Are we seeing more and more doping cases related to accidental contamination?

The FEI Tribunal’s workload is enormous. Right now, it has the longest pending case list I can ever recall. There are 40 outstanding cases, only a tiny handful going back much beyond a year, and on the face of it an unprecedented number appear contamination-related.

It is absolutely just that everyone should have their day in court. But when there are bad eggs who need removing from the competition scene as soon as possible, it’s a shame so much precious Tribunal time has to be spent bumping the genuine contamination cases to the top of their “trials list,” to exonerate the clearly innocent without delay.

Autumn Crocus

Last year we had the poppy seed spike in Europe. Now another pretty plant is causing havoc. This spring has seen cluster of three positive tests for the banned potion demecolcine, which is associated with the autumn crocus. According to the FEI, there have also been positive tests at the national level.

Demecolcine is used in human chemotherapy and rheumatism, and in animal cloning. It only cropped up in a sports horse for the first time in June 2016.

That first case was decided by Tribunal last month, with the positive test attributed to hay contamination by the “Colchicum autumnale.” Enough had been discovered last fall about autumn crocus and its prevalence in hay made in the mountainous Swiss Jura for the provisional ban of Swiss para rider Matthias Klausener to be lifted, prior to last month’s official hearing where he was wholly exonerated.

The likelihood of next three demecolcine cases going the same way is suggested by the almost instant lifting of provisional suspensions of those riders; normally the rider is grounded right through to the final decision, which can take a year or two.

These positive tests have probably done hundreds of horses a favour, as failing a dope test is the least of the problems. Autumn crocus is highly toxic, with horses and livestock reported dead from ingesting it, while people have also died after mistaking it with the edible Alpine leek. Let’s hope connections have spread the word about the dodgy hay, nightmare that it must be for the farmers concerned and horse-owners who have unwittingly bought the contaminated crops.

Tribunal has also been swift to lift the provisional suspensions on two riders in recent ractopamine positives during shows at Wellington, FL. This substance is used for fattening pigs and already featured in a celebrated supplement contamination case from 2010.

That’s before you even mention the contamination mess-ups due to a distinct absence of lateral thinking. The FEI Tribunal has also recently ruled on two bizarre cases in which seemingly diligent people simply overlooked how easily residues can rub off where they are not wanted.

Back in August 2015, South African jumping horse Felix Van De Mispelaere tested positive to the vasodilator Minoxidil – conventionally used for high blood pressure. The horse’s owner, a Mr Slade, provided extensive evidence of how he checked all equine supplements with the manufacturer and with a veterinarian. He also prided himself in feeding home-grown organic crops.

But he hadn’t thought about his own hair restorer; Minoxidil is an active ingredient of two products Mr. Slade has used since 1999 – “Regaine” and “Minoxidil 5%” – spraying his thinning hair twice daily and massaging it in. Even when dry, he said the spray has a sticky texture and if exposed to moisture could transfer to his skin.

On the day of the show, it was especially hot and Mr. Slade became sweaty. Three expert witnesses surmised that the hairspray could easily have contaminated the hay he fed to Felix, or even the urine sample, during which procedure Mr. Slade was seen scratching his perspiring head.

The Tribunal agreed no-fault, no-negligence was proved and no further suspension be imposed – just as well, as it would have been copped by the rider, Jonathan Clarke, not by Mr. Slade. As it was, Clarke was provisionally grounded for months before any connection was made with Mr. Slade’s personal care regime.

In another recent hearing, Belgian endurance rider Evelyne Stoffell convinced Tribunal that the Tramadol in her horse Houkoumi G was the residue in an apparently empty Tramadol bottle, into which she routinely decanted home-made homeopathic remedies. Stoffel’s husband has been prescribed this opioid painkiller ever since 1987, when he sustained disabling injuries in an automobile crash.

Stoffel’s horse tested positive at the CEI in Virton, Belgium last September. She told Tribunal she re-used the discarded Tramadol bottles because they incorporated a handy dropper. She freely admitted not even swilling it out first.

The horse was given 25 drops of her homepathic potion a day for a week before the competition. Houkoumi G finished the ride very tired. Indeed, Stoffel dismounted and walked beside him in the last loop but was told by a steward to get back on.

The horse fell sound asleep after getting back to Stoffel’s little compound by her trailer, and Stoffel asked one of the official ride vets to check him out. Candid pictures on social media showed Houkoumi apparently “out for the count” that afternoon, while a companion horse grazed just a foot or two from his head.

While agreeing the Tramadol doping was unwitting, in this instance Tribunal felt Stoffel was careless and negligent – though it did not go as far as imposing the standard suspension of two years.

Once you move into the big-time you really must read what it says on the tin about everything you give to yourself as well as a horse; even the air you breathe, it seems. Modern-day sampling techniques can detect submicroscopic amounts.

It sounds basic, yet clearly there are still a lot of top level competitors who don’t wash their hands and all receptacles every time they feed. But before they decide it’s time to adopt even more discipline and lather their mitts with industrial-strength sanitiser, I suggest they read the small print on the back of those gel dispensers too. Pedantry is the best solution when you are handling a sport horse!