Contamination is the current “go to” defence in doping in all sports, whether the athlete has deliberately cheated or not.

In FEI Tribunal decisions, you will read many far-fetched excuses as well as credible ones. The endurance community was recently entertained by the case of trainer Ismail Mohammed, banned for two years for a testosterone positive from Shaddad. Shaddad was the world-ranked number one endurance horse at the time, from Sheikh Mohammed’s premier MRM stables in Dubai.

Ismail Mohammed attributed contamination via the groom (blaming the groom being the other fall-back defence), who had allegedly been using a cream containing testosterone (a banned steroid) for muscle soreness on his own shoulders, didn’t wash his hands and transferred it to Shaddad by mistake. Expert opinion deemed this “highly implausible.”

In view of this trainer’s past run-ins with Tribunal, you would have thought he could have argued something a bit more believable. There have been plenty of jokes on social media like “when we say someone should ‘grow a pair,’ we didn’t mean on the shoulder blades….’”

But for genuine victims of contamination, it is no laughing matter. Since November 2017 in FEI sport, there have been 41 positives which all parties have agreed are due to contamination. Twenty have involved the banned stimulant synephrine. These are mostly attributable to contaminated feed, notably teff hay grown in Mexico, Spain and South Africa. Synephrine is also naturally occurring in citrus plants, i.e. orange and lemon trees.

When a spike in synephrine positives came to attention this spring, the FEI launched its own investigations and issued a warning.

The first two of these 20 legal cases were recently resolved, both from the Carmona CSI** on the Spanish winter tour – the Slovakian horse Famorku and the Finnish horse For Fun. Their riders had both bought contaminated hay direct from organiser.

In the synephrine cases, the riders are highly unlikely to be fined or suspended. But there is an obligatory disqualification from the competitions where they were tested, even where the riders have been exonerated. It is also arguable that too much time is being spent on this kind of case by FEI Legal and Tribunal when they should be chasing down the real cheats. For the riders, a contamination case brings stress and unrecoverable financial outlay.

Eleonora Ottaviani, Director of the International Jumping Riders Club (IJRC) reckons that riders who understandably panic after receiving notification of an “adverse analytical finding” run straight to a lawyer and probably pay 50,000 euros for a basic consultation.

Because of contamination, the backlog of Tribunal cases is the longest ever. It could be that this workload discouraged the FEI from substantially beefing up sampling where it is needed, i.e. in endurance, where there is usually a return of positives of at least 12% – literally 10 times the strike-rate of any other horse sport.

The IJRC has lobbied the FEI about contamination for some time. All its anxieties were aired again at its recent meeting in Rotterdam, which can be seen on video here. There was an especially heartfelt speech by world number one Steve Guerdat, who described sleepless nights while his poppy seed contamination case lumbered through the legal system in 2015, before he was wholly exonerated.

Other top riders such as Max Kuhner and Henrick von Eckermann spoke passionately about victims of contamination being labelled dopers by an uninformed social media, and how an official declaration of innocence even within weeks can never undo the reputational damage.

Aine Power, the FEI’s deputy legal director, and the FEI head of veterinary Goran Akerstrom attended the meeting. There was long and candid debate.
Take-aways offered by the FEI included:

• Contamination is what the FEI means by i) naturally occurring substances not deliberately given, such as oripavine (from poppy seeds) that blows into a field where your horse is grazing; and ii) environmental contamination, of which stable cleanliness and security at shows are high priority. Stake-holders must take some responsibility for reducing these risks. The FEI does not proactively publicise these cases;

• Riders feed their horses supplements at their own risk, so a straight “no fault” defence is not available for a contaminated supplement positive. It is well known that some manufacturers are less reputable than others, and often mis-label products;

• The FEI has to do some “homework” to establish if there is true contamination – otherwise the real cheaters will get away with it. The FEI is not out to punish anyone with an innocent explanation. “We like it when the other side has a good lawyer, as we only want to catch the people who are guilty;”

• The fairly new category of “specified substances” (including caffeine and oripavine) recognises that a substance may have been ingested by the horse not for performance. But it does not follow they are less dangerous than banned or controlled substances;

• The FEI is not necessarily your adversary. Do not go straight to a lawyer – not all lawyers are good or even experienced in this specialist field. Contact FEI legal who will do their best to advise;

• Do not blame the FEI for the anti-doping rules. The FEI has signed up to WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) and equestrian is “stuck with it” if we want to be in the Olympics. It seems unfair riders are automatically deemed guilty and must prove themselves innocent, but that is the burden of proof WADA requires;

• Automatic disqualification from the competition is another WADA requirement, even when the rider is exonerated and receives no further punishment. Yes, this is unfair, but it is incorrect for a horse to compete with a performance-enhancing or harmful substance in its system, even accidentally;

• The FEI prohibited substances list is much longer – 1,400 items – than WADA’s because, for instance, horses may not compete on painkillers. The FEI list is re-evaluated annually, based on science and feedback from the four horseracing laboratories the FEI uses around the world. The testers are not “chasing molecules;” if anything, leeway is on the generous side.

• National federations are urged every year to suggest changes to the list, but usually only Switzerland bothers.

After listening to all this, Kuhner emphasised that riders still want “something else,” not WADA. The riders have many radical ideas. These include developing an app which can anonymously notify the latest positives; opportunities to submit samples for pre-show testing (at present this elective testing is only available before major championships and the Olympic Games); obligatory certification of stable hygiene by show organisers and withdrawal of stable tours for media and sponsors or anyone else who may stroke a horse and transfer something topically by mistake.

The IJRC also suggested consequences for organisers, paying riders’ costs and compensation when clearly liable for the positive test, especially where buying feed and bedding from the organiser is a condition of entry. Though Ludger Beerbaum said that if the latter were enforced, “within a minute” you’d have no one willing to run a show.

I am at a loss to know how we reduce an innocent rider’s reputational damage. How can the general equestrian public see the distinction between blatant cheating, careless breaches of controlled medications protocols, and the unlucky riders maybe competing abroad for the first time, blissfully unaware the hay supplied by the organiser contains orange leaves?

The FEI press department has worked very hard on this. Headlines screaming “doper” now rarely appear in mainstream media coverage of controlled meds offences. But it is impossible to educate social media on this complex subject, especially one communicating in short sentences and emojis.

Not even experienced competitors seem to know. Last year I wrote about the different “tiers” of offence and was astonished to receive thank-you messages from senior riders, saying they had not previously understood.

I don’t think bundling both sets of FEI rules under one label – the Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Regulations (EADCMRs) – gives the casual reader the right idea. The term “prohibited substances” is used to cover all categories. It’s surely also misleading to list the Tribunal’s controlled medication notices under the large heading “Equine Anti-Doping Decisions” on the FEI website.

Alas, though, I doubt refining the lexicon will make much difference to genuine victims of contamination. Once social media has a whiff of trouble for any famous name, image-battering is like a runaway train. The only guaranteed winners are the lawyers.