ORANGE PARK, Fla. – A greyhound trainer had his license suspended last month after the state said his dogs, who raced at the Orange Park Bestbet track, tested positive for cocaine.
Charles McClellan, trainer of numerous greyhounds, was investigated by the state, which found that the 17 dogs he trains tested positive for a substance called benzoylecgonine, referred to as a metabolite of cocaine, according to the suspension order.
One of his dogs, Flicka, tested positive after winning an April race in Orange Park.
According to spokesman for Bestbet, the state tests two dogs in every race -- the winner and another dog selected at random. He said McClellan and other trainers are independent contractors and are not employed by Jacksonville Greyhound Racing or Bestbet.
The spokesman pointed out that no dog deaths were reported in connection with the positive drug tests and that McClellan was removed from the premises as soon as Bestbet was notified by the state of the results.
Bestbet released a statement about the incident:
“Bestbet Orange Park completely supports the swift action taken by the state in this matter and as always, fully cooperated with state officials as they conducted their random and routine tests. Bestbet Orange Park maintains a zero-tolerance policy for any trainer or staff member that does anything which puts one of the dog’s health at risk. In this instance, the process carried out by the state of Florida and the regulators was carefully followed under state law. The bottom-line is the system worked.”
Critics of greyhound racing would disagree with that. Florida is home to 12 of the 19 dog tracks in the U.S., where 40 states have outlawed the sport. Kennel owners who dispute that number and say many more states still allow racing.
Although supporters say the dogs are treated well, the industry faces intense scrutiny. Records show Florida's greyhound industry has had 62 cocaine positives since 2008.
Carey Theil, executive director of Grey2K USA in Boston, a track monitoring group that opposes greyhound racing, said the organization was particularly disturbed by the number of positive drug tests in McClellan's case.
“That is breathtaking in its scope,” Theil said. “It is simply the largest greyhound drug case in American history. In addition to that, the facts in this case do suggest that this is a race-fixing case.”
Steve Sarras, who owns the kennel locally as well as one in West Virginia also released a statement about the incident, saying in part:
No greyhound has ever tested positive for cocaine in Steve M. Sarras Kennels. Animal rights extremists are promoting stories to the media that cocaine was found in greyhounds. These stories are lies, misleading and meant to elicit anger and hysteria to the general public."
Grey2K USA took exception with that statement, telling News4Jax that the state’s documents clearly contradict the statement that no dogs tested positive. It said all the 17 dogs were housed by Steve M. Sarras Kennels when the positive cocaine tests came back.
Customers at the Orange Park track defended greyhound racing.
“It’s hard for me to believe that, because the dogs are usually tested when they come off the track,” one customer, who declined to give her name. “It’s hard to believe. We’ve been coming for a long time.”
Eddie Hall said he loves coming to the track and hopes the drug testing incident doesn't tarnish the track's reputation.
“I’ve been coming out here for years,” he said. “I wish they’d open up the Bayard track.”
According to official results, McClellan's dogs didn't win every race they were in, but according to GREY2K USA's analysis, the dogs often ran faster than expected.
Regulators don't typically investigate how the dogs got cocaine in their systems, and it's unclear in the latest case how that happened. But Theil said the most likely scenarios are someone trying to fix races, or the trainer using the drug and the dogs coming in contact by accident.
One of the dogs in the latest case tested positive six times, including during a race where it finished first. The records showed the dog had cocaine in its system for two of its best races, Theil said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.