The FEI prohibited list and what it means for racing

The FEI prohibited list and what it means for racing

The eighth World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina were not, it is perhaps fair to say, an unbridled success. From unfinished facilities to misspelt signage and, most catastrophically, an entire endurance race that had to be aborted after riders were sent in the wrong direction, the competition generated so much negative coverage that the future of the Games themselves, already in some doubt, now appears to be hanging by a thread. (At the time of writing, no formal bidders had thrown their hats into the ring for the 2022 renewal.) So it might seem to be a strange time to ask if horseracing has anything to learn from the Fédération Équestre International (FEI). And yet, there is one area in which the FEI is arguably setting an example.     Unlike the global racing industry, which operates under myriad rules and regulations between different countries (and sometimes within the same country), all 134 affiliated nations of the FEI operate under a single set of rules. This includes a single Prohibited Substances Policy to which all jurisdictions must adhere; meaning that a horse trained in Australia is subject to exactly the same medical requirements, including regulations governing banned substances and threshold limits, as a horse trained in, say, America. This stands in stark contrast to the thoroughbred industry. Despite being an increasingly global game, from the now-traditional annual American invasion of Royal Ascot to the recent domination of the Melbourne Cup by European-trained horses, racing can appear positively parochial when it comes to its attitudes towards prohibited substances. “If you compare horseracing to other sports, we have one of the sole sports where there are no equal regulations on the highest level,” elucidates Germany’s Peter Schiergen. “To have [the same] regulations and policies around the world would be a good action for horse racing.”     So what are the factors standing in the way of global harmonisation, and would there ever be a case for following the FEI’s lead and adopting a single set of rules that would apply to horseracing authorities the world over?     The FEI’s approach is to divide prohibited substances into two categories: banned substances (that is, substances that are deemed by the FEI to have no legitimate use in competition and/or have a high potential for abuse, including all anabolic steroids and their esters), which are not permitted at any time; and controlled medication (substances that are deemed to have a therapeutic value and/or are commonly used in equine medicine), which are not permitted for use during competition but may be used at other times. These categorisations apply to all national and international competitions, with each national federation being subject to the FEI’s regulations. Testing at competitions is carried out by the FEI’s own veterinary department, while elective out-of-competition testing is also available so that those responsible for the horse can ensure that they allow the appropriate withdrawal times for therapeutic medications. So just how effective are these rules at keeping prohibited substances out of the sport and ensuring a level playing field? Clearly, no system is perfect. The FEI has had its fair share of doping scandals, particularly in the endurance discipline, where stamina, which can be easily enhanced with the aid of pharmacology, is of paramount importance. The FEI, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said in a statement: “Clean sport is an absolute must for the FEI and it is clear that we, like all International Federations, need to continue to work to get the message across that clean sport and a level playing field are non-negotiable. All athletes and National Federations know that regardless of where in the world they compete the rules are the same.” Yet having a global policy does appear to offer a strategic advantage to those seeking to create a level playing field, not only through the creation of economies of scale (the FEI oversees laboratories around the world, and all results are all handled at the federation’s headquarters in Lausanne), but also by creating a framework for cheats to be exiled from all competitions, rather than just one country’s.     While harmonisation and cross-border cooperation does exist in racing, particularly within Europe and individual race meetings—notably the recent Breeders’ Cup—have taken it upon themselves to enact their own programme of pre- and post-race testing, effectively creating their own anti-doping ecosystem; the fact remains that racing lacks an overarching prohibited substances policy. Codes and customs vary widely from—at one end of the spectrum—Germany, which does not allow any colt that has run on declared medication to stand at stud; to North America, where, Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, whose trainer admitted that he gave the colt a monthly dose of the anabolic steroid, stanozolol, is still active at stud. Stanozolol is the same drug that the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for in 1988, causing him to be stripped of his gold medal in the Seoul Olympics. Although the industry subsequently moved to outlaw the drug for use on horses in training, anabolic steroids are still routinely used as an out-of-competition treatment in a number of states.     “I don’t think the playing field is level,” says Mark Johnston, with typical candour. “Control of anabolic steroids is very important if you want a level playing field. Because there’s no doubt whatsoever that there are advantages to using them.”  “Our rules are quite specific in this regard,” says Brant Dunshea, chief regulatory officer of the British Horseracing Authority. “We require any horse coming from an overseas jurisdiction to submit to international import testing well before they are permitted to race here, to ensure that any horse that races here in Britain is racing on a level playing field.” But while an overseas horse coming to run in the UK may be ‘clean’ on arrival, this does not address the potential lasting legacy of being trained on anabolic steroids back home. Anabolic steroids mimic the function of testosterone in the body, leading to increased muscle size, strength and power. Veterinarians suggest that anabolic steroids can take six months to clear a horse’s system. “It’s one of the reasons we undertake hair testing,” says Dunshea. “With hair testing we can see evidence of historical administration of anabolic steroids going back a very long period of time. So if there was evidence of that, then that would be dealt with.” But is it really possible to disaggregate the effect of being trained longer and harder, or the ability to recover from injury quicker, during a crucial part of a horse’s earlier life? Johnston, for one, does not think so: “I think there is now strong evidence that there is a lasting effect of using anabolic [steroids] in young horses. The muscle built through drug use is retained later. So you can improve a horse and make it run beyond its genetic ability with the use of anabolic steroids.” And what of the potential downstream effect on the breeding industry? “The most important argument for me is to remind ourselves of the main objective of breeding and racing: to improve the quality of the horse and to find the best individuals,” says Schiergen. “Probably, these horses would have never shown their peak performance without the substances. And afterwards we start breeding with these horses, which have just been the best of their generation because of the use of these substances.”     Until a universal position on anabolic steroids can be agreed, it is clear that this will remain a stumbling block on the road towards adapting a global policy. The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) has valiantly made strides in this area. It publishes guidelines on prohibited substances, defined as any substance capable of giving a horse an advantage or causing it to be disadvantaged in a race, contrary to the horse’s inherent merits, as well as threshold limits for substances endogenous to the horse. Under the IFHA’s model, the use of anabolic steroids is considered to be prohibited at all times. However, its  International   Agreement on Breeding, Racing and Wagering  is, for all its noble intentions, non-binding. The reality is that significant cross-border discrepancies remain—many of these deeply culturally entrenched. (Tellingly, the United States is not a signatory to the agreement’s Article 6E: the article that stipulates that anabolic steroids must not be administered to a racehorse at any time during its career, including when out of training.)  While anabolic steroids are one bone of contention, another is raceday medications such as Lasix. Elsewhere in the world, the use of raceday medications is almost uniformly prohibited. By contrast, the use of furosemide, to give it its chemical name, as a raceday medication has become almost ubiquitous in the United States, with more than 90% of horses given the drug before competing. “It’s defined by science as the most efficacious medication for preventing or mitigating the circumstances revolved around EIPH [exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage],” says Eric Hamelback, CEO of the National Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association. Furosemide appears on the FEI’s Prohibited Substance List as a controlled medication, meaning it is not permitted in competition. This may be due to its perceived performance-enhancing effects or its potential to mask other drugs. Yet the American appetite for Lasix shows no signs of abating. “Veterinarians, research, all tell us that in order to help an equine athlete with a very real problem, if we can control it, and if science tells us that that’s what’s best for the horse, then that’s what I think we should do. No one forces anybody to run their horse on Lasix. It’s a choice,” says Hamelback. “If you choose not to, or you believe it’s bad for the horse then don’t run them on it.” While there are stirrings of dissent among some US-based trainers, the recent climbdown by the Breeders’ Cup over its limited ban on Lasix illustrates just how thick a wedge still exists between continental and North American attitudes.  Of course, the debate surrounding pharmacology and sport is not new, nor is it unique to the racing industry. As long as there has been a prize to be won, athletes have exploited every means at their disposal in their quest to leave no margin left ungained. As far back as the first Olympic Games in Ancient Greece in 776 BC, athletes tried to increase their physical prowess by eating sheep testicles prior to competition (sheep testicles are a prime source of testosterone—the very same hormone that anabolic steroids are designed to mimic). It is also unlikely to be settled any time soon, harmonisation or not. And yet despite the deeply entrenched views held by all sides, the signs are that the arc of history is trending toward even greater globalisation. So will racing ever follow the FEI’s lead and adopt a single code? The BHA, for one, is open-minded: “One ought never to consider that they can’t learn from other sports in terms of the battle against anti-doping threats,” says Dunshea. The trainers interviewed for this article agree: “It would be wonderful if we could be global with our rules. Not just on medication, on many other things. It would be wonderful if we were all singing from the same hymn sheet,” says Johnston. His sentiments are echoed by Schiergen: “In my opinion we need a customised catalogue regarding our requirements with rules which are similar all around the world. We are internationalising our sports in all areas, so let's do it in this area as well. We all want the best racehorse to win.” Until then, as long as the stakes remain high, in a sport where milliseconds—mere pixels in a photo finish—can make the difference between first and second, it is likely that some trainers will continue to adopt a “when in Rome” approach to medications in their bid to be first past the post.     Prohibited Substances Factbox     FEI  Horseracing  International governing body for equestrian sports, including dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, para-equestrian, reining, show jumping and vaulting.  The same rules apply for all national and international competitions. Each national federation is subject to the FEI’s rules.  Testing at competitions is carried out by the FEI’s own veterinary department.  Elective out-of-competition testing is also available.  No global governing body for horse racing. Each racing jurisdiction is free to set its own anti-doping and prohibited substances rules.  The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities publishes guidelines on prohibited substances and threshold limits.  Participation is on a voluntary basis.  Raceday and out-of-competition testing are the responsibility of the individual racing authority.

By Alysen Miller

The eighth World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina were not, it is perhaps fair to say, an unbridled success. From unfinished facilities to misspelt signage and, most catastrophically, an entire endurance race that had to be aborted after riders were sent in the wrong direction, the competition generated so much negative coverage that the future of the Games themselves, already in some doubt, now appears to be hanging by a thread (At the time of writing, no formal bidders had thrown their hats into the ring for the 2022 renewal). So it might seem to be a strange time to ask if horseracing has anything to learn from the Fédération Équestre International (FEI). And yet, there is one area in which the FEI is arguably setting an example.

Unlike the global racing industry, which operates under myriad rules and regulations between different countries (and sometimes within the same country), all 134 affiliated nations of the FEI operate under a single set of rules. This includes a single Prohibited Substances Policy to which all jurisdictions must adhere; meaning that a horse trained in Australia is subject to exactly the same medical requirements, including regulations governing banned substances and threshold limits, as a horse trained in, say, America. This stands in stark contrast to the thoroughbred industry. Despite being an increasingly global game, from the now-traditional annual American invasion of Royal Ascot to the recent domination of the Melbourne Cup by European-trained horses, racing can appear positively parochial when it comes to its attitudes towards prohibited substances. “If you compare horseracing to other sports, we have one of the sole sports where there are no equal regulations on the highest level,” elucidates Germany’s Peter Schiergen. “To have [the same] regulations and policies around the world would be a good action for horse racing.”

So what are the factors standing in the way of global harmonisation, and would there ever be a case for following the FEI’s lead and adopting a single set of rules that would apply to horseracing authorities the world over?

Laboratory sample analysis

The FEI’s approach is to divide prohibited substances into two categories: banned substances (that is, substances that are deemed by the FEI to have no legitimate use in competition and/or have a high potential for abuse, including all anabolic steroids and their esters), which are not permitted at any time; and controlled medication (substances that are deemed to have a therapeutic value and/or are commonly used in equine medicine), which are not permitted for use during competition but may be used at other times. These categorisations apply to all national and international competitions, with each national federation being subject to the FEI’s regulations. Testing at competitions is carried out by the FEI’s own veterinary department, while elective out-of-competition testing is also available so that those responsible for the horse can ensure that they allow the appropriate withdrawal times for therapeutic medications. So just how effective are these rules at keeping prohibited substances out of the sport and ensuring a level playing field? Clearly, no system is perfect. The FEI has had its fair share of doping scandals, particularly in the endurance discipline, where stamina, which can be easily enhanced with the aid of pharmacology, is of paramount importance. The FEI, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said in a statement: “Clean sport is an absolute must for the FEI and it is clear that we, like all International Federations, need to continue to work to get the message across that clean sport and a level playing field are non-negotiable. All athletes and National Federations know that regardless of where in the world they compete the rules are the same.” Yet having a global policy does appear to offer a strategic advantage to those seeking to create a level playing field, not only through the creation of economies of scale (the FEI oversees laboratories around the world, and all results are all handled at the federation’s headquarters in Lausanne), but also by creating a framework for cheats to be exiled from all competitions, rather than just one country’s.

While harmonisation and cross-border cooperation does exist in racing, particularly within Europe and individual race meetings—notably the recent Breeders’ Cup—have taken it upon themselves to enact their own programme of pre- and post-race testing, effectively creating their own anti-doping ecosystem; the fact remains that racing lacks an overarching prohibited substances policy. Codes and customs vary widely from—at one end of the spectrum—Germany, which does not allow any colt that has run on declared medication to stand at stud; to North America, where, Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, whose trainer admitted that he gave the colt a monthly dose of the anabolic steroid, stanozolol, is still active at stud. Stanozolol is the same drug that the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for in 1988, causing him to be stripped of his gold medal in the Seoul Olympics. Although the industry subsequently moved to outlaw the drug for use on horses in training, anabolic steroids are still routinely used as an out-of-competition treatment in a number of states.

“I don’t think the playing field is level,” says Mark Johnston, with typical candour. “Control of anabolic steroids is very important if you want a level playing field. Because there’s no doubt whatsoever that there are advantages to using them.”


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