Cobra venom said to be in Biancone barn

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- One of the materials confiscated by Kentucky Horse Racing Authority investigators during the June 22 search of three Keeneland barns occupied by trainer Patrick Biancone was cobra venom, a substance that can be used as a painkiller, a source close to the investigation confirmed this week.

The cobra venom, which is barred by state regulation from racetrack grounds, was in crystalline form and was found in a refrigerator in one of the tack rooms used for the storage of supplies, said the source, adding the substance was in a small container labeled "Toxin." Snake venom has been known to be injected to deaden or "block" a horse's joint or nerve, and in a case settled last week in Saratoga County, N.Y., two Standardbred horsemen pled guilty of doing just that before a race last October at Saratoga Raceway.

The June 22 search of Biancone's barns was conducted after one of Biancone's horses who raced in Kentucky tested positive for a derivative of caffeine and for a derivative of an inhalant, both of which are banned for raceday use, according to the source. Biancone also has a pending medication case in Southern California. The horse Iron Butterfly, trained at the time by Biancone, tested positive for salmeterol, a bronchodilator, in a January race at Santa Anita.

Biancone declined comment on the Kentucky matter Wednesday. Biancone's veterinarian, Dr. Rod Stewart, had his truck searched when the barns were raided and is a subject in the investigation, according to the source, who requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. Efforts to reach Stewart on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

The first step in the legal process in this case is a stewards' hearing, but one has not yet been scheduled, chief steward John Veitch said Wednesday at Churchill Downs. The next possible step would be a hearing before the racing authority, after which the case could go into the court system, meaning resolution could be months, if not years, away.

Pending a hearing, Biancone is free to run horses in Kentucky and elsewhere. At the time of the search, he had about 75 horses spread among three barns at Keeneland. With racing at Churchill set to end Sunday, he soon will shift his main base of operations to Saratoga while also maintaining a string at Keeneland.

Cobra venom is a powerful neurotoxin that blocks the neural pathways that transmit pain to the brain. The substance, which is used by researchers in extremely minute quantities because of its toxicity, is considered a Class 1 drug under the Racing Commissioners International classification system. Class 1 drugs are defined as having no therapeutic value for a horse and a high potential to affect racing performance. At present, no laboratory officials have confirmed that a test exists to detect an administration of the drug. Researchers, however, are known to have been working on a test for the past year.

The use of cobra venom to block pain has long been rumored in the racing industry, although very little evidence of its administration has emerged. Late in June, however, William Barrack, 68, and Keith Barrack, 43, of Beacon, N.Y., pleaded guilty to a felony charge of interference with a domestic animal in Saratoga District Court after admitting that they administered cobra venom to a horse racing at Saratoga Raceway, the harness track, last October. They are scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 31.

Biancone, 55, has been training for more than 30 years, having started in his native France in the 1970's. He moved to Hong Kong in the 1990's and was suspended there in 1999 after two of his horses tested positive for banned medications, and eventually made his way to the United States.

Biancone was the leading trainer at Keeneland at the 2006 fall meet and the 2007 spring meet, the first two meets that Polytrack has been used as the primary racing surface.

- additional reporting by Matt Hegarty