Lessons racing can learn from athletics in the fight against doping

Dr. Simon speaks at the Asian Racing Conference on drug control.

Doping control is the hottest topic in racing at the moment, with feelings running high in the United States, and a worldwide ban on race-day medication supported by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) executive council. So perhaps delegates should have paid a little more heed to the words of athletics doping expert Dr. Perikles Simon at the recent Asian Racing Conference in Hong Kong, as Howard Wright reports.

Inviting outsiders to address major horseracing conferences can be fraught with danger. However eminent in their own field and however worthy their contributions in another space, some such unfamiliar speakers diminish their value by avoiding any attempt to draw comparisons or by embarking on an unabashed sales pitch. By steering clear of context, they inadvertently provide an interlude for quiet contemplation of more pressing personal issues for large sections of an unengaged audience. 

As far as the recent Asian Racing Conference, staged by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, is concerned, the pity about Dr. Perikles Simon’s presentation in the session on fair competition and doping control is that he qualified for neither category of danger, but still achieved the potential for disconnect through no fault of his own. 

Dr. Simon is head of the Department of Sports Medicine at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany. He was one of the original members of the Gene Doping Expert Group within the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and spoke about the organisation’s general work in testing for drugs among human athletes.

Maybe his early admission that he knew “nothing about horse racing” other than what he had read recently was ill advised, however truthful, since it seemed to set the tone for what came afterward, when the conference’s website broadcast interviewer caught up with a number of speakers, not including Dr. Simon though.

Dr. Paul Marie Gadot, head of the Horses and Control Department at France Galop, commented: “Testing of humans and horses is totally different. In human sport, you can compete with drugs if your doctor says ‘Yes’ and you obtain authorisation. In racing, that is not possible; no medication can be used at the time of the competition in Europe and a large part of the world.” 

And Louis Romanet, the former France Galop CEO who maintains a strong relationship with the organisation as an international adviser and is now full-time chairman of International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), also leaped to horse racing’s defence and said: “We have very efficient control, not in every lab around the world, but in the top racing labs. I think they can clearly compete with sports’ control and have a higher level [of testing].” 

Dr. Simon had not suggested otherwise; in fact, he made no reference to a comparison between testing of humans and horses, nor to the competency of equine drug testing. 

However, he did highlight a number of areas of concern in the testing of human athletes that should, at the very least, be acknowledged as worthy of consideration by horse racing authorities. 

“In human testing, we have the problem of deciding which way to go – to intensify the testing system or to take other stances,” Dr. Simon said. “In the end, it is an issue of proportionality – how much testing is justified.”

On loopholes, he added: “A WADA expert group last year came to the conclusion that there is a severe difference between theory and practice. The science seems to be robust, but unfortunately testing will not enable us to catch the very experienced dopers. 

“Excellent detectability, and therefore a high level of deterrence, can be achieved for substances such as anabolic steroids, stimulants, and bloods transfusions, but now the problem is that where we had efficient testing systems established, like 10 years ago for EPO (erythropoietin) for instance, there still seem to be loopholes in that athletes have very sophisticated ways of applying those substances.

“Then, there are substances on the market such as insulin, which if you take a very human version seems to be a powerful drug during training – which unfortunately could affect horse racing – and we have unknown designer steroids available.” 


Jockeys in sprints

1 - Frankie Dettori (GB)1058pts6 - Ryan Moore (GB)982
2 - Hugh Bowman (Aus)10467 - Dwayne Dunn (Aus)978
3 - Joao Moreira (Aus)9997 - Kerrin McEvoy (Aus)978
4 - Gustavo Calvente (Arg)9989 - Tommy Berry (Aus)975
5 - Blake Shinn (Aus)98310- Paul Hanagan (GB)973

According to TRC Global Rankings algorithm. Includes runs in races over 1,400 metres in Group or Graded races worldwide over the last three years. Countries in brackets are the countries where the rider has most Group/Graded rides.

After pointing to “a severe disproportionality in funding,” which sets annual testing costs for human athletes at $350 million against grants for new doping detection procedures at $6 million, Dr. Simon highlighted question marks against the data produced by testing, especially out of competition. 

Turning to his presentation slides (available on the Asian Racing Conference website), he revealed: “If you compare in-competition testing with out-of-competition testing, where the athlete is woken up at six in the morning, you see that OOC seems to be more than tenfold less efficient. 

“We did our own analysis, from the Czech Republic and Germany, which have terrific reporting, but in out-of-competition there seems to be a problem in detecting athletes [who are positive for prohibited substances]. 

“First of all, we thought it was because of stimulants, because certain stimulants are forbidden in competition but not out of competition, but if you analyse the data again, we had to come to the conclusion it was not the stimulants, and it was not related to the specificities of in-competition testing. It’s more related to the fact that we are inefficient out of competition.”

Dr. Simon admitted he had no answer to the out-of-competition conundrum, but added: “It is a problem we need to address when we intensify the fight against doping, and that would apply to horse racing.”

Maybe the international authorities are ready for the challenge, given Romanet’s stout defence of current practice, and in his own presentation he outlined the IFHA’s latest position on doping control, which is contained in the revised Article 6(e) in the international agreement on breeding, racing and wagering

The proposed new wording lays strong emphasis on out-of-competition testing throughout a horse’s racing career, with best-practice principles including the full traceability that applies to human athletes and a stand-down period of at least six months if availability is not achieved. 

In a press statement released by the IFHA on the first day of the Asian Racing Conference, Romanet said: “Without a strong out-of-competition testing programme, the interests of racing, breeding, and wagering participants and stakeholders are seriously compromised. 

“While some racing authorities may face difficulty in accomplishing out-of-competition testing due to regulatory constraints or jurisdictional practices, it is critical that each authority examines its current drug control regulations and protocols to ensure out-of-competition testing is in place or begin steps for implementation."

In his conference presentation itself, he added: “The new Article 6(e) focuses on the total ban on race-day medication. We think it is very important to start with a full ban applied everywhere in the world. 

“We know it will be difficult to implement it in some parts of the world in all races, but at least the prime aim should be to implement it in all Graded and black-type races, which are the races that make the breed.

“Then it is very important to have a complete record of all veterinary procedures and treatments, maintained and always available.”

Romanet stressed that the revision to Article 6(e) had been agreed unanimously by the IFHA executive council. 

“When I say unanimously, I include the U.S. Jockey Club, which is a member of the executive council,” he said, before adding with obvious delight, “I have invited Dinny Phipps, the chairman of the U.S. Jockey Club, to give the keynote speech at the IFHA Paris conference [in October] and I think it will be of great interest.” 

Given recent well-chronicled events, and making allowance for the fractured relationship between doping control and the various state authorities in the U.S., this is one conference that will not require the intrusion of outsiders.

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