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Shakopee trainer at center of debate over traces of meth in racehorses

  • 10 min to read
Luis Canchari with Canterbury Park in background

Luis Canchari lives just a few blocks from Canterbury Park, where he was a trainer/owner for 32 years.

Growing up in Lima, Peru, Luis Canchari lived on a farm and grew up riding his friend’s horse, until one day, his friend said he was so tiny, “You should be a jockey.”

And so he did. He went to jockey school at age 15, then moved to America in 1985 at age 18. He loved horses, and loved riding them, and made his way around the U.S. first as an exercise rider, then an apprentice jockey, then journeyman jockey. He began racing horses at Canterbury Park in the 1980s after moving from New York.

“Luis the Glove, they called me,” he says, because he wore gloves when he raced.

He began racing horses at Canterbury in the 1980s after moving here from New York. But his dream ended in 1992, when the horse he was riding broke its ankle, went down and landed on him, breaking part of his arm, leg and back. He became a trainer, and has been a thoroughbred trainer/owner in Shakopee for 32 years.

But that dream died, too, after two of his horses tested positive for trace amounts of methamphetamine after races in 2014 and 2017. The Minnesota Racing Commission fined and suspended him.

He sold all nine of his horses and has struggled to find work since. He’s 62, and all he knows is horses, and how to race them.

“I’m broke,” he says. “Completely broke.”

He’s also taking on the racing commission, telling anyone who will listen that he doesn’t know how the meth got in his horses’ systems, but suspects it might have something to do with the Canterbury Park employees who got busted for drugs just months after both of his positive tests.

His story has been cited by several horse racing journalists when debating whether it’s time for those who regulate horse racing to lighten up when racehorses test positive for trace amounts of addictive drugs, since drug abuse is rampant in America and it’s likely, in their opinion, they were inadvertently contaminated by workers.

A horse could test positive for drugs if a person using drugs urinates in a horse’s stall, rinses their hands in a horse’s water bucket or has direct contact with the horse, perhaps by applying a tongue tie or feeding the horse treats after recently handling cocaine, meth or other street drugs, according to guidance Minnesota racehorse trainers are given.

State racing regulations nationwide take a zero-tolerance approach, saying drugs that humans abuse should never show up in a horse. When they do in Minnesota, trainers are responsible for guarding their horses against such contamination and must essentially prove their innocence to avoid sanctions.

A prominent horse racing journalist recently called out Minnesota regulators for their response to Canchari’s case, saying fairness was “left at the starting gate.” Ray Paulick of the Paulick Report says Minnesota regulators “dug their heels into the ground” when it came to four cases where horses tested positive for meth since 2014, “even when there was confirmation that some members of the Canterbury Park starting gate crew — the people who handle the horses just before a race — were methamphetamine users.”

But Tom DiPasquale, executive director of the MRC, said the commission’s principal responsibility is to ensure the integrity of the sport and protect the health and welfare of the horses and humans involved.

“We owe it to the horses, the horsemen and women who compete for millions of dollars in purse money and the betting public to ensure that horses are not running with prohibited substances in their systems,” he said in a prepared statement.

He said the commission doesn’t believe it would be in the interests of the horse or the sport to set thresholds for permissible levels of illegal substances in horses. Nor would the public accept such a policy, he said, given widespread and legitimate public interest in the welfare of racehorses.

“There is currently no scientific evidence to establish permissible levels of illicit drugs that would not threaten the health of horses, the safety of horse racing or the fair running of a race,” DiPasquale said.

Proving your innocence

In arguing for a little leniency, Paulick cites the Canchari’s case. Canchari said he never had a horse test positive for drugs until May 2014, when Smart Masterpiece tested positive for meth after finishing second in a Canterbury race.

Within three months of the race, meth was found in two assistant starters’ dorm rooms during a search of the racetrack dormitories. But under state horse racing regulations, the burden was on Canchari to prove his innocence.

Canchari took certain precautionary steps after that, making sure his staff washed buckets, the barn and walls and hiring new freelancers and advising them to wash their hands frequently and to avoid touching horses’ mouths, according to a state commission document.

The next Canterbury case came in June 2015, when trainer McLean “Mac” Robertson’s horse, Purest Form, won a race and tested positive for meth.

Luis Canchari looking at evidence

Luis Canchari looks at evidence connected to his case.

At the time, Canterbury Park issued a statement expressing support for Robertson, a member of the track’s hall of fame, and opining that he was a victim of “environmental contamination,” according to Paulick.

He was suspended for 90 days, was fined $5,000 and lost the purse winnings.

Canchari likes Robertson — calls him a good man — but says the MRC treated him differently, because he had 100 horses, compared to his nine.

In between those two cases, in August 2014, two members of the Canterbury Park starting gate crew were arrested for possessing meth, according to MRC documents. Assistant starter Devin Stortzum, 49, of Lincoln, Nebraska, was suspended after being charged with two felony drug crimes: possession of meth and Carisoprodol.

According to the charging documents, Canterbury security searched Stortzum’s room after getting multiple tips that he was using and dealing drugs on Canterbury property and found a glass meth pipe, a scale with residue, baggies with residue and a baggie with 1.3 grams of meth. They also found four Carisoprodol pills and a bottle containing urine used to falsify drug tests in his vehicle.

He later pleaded guilty to one charge; the other was dismissed.

The other case involved assistant starter Dustin Shanyfelt, 29, Grove City, Ohio, who was charged with two felonies for possessing meth and Suboxone, a Schedule 3 controlled substance. Canterbury security said they found a baggie with meth after searching him after he was suspected of stealing things from other employees, according to MRC documents.

Shanyfelt pleaded guilty to one charge and was put on supervised probation for three years.

But Canchari was still on the hook for his horse’s positive drug test. The racing commission ultimately suspended Canchari’s license for 90 days, fined him $2,000 and yanked the purse.

“He was unable to prove that he didn’t give the drug to the horse. (How does one do that anyways?)” Paulick wrote.

Two more

positives in 2017

In 2017, Canterbury Park had two more positive drug tests come back after races.

On Aug. 12, Shane Miller’s quarter horse, PR Lady in Red, tested positive for meth after winning a quarter horse race. Miller was suspended for 90 days and fined $2,000, according to MRC records, but had trouble paying the fine and later was suspended until he could show “financial responsibility.” He quit training afterward, according to Paulick.

Canchari had a second horse, Carson’s Storm, test positive for meth after winning the eighth race on May 20, 2017. His son, Patrick, was the jockey. In a post-race drug test, Carson’s Storm tested positive for D-meth, or street meth, in his blood and urine.

MRC security searched Canchari’s barn and truck on June 3, 2017, and “certain individuals” were drug tested. Canchari requested that all four of his part-time employees who had contact with the horse be tested, but they all tested negative. However, meth only stays in a human’s system for two to four days, according to the MRC ruling, and at that point they were about two weeks past the race.

This time, Canchari began to suspect the starting gate crew may have contaminated his horse. He asked the commission to test the entire gate crew but was denied because the crew had passed pre-employment drug tests about two weeks before the race and the commission had no reason to suspect them, according to the MRC ruling.

Canchari also asked that he be tested, and he tested negative. He also passed a voluntary polygraph test during which he denied drugging the horse.

“At the time, Respondent did not ask security staff to test his son Patrick, the jockey,” the administrative law judge’s order noted.

Less than three months later, “sometime in July or August,” the commission’s security staff heard certain gate crew members might be using meth and did a random drug test of certain staffers, including a pony rider, jockey and some gate crew members, according to the judge’s order.

Police were called to Canterbury Park on Aug. 11 after an assistant starter cheated on a drug test by providing fake urine, according to the charging document.

James D. Eilers, 57, of Magnolia, Texas, later tested positive for meth, and was charged with possessing meth after Canterbury Park security found drug paraphernalia and a glass pipe with burned residue in his dorm room, according to police and MRC records.

He pleaded guilty to the charge the following month, violated probation and missed a probation revocation hearing in June 2018. A warrant was issued for his arrest, according to the Scott County Attorney’s Office. He is still wanted.

“Around the same time, the head starter and four of his assistants resigned their positions and reportedly moved to similar jobs at Turf Paradise in Arizona for a meeting (horse racing season) that wouldn’t begin for two months,” Paulick wrote.

Luis Canchari holding poster

Luis Canchari proudly holds a poster of his son’s horse racing feats. His son Alex is one of the top riders in the nation, he says.

He’s referring to the fact that the chief starter, Denny Hall, left his job at Canterbury during the 2017 meet for a similar position at Turf Paradise in Arizona. Four assistant starters, including the one assigned to Carson’s Storm during the race in question, also resigned and followed Hall to Turf Paradise, according to a MRC document.

Two other gate crew members were suspended by the board, but the judge noted that the assistant starter assigned to Carson’s Storm had no history of drug use and denied being a meth user when questioned. He said he left Canterbury to continue working with Hall.

The judge noted, “The starting gate crew has never been the source of a positive post-race test for methamphetamine at Canterbury Park. Additionally, in the weeks before and immediately after the eighth race on May 20, 2017, no other horses tested positive for methamphetamine.”

Another assistant starter whose license had been suspended in another state refused to take a drug test and quit his job, according to Paulick.

But Canchari was still suspended for three years and fined $25,000, which was later reduced to one year and $10,000.

“I proved my innocence,” Canchari said, but the sanctions remained, and the MRC clearly disagreed with him.

He blames the MRC for letting “meth heads” get jobs at the track.

Racing commission responds

Paulick called the sanctions against Canchari harsh, unfair and ridiculous. The MRC responded with a prepared statement saying an administrative law judge heard six days of testimony and reviewed dozens of exhibits before concluding Canchari’s “fixation” with the starting gate crew as a source of contamination was “unfounded speculation” not supported by the evidence.

“Experts familiar with racing throughout the country testified they were unaware of an assistant starter ever causing a positive test, and the judge found that there had never been such an instance of contamination in the history of Canterbury Park,” the MRC wrote.

They added Canchari’s own expert witness suggested since he had two of the four positive drug test results at Canterbury out of 5,873 horses tested between 2014 and 2017, “he’s got someone around him who basically is using or exposed to methamphetamine.”

That’s despite Canchari sending very few winning horses to the test barn over those four years, the MRC said. If a gate crew was contaminating horses, one would expect many more positive tests from many different trainers, the MRC argued.

Trainers are required to protect their horses from contamination and are given opportunities to demonstrate that they took reasonable steps to prevent contamination, the commission said. But in Canchari’s case, he chose not to reexamine his practices after the first positive drug test “but rather to point fingers at the commission and the gate crew.”

“Unfortunately but not surprisingly, that response likely led to a second methamphetamine positive,” the MRC said.

‘Arbitrary, capricious and antiquated’

Paulick isn’t the only one calling for screening limits for certain addictive drugs.

According to The Horsemen’s Journal, the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and North American Association of Racetrack Veterinarians recommended a model rule to the Association of Racing Commissioners International for “screening limits for substances of human addiction in racing horses.”

The Horsemen’s Journal, which advocates for horse owners and trainers, called for screening limits to guard against environmental transfer of drugs to horses, saying meth has begun to show up in post-race samples recently, “reflecting the increasing addiction problem associated with this drug.”

“There is an evolving recognition of the arbitrary, capricious and totally antiquated status of ‘zero tolerance’ when it comes to trace-level detections of environmental substances,” the story said.

They called fentanyl “a poster child for inadvertent transfer from a human user to a horse” because “the horse only has to come into brief contact with a user for a transfer to occur.”

“Long story short, equine drug testing, the most sensitive routine drug testing on earth, is now picking up parts per quadrillion trace levels of fentanyl in equine blood and urine samples,” the Journal wrote.

They cited the 2017 Canchari case, saying the trace amount of drugs found in the horse’s blood and urine were “entirely consistent with inadvertent environmental exposure and are not pharmacologically significant.”

According to the MRC, Canchari’s horse had 170 picograms of meth per milliliter in its blood and 5.9 nanograms per milliliter in the urine. A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram; a nanogram is one-billionth of a gram.

“Moving away from the unsustainable concept of zero tolerance is the first step to protecting the due process rights of horsemen,” the Journal said.

‘I love Canterbury’

For the past eight years, Canchari has lived in the shadow of Canterbury Park. Literally.

His townhome is mere blocks from the west side of the racetrack. He can see the tips of the track spiers from his front yard. He can hear heavy equipment working to build Canterbury Commons, a housing development being built between his home and the track.

He could quietly ride out the next two years before he plans to retire, but instead he’s pounding the pavement, calling journalists and telling his story. Hoping somehow, he’ll be vindicated.

While explaining, he talks about his wife of 30 years and four children. His son who graduated high school “with honors” is going to be a veterinarian.

His other son, Alex Canchari, 25, is one of the top jockeys in the nation. Alex used to hang out at Canterbury with his dad as a child, and used to sell Mexican food at the track. He was Canterbury’s second-leading rider in 2014.

Luis and Alex Canchari

Luis Canchari and his son Alex, one of the top riders in the nation.

“In two years, I’m going to retire,” he says. “But I want to retire with a clean record. My honesty... my integrity is very important to me. ... I don’t want to lose my dignity.”

He feels he helped build Canterbury, supporting the track through the tough times in the early 1990s.

“I love Canterbury,” he says.

In a few days, Canchari’s suspension will end and he’ll be allowed at the track again, just in time for the 2019 season, which begins May 3. It’s not yet clear whether he’ll return or not.

South regional editor

Deena is the regional editor for Shakopee, Jordan, Prior Lake and Savage and is passionate about uncovering the truth. Deena also enjoys gardening, playing tennis and up-cycling furniture.

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