A young Uruguayan endurance rider has been suspended for two years and fined 3,000 Swiss francs by the FEI Tribunal after her horse tested positive to a substance associated with lowering the heart rate.

Victoria Goni, 22, argued vehemently that the presence of banned substance ergonovine in El Mate’s sample was caused by contaminated feed. Uruguay has a known problem with an arable fungus which can cause a disease called ergotism linked with alkaloids including ergonovine. In worst cases, ergotism leads to gangrene of the limbs.

However the FEI argued that as “one of the side-effects of ergonovine was that it lowered the heart rate” and “it could therefore be abused in endurance.”

El Mate was sampled at a 120km ride in Trinidad in February 2017. (FEI results show there were just three starters, with El Mate the only finisher at an average speed of 18.7kph).

Goni said there had been no intentional doping, and that because she was not notified of the positive result for two months no samples remained of the allegedly contaminated grain fed to El Mate.

Her arguments about naturally occurring contaminants were supported by Dr Gonzalo Saralegui, head veterinarian of the Uruguary national federation, and Dr Mirenxu Posada.

Dr Saralegui emphasised that in Uruguay most horse owners produce their own grains. “For this reason, a high percentage of those grains do not go under the controls of the Ministry of Livestock and Agriculture and they go directly to the horses feeding.” He also pointed to a Ministry-prescribed threshold for ergonovine in animal feedstuff “under which provision they implicitly recognize its presence in the food.”

The FEI is considering re-listing ergonovine as a “specified substance,” a category which covers naturally occurring substances and the probability of no intention to dope. However, to merit a reduced sanction, the Person Responsible (PR) still has to show exactly how any substance – banned, controlled or specified – has entered the horse’s system.

The FEI said Goni had failed to show this. “The PR had only indicated that presence of ergonovine can be a result of a specific fungus. However, there was no real connection between these facts and the case at hand; the explanations therefore remained mere speculations.” Tribunal also noted Goni had given “two different versions of which feed had been fed.”

The full decision can be read here.