China has lost its eventing team place at Paris 2024 to Japan following an altrenogest positive returned in June by the mount of its most high-profile rider, Alex Hua Tian. Altrenogest belongs to the class of drugs called progestins and is used to suppress estrus in mares.

The FEI announced today (October 10) that UK-based Hua Tian had accepted a “fast-track” fine, also known as an Administrative Sanction, of 1,500 Swiss francs. The fast-track is offered to all first offences with a controlled medication, and no suspension is imposed.

The newly-crowned Asian Games eventing champion issued a heart-felt apology to his country, supporters and team-mates. He said it was a “total shock” to receive notification of the positive sample taken on June 2 during a special event at Millstreet, Ireland. This was a Paris qualifier for the far eastern and South Pacific eventing teams that are mostly based in the northern hemisphere.

After learning of the positive on July 10, Hua Tian hired international experts and leading equine law firms to investigate. They concluded that his 13-year-old gelding Chicko had eaten urine-contaminated hay through a gap in his stable wall. The neighbouring box was occupied by a mare on Regumate, of which altrenogest is the active component.

Regumate is allowed in FEI competition to suppress “mareish” behaviour but may not be given to stallions or geldings because of its potential to provide a calming effect and thereby affect performance.

Under the “strict liability” principle in equine doping regulations, competition results are always disqualified, even when the rider can prove he is not at fault. Without Chicko’s scores, China dropped from second place to fourth. Only two places for Paris were available – Australia took the other one.

It remains unclear why the FEI has taken three months to announce this “fast-tracked” decision. The altrenogest positive appears to have been widely known within the eventing community since July, and the long delay in confirming reallocation of the team place has frustrated the Japanese.

Hua Tian says that on the evening of June 1 at Millstreet, Chicko was behaving unusually. The Chinese team vet could not rule out “mild colic” so suggested removing his hay. The next day Chicko seemed “back to his normal self” but he was hand-fed small amounts of hay at regular intervals. It was suspected he had accessed hay from the next door stable through a gap, and attempts were made to block it.

He said, “As a passionate supporter of clean sport, with a pristine record at international level for 18 years, and knowing how careful we are as a team with any risk of contamination, I was in total shock.
“Despite the findings of the investigation, I take full responsibility for the consequences. This matter has far-reaching impact on my team-mates, supporters of the sport, and the national Chinese eventing team.

“I intend to continue flying the flag for Chinese equestrianism on the international stage, uphold the principles of clean sport and the Olympic movement, whilst taking every possible measure to ensure that issues related to doping and controlled substances for both humans and horses do not occur.”

The case is likely to reopen debate over the standard of stabling at FEI events, and fuel calls for more lenient treatment in proven cases of contamination, in which area the International Jumping Riders Club has done a lot of work. In recent years the FEI Tribunal has heard a number of arguments about the alleged role of contaminated hay and straw in positive samples, caused by human or equine urination. The FEI has issued a number of advisory notes about these risks to national federations.

The 14 countries who have qualified eventing teams for Paris 2024 are now France (host), Germany, USA, New Zealand, Great Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Poland, Australia, Italy and Japan. Two slots remain available for the two highest-ranked teams (excluding those already qualified) from FEI Olympic Groups D and/or E at the 2023 Pan Am Games in Santiago, Chile, from October 26-29, 2023.