Did quarter horse racing’s top trainer win too much for his own good? – Houston Chronicle

Three years ago, Judd Kearl burst out of the pack to leave his mark on the sport of quarter horse racing.

Kearl’s horses had notched plenty of victories over the previous decade, even claiming titles at individual tracks. But starting in 2016, his team began winning at a startling rate. Working out of his New Waverly ranch, by the end of the year Kearl had amassed more wins than any other trainer.

His $4.6 million in earnings doubled that of the next closest trainer. The American Quarter Horse Association named him its Trainer of the Year, ending the 14-year run of the legendary Paul Jones. His picture graced the cover of Quarter Racing Journal’s Annual Review.

“As a kid, you always dream of something like this,” said Kearl, who’d grown up in Utah watching his father chariot race. “But for it to become a reality is unbelievable.”

By mid-2017 Kearl again led all trainers in earnings. That July his horses won the Rainbow Derby and Rainbow Futurity, two of the sports biggest races for 2- and 3-year-olds.

A week later the Texas Racing Commission dropped a bombshell. Four of Kearl’s horses running at Sam Houston Race Park, in Houston, and Retama Park, outside of San Antonio, had tested positive for a drug so obscure it had lab workers riffling through their reference books. The horses were disqualified, their winnings redistributed among the other top finishers.

It was only the beginning of Kearl’s high-velocity plummet. A panel of race stewards summarily suspended him from entering Texas racetracks. That fall the racing commission handed the sport’s reigning top trainer the severest penalty permitted; a $110,000 fine and a 19-year suspension.

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State racing boards operate independently of each other but typically respect each other’s rulings — meaning Kearl’s Texas punishment was effectively a career ban. It was as if Lance Armstrong’s doping had been discovered at the height of his dominance and he’d been banished from bicycling.

To Kearl’s supporters, the death penalty was inexplicable. “If he’d been caught on video personally injecting heroin into these horses, his punishment would not be any more severe than what the commission gave him,” said Darrell Vienna, a former race horse trainer and California attorney who is assisting Kearl.

Some speculated payback for a relative newcomer upending the sport’s clubby establishment and pushing familiar names out of the winner’s circle. The long-timers “were tired of them new boys coming down and whipping their butts,” said Chad Peck, a Gillette, Texas, owner and breeder. “The big time trainers aren’t winning no more.”

“Why Judd was singled out to be the whipping boy for everyone who’d ever had a bad test I couldn’t tell you,” added Ted Abrams, a Hempstead owner and breeder whose Jessies First Down was named World Champion when trained by Kearl. “I think it was because he was winning so much.”

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To others, however, Kearl’s sudden topple from the pinnacle of his sport confirmed what they’d long suspected. “He was winning, winning, winning, winning” said Jeff True, general manager of Ruidoso Downs, the Churchill Downs of quarter horse racing. “Everyone thought: he’s either the best trainer who ever walked the face of the earth, or he’s got some advanced drug we’ve never heard of.”

As Kearl continues to fight for his professional life, the mystery surrounding his dramatic fall has only deepened. In his defense, he has blamed his Texas A&M-trained veterinarian for secretly administering the obscure drug to his horses. It’s an uphill strategy; legally, trainers are 100 percent responsible for their horses.

There’s a practical problem, as well: The veterinarian has disappeared.

Iconic sport ‘drying up’ in Texas

Texas horse racing has been fighting off a slow-motion extinction for nearly two decades. While its surrounding states have expanded gambling and used the proceeds to bolster race purses and breeding awards, prize money at Texas tracks has remained low.

“Owners and trainers go where the bigger purses are, and they’re not finding them in Texas,” the Texas Racing Commission’s chairman, John Steen III, wrote to the Legislature last year. The disparity has prompted a steady professional drain to New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

“Horse racing in Texas, it’s just been drying up,” said Jerry Chapman, a Waco rancher who has been breeding race horses for 40 years.

In 2000, bettors at Texas tracks wagered $634 million. By last year the figure was only $285 million. Once host to 148 live quarter horse racing days annually, this year Texas tracks are scheduled for only 58 days of competition.

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After years of failing to convince lawmakers to rescue the business by expanding gambling to match the state’s neighbors, the Texas horse lobby last year shifted tactics. The new approach worked; legislators this year agreed to divert tax proceeds from horse equipment sales back into racing.

Advocates hope larger purses and bonuses will spur a Texas racing revival. Yet serious threats to the industry remain — particularly among quarter horses, the iconic drag racers of the American west. In 2012, federal authorities broke up a ring of Zeta cartel members using the sport to launder tens of millions of dollars in drug proceeds.

Illegal “bush” or match races continue to plague quarter horse racing, as well. The unregulated off-the-books contests not only siphon money from the sanctioned sport. They provide opportunity for unscrupulous trainers and owners to use and experiment with performance-enhancing drugs, some of which find their way to legitimate tracks, said Ruidoso’s True.

Despite increased testing and vigilance by track owners and racing commissions, experts concede exploitable gaps persist. Horses spend most of their time away from the tracks and their testing barns. As with human athletes, horsemen seeking an edge are always looking for new ways to stay a step ahead of regulators.

So it’s not surprising Texas officials busted Kearl only by sheer luck.

The mystery drug

In mid-2017, the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory had just spent $400,000 on a drug testing machine, recalled director Bruce Akey. Technicians were still inputting a new library of chemicals the machine could identify when Kearl’s samples arrived.

Blood is tested from every first- and second-place finisher in Texas horse races. Zoomin & Celebrating had placed second at Sam Houston on May 22. On June 9, Million Dollar Kiss had come in second at Retama Park. The same day Chivalri had won the 10th race. Tellem Honey’s Here won the following day. A week later, on June 17, Zoomin N Celebrating won again, at Retama.

Any drug not specifically permitted as therapeutic is considered prohibited. Most are widely known. Yet when the results for Kearl’s horses came back positive for a drug called nomifensine, the lab was baffled; nobody had heard of it.

“We quickly went to the book to look it up,” Akey said.

Promoted as an anti-depressant, the drug was on the market only a short time before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration yanked it in 1992 over side-effect concerns. Although there have been no studies of its effects on horses, Akey said in humans the drug can have a stimulant effect similar to adrenaline.

Nomifensine has since largely disappeared. Terence Wan, head of doping control for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said that although his organization has been testing for the substance for years, he’s never seen a positive. He said the club kept it in its panel because he’d seen other anti-depressants used illegally.

When news broke of the positive tests “I was kind of in shock,” said Chapman, owner of Million Dollar Kiss. He said he hired Kearl on a short-term contract based on his reputation as a winner.

“It broke our heart,” added Peck, Zoomin & Celebrating’s owner. “Me and Judd are still on speaking terms. But I told him: If it’s true, I’ll own everything you have.”

Kearl declined an interview. His Austin attorney, Eleanor Ruffner, said the Texas Racing Commission’s penalty was unprecedented. “It’s frustrating to see the state of Texas end his career for the smallest thing,” she said.

In court documents, Kearl has challenged the state’s testing, claiming Texas Racing Commission investigators did not follow their own protocols. A judge agreed, but concluded the deviations wouldn’t have changed the results.

Kearl also has blamed his veterinarian, Justin Robinson, for administering the nomifensine without his knowledge. Experts are skeptical.

“That would be highly unlikely,” said Edward Martin, president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which advises state regulatory boards. “It would be like taking a kid to the doctor and him doing a procedure without telling the parent.”

Even Ruffner said she couldn’t explain why a veterinarian would inject horses with an arcane and untested drug without informing the trainer. “That’s what we’d like to ask Dr. Robinson,” she said.

But even after hiring a skip-tracer, “We can’t find him.”

A reported confession

Both Kearl and Justin Robinson have had previous run-ins with racing officials.

Texas Racing Commission records show Kearl has had 16 rule violations since 2011 and four more in Florida, for drug infractions. None was for a prohibited substance, but rather horses that tested positive for permitted drugs outside therapeutic levels on race day — not unusual among busy trainers. The most serious single violation brought a $1,500 fine.

Robinson, who graduated from the Texas A&M College of Veterinarian Medicine in 2013, comes from a racing family. His father is a long-time Oklahoma-based trainer. He was Kearl’s primary veterinarian for three years, although the two had known each other longer, according to court documents.

Records show the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission suspended Robinson, who is licensed as a race horse owner in the state but not as a veterinarian, for 90 days in 2015 after officials at Remington Park searched his car. Among other medical paraphernalia “with a high potential to affect the performance of a horse in a race” they found an unmarked “white powdery substance” in a baggy. It was later determined to be ethylphenidate, an obscure stimulant similar to Ritalin.

In 2017 the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners reprimanded Robinson and fined him $1,000 for leaving controlled substances unattended and unlocked at Retama Park.

Soon after Kearl’s suspension, Robinson reportedly confessed to drugging Kearl’s horses. In two phone calls, Vienna, the California attorney, said the veterinarian suggested he’d obtained the nomifensine from China and admitted he administered it without Kearl’s knowledge, according to court records. “My sense was that at that point in time, he was taking responsibility because he was responsible,” Vienna testified.

Soon after, however, “he fled the state” and has not responded to either Kearl’s legal team or the Texas Racing Commission, court records show.

Despite Ruffner’s and regulators’s unsuccessful efforts to find him, Robinson appears to be spending at least some time in Oklahoma. “I saw him at a race in Oklahoma on June 1st,” said Ben Hudson, publisher of Quarter Horse Track, which covers racing.

Robinson’s Oklahoma attorney, Carl Hughes, described Robinson as an extremely bright professional who he has turned to as an expert medical witness in several horse racing cases. He said he’d ask Robinson if he’d agree to an interview, but then did not respond.

Ruffner notes that Kearl wasn’t present at the same track when two of his horses tested positive, common for trainers with large stables. Two other trainers whose horses tested positive for nomifensine at the same time as Kearl’s also blamed Robinson.

Supporters add that doping four unremarkable horses in low-stakes races makes no logical sense for a top trainer with a stable full of proven winners who was just hitting his stride. “I just don’t believe it, and not just because I’m Judd’s friend,” said Peck. “He was winning everything in sight. He had the best horses. Why would he put it all on the line for $5,000 claimers with a purse of $3,500?”

Yet if Kearl was outraged at Robinson’s betrayal, he didn’t act on it. He apparently filed no complaint with the Texas veterinary board against Robinson’s license, which records show remains in good standing.

“If a veterinarian administered medications without a trainer’s knowledge, he should be pursued by the state veterinarian board,” said Martin of the Association of Racing Commissioners International. “And if somebody worked for me and I ended up having a penalty, you’d better believe I’d complain.”

Robinson’s race horse owner’s license, as well as a groom’s license, also remain active in Oklahoma, where his horses continue to run. And despite his reported confession, Robinson remains a track veterinarian in good standing with the Texas Racing Commission, permitted full access to Texas facilities.

‘It was a slap in the face’

To his detractors, Kearl’s reluctance to turn in his veterinarian suggests they were working together.

Quarter horse racing is conservative and gossipy, so breakout successes often raise eyebrows. Yet True said officials at his track had long observed suspicious behavior from horses connected to Kearl and Robinson — an uncommonly high winning percentage, horses too fatigued to make it to the winner’s circle after a race, or a sudden success by a horse that had previously been mediocre — “a $5,000 winner jump up and win a big race.”

“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense that the performance of a lot of their horses can be so much better than those who’ve been in the business for so long,” he said. “Are they the best in the business? Maybe. But I doubt it.”

He said the final straw for many Ruidoso horse owners came soon after Texas suspended Kearl. Kearl had turned over his stable to his assistant, James Padgett, who over the course of Labor Day weekend won all three of the sport’s biggest contests — the All American Gold Cup, Derby and Futurity stakes.

“No trainer has ever done that in the history of the race track in over 70 years,” True said. “It was a slap in the face to everyone around here.”

Several months later, True banned Padgett from the track because of his continuing association with Kearl. “We believe Padgett was complicit, and felt his presence around here would be detrimental to our efforts” to keep a clean track, he said.

Padgett sued, but dropped his case when a court ruled that Ruidoso had a right to prohibit him. This year, True said the trainer was re-admitted after demonstrating he’d sufficiently distanced himself from Kearl.

“There’s been a history of abuse in this business,” he said. “We’re trying to turn the tide.”

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