It’s Not A Secret, So Let’s Tell Everybody

As an interested but amateur observer, I can’t quite understand how the drug issue is being handled. I think it’s good, or good in parts, but how would you know?

Surely, only a very silly trainer or a highly skilled chemist would dope his dog these days. Or, quite often, those who did not know they were doing it. Whatever, they are going to get picked up and suffer the consequences. Barring some miracle discoveries, the laboratories are just too good these days. Such is technological progress.

I have never figured out why go-slow drugs were ever used. There must be a dozen other ways of achieving the same result, more easily and more cheaply. A nice, long morning swim, for example.

Go-nowhere seems to becoming more common. These might fall into two categories – the (illegal) content of a therapeutic drug which has not had time to filter through the system or minute traces of something which appeared from who knows where. There is no excuse for the former, it is purely careless. But what do you do about stuff that is mixed up in the meat or (for horses) the hay you buy in from a respected dealer?

And, whatever the drug, does it actually help the dog go faster or further? Especially if there is hardly any of it. Little evidence is offered either way. The attitude seems to be that you can’t be sure so nothing is permissible. Zero tolerance.

But go-fast is another story. And probably less contentious. Apart from the odd chocolate ice cream, the banned list is quite long. Caffeine is just the start. Still, are they all performance-enhancing? If so, how and how much?

Fundamentally, although science and technology have jumped ahead in leaps and bounds, policing and penalties seem to be clashing with decades-old principles. Today’s classic case, of course, is the minute trace of some nasty stuff which appeared out of the blue. Was it the remnants of an illegal act or just part of the hurly burly of the modern, fast-moving world? 20 years ago, or even 10, the lab might not have been able to identify it anyway. Ice creams are obvious, but what about seeded bread, especially poppy seeds? Or whatever the cows ate before being turned into pet meat? Or kangaroos in a mushroom patch?

Another case might be something emerging from the ever-increasing selection of drugs with some relation to steroids, or even beta blockers. Human and veterinary science has also been developing rapidly, with commercial outfits all seeking an edge, so exotic combinations are the order of the day. And what they add to muscle mass – is that good or bad? Their impacts are uncertain and debatable in respect to performance, as a couple of football clubs are finding out at the moment.

To a casual observer, a scan of guilty verdicts suggests that such a breach sometimes is classed as bad luck, sometimes not. It depends on the jurisdiction and the circumstances. As does the quantum of the penalty. Note, for example, our earlier report about a Queensland administrative tribunal cutting a penalty by two thirds because of the stewards’ past inconsistencies.

Then there is the EPO question – or EPO clones. It’s naturally occurring so extra effort was needed to separate the artificial from the natural. But is it out of vogue now? It’s not out of the headlines so far as cyclists are concerned, although it is illegal in Australia without a prescription and banned by WADA. Yet the expert evidence is that it can never make the subject go faster than it is normally able to do. Further, probably, which is what helps touring cyclists, but not faster. Does that mean it is more relevant over a 700m race than over 400m? Or neither? In any event, overdosing can produce really serious problems (blood-thickening, clotting, etc).

Then we have the ubiquitous Gai Waterhouse position. A while back her stablehand was nicked for cocaine but got off because Gai demonstrated that he frequented a local pub and could well have brushed up against a known user. I am still scratching my head as to why the stewards bought that one. A minute trace, perhaps?

So what do we have here?

First, there is too much uncertainty. Nobody quite knows which does what. Or, as GALtd is at pains to point out, you can never be sure from one dog to another, or one drug to another. Hence the zero tolerance approach. Safe periods are recommended but not guaranteed. But do we need them all if the drug is not likely to affect performance? The evidence is vague.

Second, application of the rules is often not consistent.. Swabs are universal but analysis times are too long and news of hearings or appeals is painfully slow to appear in the media, and then it is heavily abridged. Legal protocols are all very well but justice delayed is justice denied. The public has a greater right to know than the offender has a right to silence.

Third, penalties or guilty verdicts may well be the same for a tiny amount of a drug as for a big whack, even though the origin of a trace amount will be unknown or debatable. Let’s have a clear differentiation.

Fourth, and equally if not more important, if we are doing a good job why aren’t we telling the public? Historically, the code has been tarred with a brush that may no longer be valid. People probably don’t even know what we are doing to keep the sport clean, arguably cleaner than some other sports. But who would do that telling? Our national body has shown it is not capable of mounting public relations campaigns – efforts which are sorely needed.

It is one of those areas where we desperately need an authoritative and pro-active national racing commission – one that can go out and meet the public head-on. Meantime, a wide ranging debate is needed to clear the air and help develop systems and methods which keep up with a changing world.