When Is A Drug Not A Drug?

To this writer – a non-chemist, non-veterinarian and non-trainer, just an interested fan – Australia’s drug policies have never been totally clear or logical.

Well, that’s not quite right – they are clear in that everything is banned. What’s not clear is why.

The theory goes that any amount of any drug is potentially a problem, regardless of what it is designed to do. Yet we also have nominated “near-drugs”, which are okay if you give them time to move through the system prior to racing.

That’s providing your dog’s metabolism is around average. All that keeps the sport clean.

This is a far cry from the old days when a dose of port and a raw egg would help things along (never could understand the impact of the egg, though). Stopping the dog was easier. A long swim in the morning would do the trick, or even some tobacco rubbed into the eyes on the way to the boxes.

In that era, trainers were prone to build their charge up gradually to a peak, and then set them for a killing in the ring. They did not want form disclosed too early. Bookies were all you had then as the TABs were only a twinkle in the Treasurer’s eye. Prize money was fairly ordinary, driving more tiring, air-conditioning rare, and you had to earn a living somehow.

Drug testing was pretty primitive as well but no doubt worked on occasions, as did whatever trainers did to their dogs to stir them up (which was usually obvious in the betting ring).

Life is a lot different today, and a good thing, too. In general, authorities are to be applauded for their attention to drug cheats. Much information is published about withholding periods to apply when administering certain substances. However, the coverage of the subject can never be regarded as exhaustive. It’s a moving target.

All this came to mind on reading of positive A and B swabs from the very consistent Tonneli Bale in the Darwin Cup last month. An inquiry is imminent.

The offending item was Diclofenac, otherwise known as Voltaren or Cataflam, etc. The maker describes it as “a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug” designed to treat “mild pain, fever and inflammation”. Whatever else it does is uncertain but don’t give it to your pregnant wife as it could affect the foetus.

It certainly doesn’t sound like it was any great help to Tonneli Bale, although the bitch did well in the Cup series. That was expected anyway.

No doubt greater minds will explain how stuff like this can be dangerous. After all, there would be plenty of footballers or aging tennis players who have to go around with a bit of help for a nagging problem. Injections, oxygen boosts, even.

Meantime, it seems that anything from aspirin to chocolate ice cream will be a problem for dogs, causing a loss of cash and time on the sideline for the offenders.

Indeed, Tonneli Bale’s trainer, Graeme Bate, is no stranger to these problems, having been caught previously with what were apparently microscopic contaminants in his meat supply.

All of which brings up the question of whether there are safe and unsafe drugs for racing purposes. Or helpful and unhelpful, so to speak.

More to the point, though, is that science and technology has advanced in leaps and bounds over the years and can now pick up minute traces of any drug anywhere in the system. Or on the clothing, as top gallops trainer Gai Waterhouse found out when one of her stablehands was pinged for cocaine. In the event, they avoided a penalty because they demonstrated that the trace on his jacket most likely arrived when he was rubbing shoulders with a known user in the local pub.

Right or wrong, it illustrates that the boffins are well ahead of everyday goings on. Their equipment is so good that soon it might be dangerous to walk your dog past a bakery selling bread laced with poppy seeds.

It also could be that dogs are denied a prize for something that has no effect on their racing ability, yet is necessary for their well being. (It also reminds us that thoroughbred drug rules in the US are more liberal than those applying in Australia. Or that some experts suggest EPO cannot make a dog exceed its natural best, only to get back towards that level. And the Olympics people have made allowances for coffee drinkers. Marijuana attitudes vary the world around. Nothing is set in concrete).

Anyway, is it really possible to avoid some exposure in the modern world? Sure, it’s the trainer’s duty to keep everything clean but where do you draw the line? And is there a line?

More study is warranted, surely. Not least to set up minimum levels of contamination.

As a comparison, what is really strange is that if your dog fights in the home straight, but still wins, it will take home the cash. For a first offence, it can then go to another track and fight there. Tonneli Bale may not be so lucky.