On the Rail: Doping or Medication

August 18, 2009 -- Under FEI rules, horses can't have any foreign substances in their systems, whether the aim is to treat or cheat.

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August 18, 2009 — For those who have trouble following the controversy over drugs in equestrian sports, why not just boil it down to three simple words: Doping or medication.

We all know what doping is–trying to gain an edge in competition with the aid of prohibited substances that can calm a horse, pep him up or ease soreness (not to mention something that is possibly more serious than a mere ache.)

Medication, on the other hand, has a legitimate use. Why shouldn’t a horse who colics shortly before a big competition have a dose of Banamine? Under U.S. Equestrian Federation rules, he can. Under FEI (International Equestrian Federation) rules, he can’t.

“If we have a horse going to international competition and he gets colic, and if we’re closer than seven days, we legitimately cannot give that horse Banamine,” said Dr. Brendan Furlong, the U.S. eventing team veterinarian. “You prepare all your life to get a horse ready for the Olympics or World Championships, but because there’s some stupid drug rule in effect” it all comes to naught.

The FEI is in the process of revising its zero tolerance policy, but it’s not there yet. So in the meantime, people are getting caught in a vise, even if their aim was medication and not doping.

Not Just for the Elite
Because many eventing competitions, even at non-elite levels are run under FEI rules, competitors should be aware of the ramification of the medications their horses receive. That isn’t just the medications they may get the week before the competition but everything they receive in the off season–or it could come back to haunt them.

What appears to be one of the most egregious examples is what happened to Michael Pollard, the winner of May’s Jersey Fresh CCI 3-star, an FEI event. His mount, Icarus, had been treated in January–with a veterinarian’s advice–with a steroid to improve his appetite following digestive problems. Michael was told the stuff would have been out of his horse’s system in 45 days. That would have put him into March. Icarus wasn’t tested until the weekend of May 8-10, yet he still came up positive, albeit for an infinitesimal amount of the steroid, which is classified as a doping substance despite being used as medication for a specific condition.

Jersey Fresh 3-star winner Michael Pollard on Icarus | ? 2009 by Nancy Jaffer

Michael was suspended July 1 by the FEI. His case has yet to be decided, but he had to cancel plans to compete at Burghley in September and may not be able to qualify for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, where he had hoped to make the U.S. team.

“I don’t think we did anything wrong,” said Michael.

“The levels were so low they couldn’t ever be considered performance-enhancing. It’s just bad timing in a lot of ways, and it’s very unfortunate because it really had no bearing on his (Icarus’) results at all,” he observed.

“Because of the way the results come out and the way it’s going to be viewed, it’s going to look like, ‘Here’s another person that’s not clean in the sport,”’ he said. “The testing standards are unrealistic. Zero tolerance is a very difficult thing to manage.”

Brendan is emphatic about how the situation should be addressed. “The traditional FEI approach to medication in horses, particularly in regard to so-called doping, is totally antiquated and out of control. It needs a complete overhaul,” he said.

He’s supporting an initiative by U.S. show-jumping team veterinarian Tim Ober and a group of other vets from around the world to allow proper medical treatment of horses in competition.

U.S. Equestrian Federation CEO John Long maintained, “I think you can make a great argument that preventing the proper care through medication … is not in the best interests of the horse.”

“It’s totally unfair to treat a human athlete and not be able to medicate a horse at the proper substance level,” he said. “Sometimes, out of chaos comes order. What we need to think about first and foremost is the welfare of the animal. If we get that right, everything will follow.”

Brendan noted the problem in using therapeutic medications arises “because detection has become so sophisticated that they can find minute traces of these drugs in a horse’s system for weeks and sometimes months after the administration of them. They have no performance-enhancing value at that time whatsoever.”

There are those who contend labs in effect compete against each other to see which can get to the ultimate degree of detection. There also are variations among the labs, so what is positive at one may not come up positive at another.

In the meantime, some useful medications now can’t be given even as long as 120 days before a competition because traces remain, said Brendan.

“That’s ludicrous,” he insisted. “We can’t treat horses the way they should be treated; we have to treat them the way bureaucrats in Switzerland (headquarters of the FEI) and lawyers tell us how they should be treated.”

Dr. Brendan Furlong, U.S. eventing team veterinarian | ? 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

Some issues involving drugs, however, are clear-cut.

He believes there is “no place in veterinary medicine” for a human psychotic drug such as Fluphenazine, found in German dressage star Isabell Werth’s small tour horse, Whisper.

“There’s only one reason to use it to make them quiet. That’s an unfair advantage,” Brendan said, noting suspension is the proper penalty for violations involving such drugs.

Isabell was indeed suspended, missing Germany’s important Aachen show for the first time in years, though one suspects that as a lawyer, she would never purposely do anything to put her riding career in jeopardy. She, like so many others, relies on the advice of a professional, a veterinarian, but under FEI rules, the rider is the Person Responsible, or PR.

Riders, it seems, need to be asking a lot more questions before their mounts are medicated if they want to stay off the suspended list.

Innocent Must Be Careful
Now let’s look at the case of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al Maktoum and contrast it with that of Michael and Icarus. Tahhan, a horse ridden in endurance races by the Sheikh, was tested twice in January and February, coming up positive for a steroid and guanabenz, an analgesic that also has a calming effect.

The Sheikh is the ruler of Dubai and vice president of the United Arab Emirates, positions that he contended put him in the category of “exceptional circumstances,” while noting that he is an amateur rider and as such relies on others to care for his horses. He’s also the husband of Princess Haya of Jordan, the FEI president, who disqualified herself in this matter because of her relationship to him.

According to FEI documents, the Sheikh, who said he has an interest in 700 endurance horses, relied on trainer/stable manager Abdullah bin Huzaim, who also was named as a Person Responsible by the FEI. The trainer thought the drugs would be “outside FEI detection times.”

An FEI tribunal noted in a decision that came down last month that while it did not expect the Sheikh to have a day-to-day role in what goes on his stable, it believed that just as he uses authority and delegation in his governmental posts, “the same principle should apply to stable management.”

No evidence of “excellent stable management” was submitted to the tribunal, which concluded the trainer “deliberately administered the Prohibited Substances, qualified as Doping substances to the Horse and intended to enhance the Horse’s performances. He (the trainer) has stated that even so he miscalculated the withdrawal time of the substances, he “clearly [.] wanted His Highness to do well with the Horse.”

The Sheikh was suspended for six months; the stable manager for a year.

This seems to be a clear-cut case of doping, while Michael’s is not. Yet in the end, Michael may have a more severe penalty if he cannot qualify for the World Equestrian Games.

The moral seems to be that even the most innocent cannot be too careful. You can’t count on standard withdrawal time for drugs, and inadvertent contamination may also be a problem.

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