One of the chief investigators in the California Department of Justice's review of the California Horse Racing Board worked for the racing board in the 1980s.
Ron Eicher, investigating the racing board's handling of four horse-drugging cases at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park earlier this year, was an investigator for the board about eight years ago and also was the board's supervisor of investigators for the Southern District.
Eicher's one-time closeness to the body he is investigating does not bother Ralph Scurfield, the newly elected chairman of the racing board, but it does concern Rosemary Ferraro and Michael Carney.
Ferraro, a member of the racing board, has been the most vocal commissioner in criticizing Dennis Hutcheson, the board's executive secretary, for dismissing three of the cases, and has suggested a cover-up. The fourth case was dismissed by the board itself.
Carney, an attorney who said he is preparing a lawsuit against the board, represents a trainer whose horse finished second to one of the horses that tested positive for Clenbuterol, an illegal drug in the United States and a medication that is believed to enhance performance.
"The fact that a former racing board investigator is now investigating the board casts a specter of sympathy over this investigation," Carney said.
Ferraro said that when the racing board asked the Department of Justice to review Hutcheson's actions, it was her understanding that the investigators would be independent of the board.
"Now we have someone who worked for the board doing the investigation," she said.
At a board meeting last month, when the Justice Department was called in, then-chairman Henry Chavez said: "Any action that would not be independent of the board would be suspect."
Asked Thursday about Eicher's involvement in the investigation, Scurfield said, "I'm more concerned about judging the facts than the man. When you have an investigation like this, half of the people are going to be happy and the other half are going to be unhappy. Eicher has an advantage in that he knows shortcuts in getting to the information. He won't find as many stumbling blocks as far as thoroughness is concerned."
Eicher was named to conduct the investigation by Whitt Murray, assistant to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Investigation.
"Ron is one of our better homicide investigators," Murray said. "Once the Department of Justice got involved in this, it was our responsibility to do the selecting. I picked Ron because the racing board wanted to expedite the investigation, they wanted it completed in about 30 days. Ron has the experience and background that will enable us to possibly meet that schedule. He knows where to go for the information. I'm convinced that he had no social relationships from his days with the board that will compromise him in any way."
Eicher declined to be interviewed, citing the confidentiality of a criminal investigation.
Hutcheson was appointed assistant executive secretary of the racing board in 1988 and was elected executive secretary upon the retirement of Len Foote in 1990. Murray's investigation is being conducted to determine whether Hutcheson might be guilty of criminal conduct.
The four horses with positives for Clenbuterol were tested by the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory. Hutcheson said he dismissed three of the cases because he lacked confidence in the laboratory's testing procedures. When the horses' split samples were sent to a lab at Iowa State University for further testing, they again came up positive for Clenbuterol. Hutcheson has said that he should have waited for the second round of testing before making his decisions.
"I think that if Dennis knew then what he knows now, certain things wouldn't have been done the way they were," Scurfield said. "The way I see it, the investigation will show whether he just acted out of bad judgment, or acted criminally. If it was bad judgment, let's chastise him and move on. But if it's more than that, off with his head."
The Pennsylvania lab's contract with California expired over the summer and was not renewed. Asked recently to respond to Hutcheson's comments about his lab, Dr. Cornelius Uboh said: "I can't. The contract keeps me from talking four years after it ends, unless I have permission from Dennis Hutcheson."
Uboh called back later to say that he had asked for Hutcheson's permission to talk and was denied.
"That's not the way the conversation went," Hutcheson said Thursday. "What I told him was that when this current investigation is over, he can talk as much as he wants."
Carney represents Frank Veiga, a trainer who believes that he ran a horse who was beaten by one of the Clenbuterol horses. Carney and Veiga will not identify the race, but The Times has learned from other sources that the horse that tested positive for Clenbuterol was owned by John Valpredo and trained by Barbara Caganich. The racing board has declined to release the names of any of the horsemen connected with the four Clenbuterol positives.
John Valpredo's son, Don, is a member of the racing board, and at the September meeting he seconded Scurfield's motion to hire the Department of Justice to conduct the investigation.
On Sept. 21, Carney wrote the racing board, asking that it identify to him the races, horses and trainers connected with the Clenbuterol positives. Carney said this week that he had not received an answer.
The first-place horse in the race identified by The Times received $11,550. Veiga's horse earned $4,200.
"The investigation (of Hutcheson) will have to run its course," Carney said. "But if the horse that beat us was drugged, why couldn't it have been disqualified no matter what action was taken against the trainer?"
Horse Racing Notes
Navarone, who won three consecutive races at Del Mar and became a prominent grass horse, is one of seven entered in Saturday's $400,000 Oak Tree Invitational. This is the post-position lineup for the 1 1/2-mile race: Incessant, with Frank Alvarado riding; El Trenzador, Chris McCarron; Defensive Play, David Flores; Myrakalu, Alex Solis; Navarone, Pat Valenzuela; Falling, Corey Nakatani; and Daros, Laffit Pincay. All of the starters will carry 126 pounds except Daros, who runs with 121 because he's a 3-year-old. Winning 3-year-olds have been Portentous, in 1973; Nasr El Arab, 1988; and Hawkster, 1989.
Another major race on Saturday's card, the $200,000 Oak Leaf Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, has drawn 11 horses, including Zoonaqua, who ran third as the even-money favorite in the Del Mar Debutante. Zoonaqua has drawn the rail in the 1 1/16-mile race, and outside her will be Madame L'Enjoleur, Medici Bells, Dancing Rullah, K Bar C, Best Dress, Countess Ferdinand, Turkstand, Blue Moonlight, Sweet Mama and Ask Anita. It is costing the owners of four--K Bar C, Best Dress, Sweet Mama and Ask Anita--$10,000 to supplement them into the race, since they weren't nominated. The last supplementary starter to win the Oak Leaf was Astrious in 1980.