Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

Doping: The Figures Behind the Headlines at Tryon

The FEI has boasted about a nearly clean sheet when it comes to doping cases at the 2018 World Equestrian Games, but here, we, look deeper at the sampling.

By: Cuckson Report // Pippa Cuckson

The FEI, quite understandably, has flagged up the nearly clean sheet achieved in the extensive sampling carried out at Tryon, save for two endurance horses.

The Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Programme always goes into overdrive at WEGs and Olympic Games, when so many major players are assembled in one place. The 2018 WEG was no exception; 163 horses were sampled out of (according to other official blurb) 820 participants. That’s a sampling rate of 19.88% of horses present, five times greater than the percentage usually targeted at non-championship fixtures.

“Enhanced” anti-doping measures were rolled out before Tryon, with national federations offered pre-arrival testing and elective testing to ensure horses were clean. The FEI also launched a guide in eight languages.

Naturally, the FEI is pleased the message sunk home, and the results provide another feel-good story to counter all the negative press about Tryon.

However, the FEI press release about these comforting results was issued a week or so before we could all access the negative tests listings on the Clean Sport bit of the FEI website. This list is as interesting for who wasn’t sampled as it is for who was.

More samples were taken from German horses (21) than any other country, followed by the U.S. (16), Holland (13) and GB (11). This is partly connected to many WEG medallists – some of which were sampled twice – coming from these countries, of course, though there was a random component too.

As far as I can see, just 14 endurance horses (12 clean, two positive) were sampled out of 126 starters – a sampling rate of 11.1% compared with nearly 20% for all disciplines combined. (One sampled endurance horse didn’t even make it past the first horse inspection, never mind find its way to the start line, wherever that was….)

What is more, only two horses – both from endurance, representing Qatar and Bahrain – were targeted from the Group 7 (Middle East) countries out of that region’s 31 WEG starters (22 in endurance, eight in jumping and one para dressage.) That’s just 6.45 %, compared with the overall sampling of 20% of all nationals in all sports combined. Yet endurance and the Middle East are the region with by far the worst doping records in terms of discipline and region respectively.

Seven of the nine most recently published administrative sanctions (fast-tracked fine) for controlled meds offences at other FEI fixtures worldwide were in endurance, the other two being eventing and jumping. Of the 42 more serious doping cases awaiting determination by Tribunal, 30 are endurance and 18 of those involve Group 7 owned and/or trained horses, including the world’s top ranked horse, Shaddad. WADA recommends that sampling strategies focus on sectors with “history” but equestrianism seems reluctant to do it at headlining events.

The success of the Tryon anti-doping initiative is all fine and dandy, but the amount of education still needed in the “developing” national federations is immense. This is evidenced by the three positives for the anabolic steroid Boldenone detected at a CIC* in Dehli last November.

Overall stats for 2017 have just been published in preparation for the FEI General Assembly. These show a return of 2.1% positives from the 5,120 horses sampled across all eight disciplines last year, quite an increase over the 2016 figure of 1.57%.

If you took the 43 endurance positives out of the equation, the 2017 average drops to a happier 1.56% (66 of 4,222.)

Albeit an extremely small sample base, the annual doping returns from reining and para driving (a 50% strike rate in the only two horses sampled all year!) don’t look great on paper, either.

I have previously done some number-crunching which showed there was an average 11.9% positives among horses sampled in UAE endurance rides during 2016 and 2017.

In March I asked the FEI to comment on those findings, and it turned out they had carried out a similar exercise. FEI veterinary director Goran Akerstrom wrote back: “Following analysis of the results throughout 2017, it was again clear that endurance rides in Group VII remain high risk events in terms of violations of the Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Regulations (EADCMRs). As well as the standard anti-doping that is carried out, the FEI conducts targeted intelligence-based testing and, in response to the ongoing high numbers of positives in Group VII, we have once again substantially increased the levels of testing in the region.”

He said Qatar sampled at 100% of its FEI events and FEI was planning to sample at 86% of UAE events this year – in other sports or regions, 55-60% is the norm.

Well, actions speak louder than words. At Tryon, I daresay officials thought better of sampling any UAE horses in view of the understandable displeasure of Meydan, the sponsor, at the catalogue of organisational disasters surrounding the endurance ride.

The disconnect between the UAE’s attitude to doping and that of the rest of the world can also be seen in the Emirates federation’s strong written objection to a proposal which is expected to be approved at the General Assembly. This will give the FEI discretion to bar suspended persons (decided case by case) from attending an event, even as a spectator. The FEI says there are “certain venues/disciplines where spectators may have access to/get close to the Field of Play.”

In reality, it is only in endurance where such issues have been reported back to the FEI. Suspended persons are still able to train and supervise their charges at rides. Indeed, some dopers are even feted, climbing the podium to receive prizes on someone else’s behalf, used as poster boys and interviewed as if they were celebrities by livestream broadcasters.

In any other sport, the suspended rider tends to keep his head down while he serves his time! While some other national federations have queried how enforceable this will be in practice, only one other country – Libya – disagreed with the idea in principle.

One more strange thing: I infer from the FEI press release that controlled medication cases at Tryon don’t count as doping. That may be the legal definition, but common parlance tends to think otherwise. The press release explained (even though riders should already know) that controlled meds are “regularly used to treat horses” but must clear from the horse’s system by the competition. I am sure this distinction will be of small comfort to the riders who in recent months have variously been suspended for six months to a year for controlled meds offence.

The FEI’s own Tribunal seems pretty confident that most controlled meds positives are not miscalculations. Here’s the standard text from a decision notice: “Where a Controlled Medication Substance was found in a horse’s sample without a valid Veterinary Form, a clear and unequivocal presumption arose under the ECM Rules that it was administered to the horse deliberately in an illicit attempt to enhance its performance.”

Do we need a new term, then, for “illicit” performance enhancement that is not doping?

X