While sending 30 photographs to be considered as evidence, a lawyer representing Rich Strike’s connections told the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority that owner Rick Dawson and his team wanted to inspect the contentious front shoes worn by Hot Rod Charlie in winning the Grade 2 Lukas Classic on Oct. 1 at Churchill Downs.
“Inspection of the shoes in the evidence bag ... may be necessary to determine whether the condition of the shoes was the same on race day as on Oct. 4 and thereafter,” Kentucky attorney Barry Hunter wrote in a formal, 56-page appeal to HISA on Friday.
Dawson and trainer Eric Reed have argued that Hot Rod Charlie’s front shoes had toe grabs, which are illegal under HISA rules and have been forbidden for years by the state authorities such as the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.
Rich Strike finished a close second to Hot Rod Charlie in the Lukas Classic.
Working for trainer Doug O’Neill, farrier Dean Balut told KHRC stewards that he ground toe grabs off the shoes before he put them on Hot Rod Charlie’s front hooves Aug. 30, more than a month before the Lukas Classic.
“What we did was ground the shoe, the toe grab, prior to coming to Kentucky to put the shoes on Charlie,” Balut said in an Oct. 7 teleconference with stewards. “So those shoes were completely flush at the toe with no toe grabs.”
Balut reshod Hot Rod Charlie again in front of two KHRC investigators Oct. 10 at Keeneland. The old shoes were sealed in evidence bags, according to a report that KHRC chief steward Barbara Borden wrote to HISA. Borden said the shoes were delivered to her two days later, and they were turned over to HISA investigators in Kentucky.
After weighing photographic evidence as well as verbal and written statements, the KHRC decided Oct. 8 “there is sufficient evidence to confirm that (Hot Rod Charlie) raced in compliance with HISA” shoe rules. HISA endorsed that conclusion Oct. 18. Rich Strike’s team asked Oct. 26 for a chance to appeal, and HISA agreed Oct. 31 to hear it.
“Hot Rod Charlie plainly ran in violation of (the toe-grab) rule at the Lukas Classic Race, and the horse should have been disqualified,” Hunter wrote in a formal motion for reconsideration. “As stated below, (Dawson’s team) reserves the right to supplement this motion after it has been afforded the ability to examine the shoes allegedly worn by Hot Rod Charlie during the Lukas Classic.”
Last week’s formal motion to HISA included digital images taken during the Lukas Classic by four photographers – Kurtis Coady, Jennie Doyle, Jamie Newell and Matt Wooley. Hunter called on another Kentucky attorney, Frank Becker, to offer his expertise based on his other vocation, namely a “photography career (that) commenced in approximately 2001” and his “extensive experience with digital photography and the processing of photographic images.”
Becker enlarged the photos to zero in on the front shoes and “applied two filters to assist with drawing out detail,” he said. “These filters do not add information that is not present in the initial photograph.”
After the enlargements and filters made the images clearer, Becker concluded “every one of these enhanced photographs that could have shown the presence or absence of a toe grab do in fact reveal the presence of toe grabs on Hot Rod Charlie’s front hooves.”
If the Rich Strike team were granted access to the actual shoes, Hunter said, his side “requests that it be permitted to submit additional evidence as well as testimony at a hearing at which (Dawson’s side) can confront the farrier testimony presented by Hot Rod Charlie’s interests to the KHRC stewards after the shoes allegedly worn by Hot Rod Charlie at the Lukas Classic race have been examined.”
O’Neill has kept mostly quiet about the controversy since his first reaction on social media Oct. 4, when he wrote, “I swear on a stack of Bibles that none of the horses on our stable wears toe grabs and have not for years. ... My only thought is that (photographic evidence) is a result of a weird reflection or it’s been altered.”
Rich Strike has not won in five starts since his 80-1 shocker in the Kentucky Derby. The closest he came was his loss by a head in the Lukas Classic. His jockey Sonny León was suspended 15 racing days by the KHRC for leaning into Hot Rod Charlie’s rider Tyler Gaffalione in the deep stretch. León blamed a loose saddle.
Although HISA was declared unconstitutional by a New Orleans federal court last month, it still has enforcement power for matters such as this until at least Jan. 10. A separate but similar question about the legality of HISA will be heard in a Cincinnati courthouse Wednesday.
There also was a report from Reuters on Saturday that U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would try to re-enlist bi-partisan support to rewrite the contentious HISA framework and make it an amendment to a federal spending bill that is likely to pass before the new Congress is sworn in Jan. 3.