People accused of horse doping often argue they must have been sabotaged. I can imagine their legal people secretly thinking “yeah, yeah, yeah…” But now a cut-and-dried case of horse “nobbling” has come before the FEI Tribunal.
The alleged perpetrator himself has yet to be brought to justice, though the two riders who said they didn’t do it have, quite rightly, been proven not to have done it. We also can’t say it’s exactly like a real-life a Dick Francis because in this case the offender is unmasked by chapter two; but it’s still an astonishing tale of audacity and ambition.
The scene was set at the CSI3* in Bratislava, Slovakia on August 4-6, where riders included the Hungarians selected for the European jumping championships in Gothenburg, Sweden later that month.
Two of them, Mariann Hugyecz and Gabor Szabo jnr, grew suspicious that someone had interfered with their horses Chacco Boy and Timpex Bolcsesz in the stable compound on the Saturday night.
The riders asked the ground jury for their horses to be sampled, and immediately withdrew themselves from Sunday’s Grand Prix. In due course, both horses tested positive to the controlled sedative Acepromazine (ACP) and its metabolites Hydroxyethylpromazine/Hydroxyethylpromazine Sulphoxide. History doesn’t relate the quantity of the sedative in the samples, but it must have been a fair bit as the horses were still tired and in a “bad physical state” on Sunday morning.
Enter, stage right, 30-year-old Laszlo Toth jnr, the Hungarian team alternate for Gothenburg. Shortly before the stables closed for the night, he was seen by a groom entering Timpex Bolcsesz’s box carrying an apple and a syringe. No one saw him at Chacco Boy’s stable, which was in a different part of the compound. But after the alarm was raised, the FEI doping control vet Dr Miklos Jarmy collected evidence of unauthorised needle marks in Chacco Boy’s neck and leg. A third Hungarian European team horse was also sampled as a precaution.
You’ve already guessed it -Toth is accused of doping his teammates’ horses, hoping at least one of them would perform badly in the Grand Prix and drop out of Gothenburg, giving Toth the ride. Looking at his FEI competition record, you can see why Toth might have felt aggrieved at being the reserve this time, as this would have been his fifth consecutive European championship appearance – he finished 32nd at Aachen in 2015. He was placing third in the Bratislava Grand Prix while the authorities were swooping on the stables. But Toth’s show was to end with an interview at the local police station.
Toth later admitted entering Bolcsesz’s box and explained this as his wish to “calm” Szabo’s horse. Szabo testified his horse already had a calm nature and added: “One would have reasonable grounds to suspect that Laszlo Toth jnr, as designated spare [sic] member of the Hungarian national team, had an interest in one team member giving an inferior performance or failing two weeks before the 2017 European Championships and thus he himself becoming a real team member.”
Process dictates that the anti-doping case against the innocent Szabo and Hugyecz had to run its course. While wholly exonerated, the riders were unavoidably disqualified from the show as, irrespective of blame, their horses were not competing on a level playing field in Bratislava. They also agreed to bear their own legal costs, which seems a bit tough.
In the end, Szabo finished 71st and Hugyecz 79th out of 80 in Gothenburg. Ok, they were never going to beat Peder Fredricson, but would they have gone better with a drama-free run up to the Europeans? Alas, we will never know.
While not mentioned in the deliberations, the apparent failure of security cameras to spot Toth entering any stable will surely ring alarm bells with riders and owners everywhere. Still, the FEI Tribunal is confident there are no coincidences: “Both horses tested positive for the very same substance, and the horses were found to not be well on the Sunday and could therefore not compete on the final day of the Event. Based on the submissions made, the evidence of sabotage, the involvement of the FEI Officials and the Slovakian Police, it has been proven very likely that the horses were sabotaged and injected with Acepromazine by Mr Laszlo Toth during the event.”
In another twist, a further signed declaration asserted that a human urine sample provided to the police was his groom’s and not Toth’s.
The FEI last week reserved the right to bring proceedings against Toth as an Additional Personal Responsible. As far as the doping violation is concerned, that promises to be a fascinating legal discussion; normally you start from the premise that the Person Responsible sought to enhance the performance of his own horse, not undermine someone else’s, and anti-doping rules enable the accused to show exactly how the substance entered the horse so as to get a reduced sanction. I cannot imagine anyone will think that if Toth openly confirms he doped the pair, he thereby deserves a shorter suspension!
Perhaps a different approach is the way to go. The Hungarian federation suggested various possibilities when asking the FEI to take action against Toth right from the outset, including horse abuse and bringing the sport into disrepute. The Hungarian federation said: “Based on the outspoken opinion of the riders and the nature of Laszlo Toth jnr’s action, it represents a significant risk to the reputation of equestrian sport and violates the rules of ethics in a way that even the chance of the recurrence of such an act must be avoided by all means.”
If there isn’t already an FEI offence of endangering life, too, then maybe there should be; nobody would willingly jump round a Grand Prix on a horse sedated up to the eyeballs. Criminal damage? A complaint has already been filed to the police about “crimes against foreign property.”
Toth’s guilt isn’t doubted by his peer group, either. All Hungarian jumpers entered for their championship show at Kiskunhalas last September signed a petition refusing to ride at if Toth was there. Toth was suspended by the Hungarian federation that same weekend and still is, pending further proceedings.
I can’t wait to read the sequel!