The Poppy Seed Problem

I don’t really understand the way racing addresses the drug subject.

Certainly, the whole country has made giant strides over the past two decades in cleaning up abuses. Technological gains have played a big part in that as laboratories have developed more sophisticated methods. That’s all good stuff and a far cry from the days of a drop of port wine and a raw egg.

The basic policy is that all drugs are bad and their use should be penalised if present on race day. But how far should you go in the management of a breach?

I am mindful of a couple of cases in other fields. In one, a stablehand of Gai Waterhouse got pinged for cocaine in an out-of-meeting raid. He protested he was not a user and Gai eventually got him off on the ground that he had brushed up against a known user while having a beer in the local pub. Now, good luck to them, but I am doubtful if a judge in a normal court would have been so forgiving. Anyway, it does point up that the boffins with their modern gear are well capable of picking up tiny indications of the presence of a drug.

In the other case, an Olympic athlete was nicked for a specific amount of caffeine. He also got off when he demonstrated that he drank 14 cups of coffee a day, which would have the same effect. That puzzles me because, as a 20-year drinker of decaf, I can tell you that on the odd occasion when I have been accidently served full strength coffee it turns your insides out. You are jumping. Whether it would have made me run faster is uncertain but it definitely excited me.

So when is caffeine not caffeine? And what about a cup of tea or a chocolate ice cream, both of which contain caffeine?

Similarly, EPO – the drug of choice a little while ago – is generally claimed not to be a stimulant in the normal sense of the word. It may ensure a return to full ability, though, by ramping up the red blood cells and helping the oxygen flow. However, too much and you could be in trouble as it clogs up the blood and poses health risks. Reportedly, athletes have died while using it.

EPO is banned everywhere (except by prescription), with laboratories now able to distinguish between natural and artificial variants. However, EPO on its own is one thing, but combined with a blood exchange – essentially what the cyclists are under the gun for – it is a whole different ball game. Even so, there still are dozens of internet advertisements for EPO, or EPO look-alikes, so somebody is using it.

More recently at the dogs we have seen cases of trainers being penalised for foreign items contained in food – in meat, bread and so on. Indeed, I have often joked about the risks of walking your dog past a bread shop where the aroma of poppy seeds was floating around. Not so funny now, it would seem. This is a reflection of changes to food styles, packaging and distribution in the modern world.

Yet, in all these cases, it is the principle that is being invoked, not the actual effect of the “drug”. Again, that is fair enough up to a point. It’s the trainer’s or the athlete’s responsibility to stay pure. However, is there a difference between clean and pure?

In relatively few of these cases do we know the full effect of the drug. Aside from variations in each dog’s metabolism, there is little evidence of whether many of these drugs will make the dog go faster or further. Or even slower. Some could be said to be obvious, most are not.

We are therefore left with two questions. Why apply a penalty if the drug has no known effect on the dog’s racing ability? And, if it does, why not establish that effect beforehand? Secondly, what is the purpose of a penalty for a tiny trace of a substance, coming from who knows where, when it could not possibly affect the dog’s performance?

In other words, in today’s world, more of the onus of proof should rest with the prosecutor. And he should do it faster. Taking several months to finalise a case is not a good look.