Can Ireland Sort Out Its Horse Doping Problem?

It is probably a strong indication that a country really has a horse doping problem when they start setting up Task Forces to address the issue (well produce a report). The recent announcement from the Anti-Doping Task Force in January 2016, that they have (surprise surprise) produced a report, will no doubt cause further discussion on the topic, but will this fix the problem once and for all?

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Anti-Doping Task Force

The Task force which was set up by Horse Racing Ireland and the Turf Club in December 2014, is made up of 16 members and has representatives from all aspects of the horse racing and thoroughbred industries including owners, trainers, sales companies and breeders. It is chaired by the Turf Club which is the national regulatory body for horse riding in Ireland.


Why Set Up an Anti-Doping TF?

The task force was supposedly set up following the disqualification of Philip Fenton  a race horse trainer in November 2014 for possessing banned animal medicines at his stables in Tipperary. Originally they had been discovered during a Department of Agriculture inspection in 2012, which was then followed by an inspection by the Turf Club.

But the scandals go back much further, including the Department of Agriculture veterinary inspector John Hughes who was found guilty of illegally importing steroids, enough in fact for 62,000 doses which led to suspicions that steroids were being used illegally on an industrial level. As Ireland exports around 5,000 racing horses this has severe implications for the whole industry and the reputation of Irish horse racing.

The Value of Horse Racing to the Irish Economy

The horse racing industry is estimated to be worth over €700m to the Irish economy per year according to Teagasc and employs over 12,000 people, which is a strong motivating factor to make sure that the sport stays clean.

These figures can be broken down into approximately 10,000 sport horses which contribute an estimated €135m to the economy, with an additional 73,000 equines in the breeding sector worth approximately €225m, these figures are all according to a 2012 research  study by University College Dublin, and used by Teagasc in their report.

Horse Sport Ireland

However it is interesting to note that in the Teagasc report from the Irish Horse Sport Industry strategic committee, there is no mention in any of the recommendations of anti-doping regimes, or priorities for funding in this area for 2015 onwards.



Doping in the Media

Many of the doping cases that have been discovered usually end up covered by newspapers and online news and media outlets. Which means we can also find some of the more bizarre explanations for why a horse might have failed a drug test.

For example according to a report in 2015 from the British Horse Racing disciplinary panel report an Irish trainer by the name of William Treacy, was fined £1,000 because the drug Tramadol was discovered in his horse’s sample. The trainer suggested that his own medication for arthritis, which contains tramadol must have contaminated the horse since he often peed in the stable in the morning when giving his horse his morning apple.

Despite the number of media incidents a U.S. Senate hearing in 2012 heard that the percentage of positive drugs tests for racing was incredibly low, with more than 99% of horses passing the test and nearly 25% of all horses tested at any one race. However critics of these results have challenged the report and highlight that the racing industry also allows a number of therapeutic drugs to be administered to horses and these can be manipulated to enhance performance and still pass the drug testing regime.

What Affect Does Doping Have on Horses?

Doping is not only an Irish problem, in fact race horse across the globe have been known to be given enhancing substances. The first doping tests came into effect in the 1930s although some lobbyists would argue that doping itself actually dates back much further possibly 3,000 years ago. Even then the saliva tests that were carried out in the 1930s were more to ensure that rival horse owners weren’t trying to sabotage a horse’s performance.

Traditional doping would have included the use of cocaine, but this became easily detectable. Modern doping often involves the use of steroids which also cause muscle bulk to develop placing additional pressure on the fine legs and also affects the horse’s hormone system. Other doping systems involve putting liquids directly into the horses stomach just before a race, which was more common practice in the U.S.

What Exactly is the Turf Club Doing to Address the Doping Issue?

As the body responsible for regulating the industry the Turf Club has a clear role to play in leading out on this issue. As far back as 2014 the Turf Club started increasing the anti-doping regime.

They also received additional funds amounting to €150,000 from Horse Racing Ireland in 2014, however until the Department of Agriculture starts demanding change and putting more weight behind supporting the regulators, they could be on an uphill struggle given the size and influence that the industry has.

FEI Clean Sport Campaign

FEI Clean Sport website

As a potential model of a zero tolerance approach, the FEI is clamping down strongly on doping within its events and has developed a Clean Sport scheme, with a website to promote awareness around anti-doping and the global anti-doping and controlled medication programme (EADCMP).

The FEI veterinary department decides which events will be tested and then all levels of competition and all disciplines will be tested.

The following video is part of the FEI educational material and explains in more detail how the FEI anti-doping regime operates globally.

Anti DopingTask Force Recommendations

The Task Force report has made a number of recommendations including that the drug testing laboratory work should be centralised. This follows calls in other countries to centralise resources for testing such as in the U.S.. However if animal rights sites such as PETA are raising concerns about a tainted industry where steroid use is endemic, then it might need more than better drug testing facilities to eliminate the danger to horses.

So What Now?

It would appear that despite regulation doping is potentially an industry wide problem, especially in the race horse industry. Perhaps it is time that they took more notice of the FEI approach and embraced a zero tolerance stance on doping, however I suspect this is still a long way down the road.

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