GABA, but the first test of the B sample resulted in 2,400 ppm, and a re-test of the B sample produced 1,800 ppm. It was the large disparity between the A and B sample GABA numbers that made the arbitrator rule in favor of lifting Farmer and Glefke’s suspensions in early January of 2018 pending further arbitration. At that point, USEF settled with Glefke and Farmer.
Navin focused on the lack of proper laboratory procedure in the USEF lab and the USEF’s lack of documentation of their procedures.
After the presentation of the case Navin opened the forum to questions from those in attendance. (Trainers Jimmy Torano, John Brennan and Jack Towell were a few of the roughly 50 people in attendance.) Questions ranged from details of the hearing process, the drug lab, and USEF’s structure in general. Different ideas were floated as to how to prevent something like this from happening again and what needed to change at USEF beyond the resignations, terminations of employees and forthcoming audit of the lab that were announced earlier this week.
Farmer’s advice to those present was to videotape their horses being tested to ensure that the correct tube is used and that it’s handled properly. The forum eventually disbanded, and people turned to discuss the various details amongst themselves.
As people were mingling following the forum Farmer had to take a call—she was arranging for horses to be shipped to Ocala to compete in the hunter derby there. Chin up, eyes forward—that’s all that’s on Farmer’s mind in the near future . Things had quieted down, and most people had left the forum as she shared her thoughts on the past year.
“All you can do is do what you can to get [your reputation] back,” Farmer said. “We did this because we feel it was necessary for the members and the organization to know what was happening, and whether it be fixed with us it had to get fixed at some point in time.”
Watch the entire presentation from the Live Facebook video from COTH: