A New York Supreme Court ruling on July 5 upheld the U.S. Equestrian Federation fine and suspension for California-based trainer Archie Cox following a positive GABA test on a horse in his training.
Cox received a five-month suspension and $5,000 fine from the USEF Hearing Committee when a horse he trained in the first year green working hunters at the 2014 Blenheim Summer Classic II (Calif.), Cartaire, tested positive for “gamma-aminobutyric acid in excess of normal physiological levels.”*
According to the laboratory test conducted by USEF, Cartaire’s blood sample contained 188 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) of GABA, exceeding the threshold USEF sets at 100 ng/ml.
The Hearing Committee initially ruled on Cox’s suspension and fine in June of 2015, releasing that ruling with a number of other cases in a report on Dec. 1, 2015. Cox filed suit against USEF’s ruling with the New York Supreme Court on Dec. 14, arguing that USEF’s threshold of 100 ng/ml was not based on reliable scientific evidence.
As a part of the petition filed on behalf of Cox and Cartaire’s owner, Meredith Mateo, attorney Thomas Giordano argued: “The only peer-reviewed study of the topic to date concluded no such ‘normal’ level [of GABA] exists in horses. To make matters worse, the testing protocol USEF used here (and which forms the only evidence USEF has) is not scientifically valid or accepted in the relevant scientific community.”
Attorneys for the USEF responded with motions to strike any new evidence or arguments Cox and his attorney presented to the New York court that were not presented at his initial USEF hearing or appeal, and they defended USEF’s GABA testing and threshold policies.
Justice Joan M. Kenney handed down her ruling on July 5 in favor of USEF and issued a four-page opinion on the matter.
“Here, the petition fails to demonstrate that the Hearing Committee’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence,” Kenney states in the opinion, referring to Cox’s attorney’s argument that USEF’s testing procedures are not up to par.
Further down, the judge’s statement reads: “Petitioners have also failed to demonstrate that the Hearing Committee’s decision was arbitrary and capricious or that it was an abuse of discretion. The Hearing Committee considered all of the petitioner’s arguments, including their assertion that they did not give GABA to Cartaire and their conjecture that the ingestion of certain grass by Cartaire might have raised the GABA levels in its blood.”
The judge’s opinion concludes: “In light of the foregoing, the court finds that the Hearing Committee’s decision was supported by substantial evidence and was neither arbitrary nor capricious, nor an abuse of discretion. Therefore, the petition is dismissed.”
According to USEF legal counsel Sonja Keating, the USEF has never lost a challenge in court related to its anti-doping program. Just in the past year, USEF has faced three such challenges to Hearing Committee rulings, and all three were decided in favor of the federation.
“If there are any members out there reading these public records when these decisions were challenged that had any question in their mind as to the integrity of our drugs and medications program, the integrity of our laboratory, the integrity of our testing methods, the integrity of the science we rely upon to enforce these rules, hopefully this will affirm for them, and if anybody had questioned it, restore some confidence,” Keating said. “We take this seriously, and hopefully this will confirm that there is integrity in all of that.”
“I think it speaks directly to the federation’s efforts to preserve a fair and level playing field and to ensure the safety of our horses, and we couldn’t be more thrilled that once again the court of New York State has upheld this decision and supported it,” USEF CEO Bill Moroney said.
“I think the entire drugs and medication program and our efforts to ensure that playing field are one of the most valued benefits of the U.S. Equestrian Federation, and I believe it speaks volumes to the fact that we’re committed to that, and the welfare of our horses is the highest priority of our members, and we’re glad to be able to do this, and we take it very seriously and are proud of our record,” he continued.
Cox’s suspension was originally set to start Aug. 31. Cox’s attorney, Giordano, said he did not want to comment on the ruling. Cox did not immediately respond to a phone call for comment.
*Edited on July 7 to clarify definition of GABA