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Vafiades v. Maine State Harness Racing Commission

Superior Court of Maine, Cumberland

June 8, 2016

STEVEN VAFIADES, RANDY BICKMORE, AND W. DREW CAMPBELL, Petitioners
v.
MAINE STATE HARNESS RACING COMMISSION, Respondent

          Plaintiff's Attorney: Craig Ramcourt, Esq., William Childs, Esq.

          Defendants: Ronald Guay, AAG

          ORDER ON MOTION TO STAY

          Lance E. Walker Justice, Superior Court

         Petitioners have filed an appeal for review of the Decision and Order (hereafter "Decision") of the Maine Harness Racing Commission (hereafter the "Commission"), dated April 26, 2016. The Decision suspended Petitioners' racing licenses, prohibit them from engaging in any horse racing activities in the State of Maine for between 270 and 450 days and imposed financial penalties and required forfeitures of purses.

         Presently before the Court is Petitioners' motion to stay the Decision pending final resolution of their appeal, in keeping with M.R. Civ. P. 80C(b) and 5 M.R.S. § 11004. After careful consideration of the arguments advanced by the parties in their papers and orally before the Court on June 7, 2016, the motion is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Petitioners are Maine residents who have over the course of decades engaged in horse racing in Maine and throughout New England. During that time they have participated in the sport as owners, trainers and drivers of harness horses. The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry (hereafter the "Department") alleged and the Commission after hearing concluded that Petitioners raced their horses with elevated levels of the naturally occurring element, cobalt, in their blood. The Commission concluded that cobalt is a "prohibited substance." In arriving at its conclusion the Commission applied Commission Rule, Chapter 11, Section 4, sub-section 4, which provides as follows:

         A substance shall not be present in a horse in excess of a concentration at which the substance would occur naturally if it affects the performance of the horse.

         Petitioners contend that the administrative record before the Commission lacked competent and substantial evidence upon which to arrive at its conclusion. See, e.g. Sinclair Builders, Inc. v. Unemployment Ins. Comm'n, 2013 ME 76, 9, 73 A.3d 1061. Specifically, Petitioners argue that all of the experts agreed that no scientific study has been performed regarding the performance-enhancing effects of cobalt in horses. The Respondent's concede that all of the expert witnesses agreed that there has not been a scientific study regarding cobalt levels as it relates to enhanced performance in horses. However, Respondent urges, that while no scientific study supporting the Commission's conclusion has ever been conducted, two experts, Dr. Fenger and Dr. Matzkin, testified as to the "science" generally describing the physiological effects of cobalt as increasing red blood cell counts and helping mitigate the effects of "tying up, " a muscle cramping problem. As such, the Commission concluded that the presence of cobalt was "performance enhancing."

         The relative uncertainty regarding the use of cobalt was placed in further relief by the Commission's early conclusion regarding the penalty class to be used in this case. Initially, the Commission concluded, "Cobalt's potential to influence performance is high." Ultimately the Commission concluded that cobalt should be included in the class 3 schedule which includes substances described as having a therapeutic indication in the horse and which have a "low potential to influence performance."

         II. ANALYSIS

         The court is guided by 5 M.R.S. §11004, which sets out the requisite elements of a successful motion to stay of final agency action. A stay may issue only if Petitioner can demonstrate all of the following:

1. Irreparable injury to the petitioner;
2. no substantial harm to adverse parties or the general ...

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