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Lighter sanctions for horse trainer possible

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A hearing officer appointed by the New Mexico Racing Commission is recommending a reduction in the sanctions the commission issued against prominent trainer John H. Bassett, who was in charge of two horses that tested positive for the exotic painkiller dermorphin during trial races for the $600,000 Ruidoso Futurity in 2012.

Attorney LeeAnn Werbelow, appointed by the commission to hear an appeal by Bassett, said in a report last week that evidence in the Jan. 23 hearing supports Bassett’s assertion that he was “misled” by veterinarian Bob Story about what drugs were being administered to the two horses.

Two veterinary assistants testified at the hearing that they saw Story inject the horses with dermorphin, and that he had them alter labels on vials of dermorphin to hide their actual contents.

Because of those findings, Werbelow is recommending lighter penalties for Bassett.

It’s unclear how long a suspension Werbelow is recommending, and repeated calls and emails seeking clarification last week were not returned. Because of a missing word in the attorney’s recommendations, it’s unclear whether she is recommending a three-year suspension for each of the two dermorphin positives, or just three years total.

Werbelow also recommends a $4,000 fine and return of purse money.

The five-member, governor-appointed Racing Commission has suspended Bassett for 10 years, levied a $10,000 fine and ordered the return of $2,450 in purses.

Dermorphin, a powerful pain suppressant said to be 40 times more potent than morphine, can be used to mask a horse’s injuries, allowing it to race with a potentially catastrophic injury, according to the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

Though originally derived from the skin secretions of the South American waxy monkey tree frog, the dermorphin showing up in racehorses likely has been synthesized, according to lab officials.

Two other trainers, Jeffrey Heath Reed and Carlos Sedillo, were also hit with stiff sanctions by the Racing Commission after horses under their care tested positive for dermorphin at the May 2012 trials at Ruidoso Downs.

Racing Commission chairman Rob Doughty III said the commission will consider Werbelow’s recommendations at its March 13 meeting.

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