New hard line on steroids: Keeneland unaffected; hope for US runners in Britain

Despite the strict BHA ruling on steroids, there is hope for U.S. runners in Britain. Photo:

It's business as usual at Keeneland September Sale despite international hard line on steroids.

Potential buyers from Britain and Ireland have been out in force as normal at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale with little thought seemingly given to the new, possibly game-changing hard line on anabolic steroid use in Thoroughbreds introduced by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) in June.

Some observers wondered if influential Europeans might be put off attending United States sales because the new BHA ruling insists that, from that start of 2015, no racehorse should ever be administered an anabolic steroid at any point during its life. Suggestions have been made in the past that some yearlings due to go through the sales ring have received steroids to enhance their appearance and, therefore, their attractiveness to buyers, and of course, such animals will no longer be able to race in Britain if any previous steroid use at all is detected.

As Ireland, France, and Germany are operating mirror policies, the situation will also apply in those jurisdictions.

The yearling market has been particularly buoyant so far this season, with strong demand at both Fasig-Tipton Saratoga and Arqana Deauville sales, and the momentum continued at the crucial Book 1 of the world’s biggest yearling auction last week.

Keeneland was always confident it would be business as usual. Ed Prosser, Keeneland’s European representative, said before the sale started: “Buyers looking for European racing prospects have played a major part in Keeneland’s success over the last half century. I am sure that will again be the case both this year and in the future, including from 2016 onwards when the first yearlings covered by the BHA’s policy will be offered.

“Keeneland and Fasig-Tipton were the first sales companies in the world to bring in steroid testing back in 2008 and, following discussions at its latest meeting, the Society of International Thoroughbred Auctioneers (SITA) has written to the BHA so that we can fully understand their procedures affecting the foals of 2015 onwards.”

Boyd Browning, president of Fasig-Tipton, said after the BHA’s announcement: "Thousands of yearlings have been sold since the inception of this policy [the introduction of testing in 2008 by the U.S. sales companies], and there has not been a single positive test for anabolic steroids since."

The BHA strengthened its rules on steroid use in the wake of the 2013 cases of trainers Mahmoud Al Zarooni and Gerard Butler, who were banned for eight and five years, respectively, after being found guilty of administering steroids to horses in their care. A third high-profile case in Europe, that of Irish jumps trainer Philip Fenton, has become a criminal prosecution and will be heard at a district court in Ireland on October 23. It is alleged that 1 kilogram of banned steroids was found at Fenton’s stables in County Tipperary, and he is facing eight related charges. It is understood the illegal medications allegedly found at Fenton’s yard were linked to a package, addressed to a vet, intercepted at Dublin Airport.

The BHA’s June announcement, agreed after a lengthy consultation process with all parties in British racing, also stated that:

  • Any horse administered an anabolic steroid will have to stand down from training for 12 months and will be ineligible to race in Britain for 14 months.
  • All other foreign runners (apart from those from Ireland, France, and Germany, which have a mirror policy) must be in Britain (and the BHA notified of their whereabouts) a minimum of 14 days in advance of their intended race to facilitate post-arrival sampling and analysis, the results of which will be received before the horse can run.

It is this last ruling that seemingly has the most potential to cause problems, particularly when it comes to runners from the U.S. It is widely acknowledged that having a horse from America available for testing in Britain two weeks before it runs – at, say, Royal Ascot, where U.S. contenders are actively encouraged as part of the meeting’s international policy - is highly impractical.

However, BHA spokesman Robin Mounsey said: “We are currently exploring the possibility of having samples obtained and analysed at a BHA-accredited laboratory in international jurisdictions. We stated at launch that the policy is always open for development and this is one area which we are looking at.

“In the meantime, though, if visiting horses are not submitted to our anabolic steroids policy, they will not be permitted to race. Ascot, among other courses, were consulted throughout the development of the policy and agreed to its principles.”

Currently, BHA testing largely means blood or urine samples, which can in certain circumstances detect exogenous (administered from outside the body) anabolic steroid use for up to six months. But hair samples may show steroid use much further back.

Mounsey said: “In December 2013, we announced as part of our enhanced anti-doping policy that we are committed to an increased investment in research including the continuation of hair sample analysis techniques in order to explore the feasibility of regulatory hair sampling. We have, in fact, already used hair sampling, for example in the testing of the Philip Fenton-trained runners who competed at Cheltenham [at the Festival in March], and we are hoping to introduce this method on a more permanent basis soon, once we have determined how the use of hair sampling can be applied to our regulatory framework.”

BHA chief executive Paul Bittar, who leaves his post in the new year, said after the June announcement: “It is hoped that this will be another step towards global harmonisation across the sport and that the leadership role BHA has adopted on this issue can result in those nations that have not yet adopted the minimum standards following suit. Our previous policy already met the minimum standards, and today’s announcement goes further, ensuring British racing retains its pre-eminent position in respect of how drug use is regulated within the sport.

“After a challenging 16 months, as a result of the actions taken already by several nations, the sport globally is now in a much better place when it comes to the regulation of anabolic steroids.”

These comments were taken at the time to be a thinly veiled nudge in the direction of the United States, which has the most lenient attitude of all major jurisdictions when it comes to anabolic steroids (and medication generally) in racing.

Today, horses in the U.S. are prohibited from competing while being treated with steroids, but the ban does not extend to therapeutic use or training as long as the substance is not present at levels exceeding the indicated thresholds on raceday. As American racing is regulated on a state-by-state basis, fines and penalties can vary by racing jurisdiction.

It wasn’t until 2008 that steroids were the subject of any kind of ban at all in most U.S. states where racing takes place, including Kentucky, Maryland, and New York. Indeed, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner of that year, Big Brown, was campaigned openly on the steroid Winstrol.

The new post-Zarooni world order on steroids was officially ushered in at last October’s International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) conference in Paris, where the following pronouncements were made:

  • The IFHA considers that anabolic steroids have no place in horse racing.
  • The use of anabolic steroids should not be permitted in or out of competition.
  • The IFHA will work with jurisdictions that may permit exceptional use for therapeutic purposes only, subject to stringent controls and a minimum stand down period to eliminate performance enhancing effects.
  • Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and Vice Chairman of the IFHA, summed up the IFHA mood when he said: “The removal of anabolic steroids in horse racing across the world is key to the continued international growth of the sport at the highest level.”

By the time the IFHA discussed the issue, both Australia and South Africa had already acted to tighten their policies, albeit with different approaches.

Both jurisdictions banned steroids – it’s a lifetime ban in Australia’s case – but South Africa decided to allow a single dose for therapeutic purposes in exceptional circumstances, provided an application was made to the National Horseracing Authority in writing and the administration of the dose was supervised by an approved vet. The horse may not run within 90 days of receiving the dose.

Administration of steroids just once will earn the perpetrator a two-year ban in Australia with the horse unable to race for 12 months. Australian Racing Board (ARB) CEO Peter McGauran said at the time: “On policy grounds, the ARB believed that the benefit of positioning the industry in line with, or even ahead of public opinion, outweighed the marginal use of anabolic steroids today.”

New Zealand has adopted the same rules as Australia.

Even before the Australian move, Sheikh Mohammed, perhaps anxious to repair a somewhat tarnished image after the Al Zarooni scandal at one of his Godolphin stables in Newmarket, had announced that the use of anabolic steroids on all sport horses in Dubai would now be treated as a criminal offence.

The Japan Racing Association (JRA) prohibits the use of anabolic steroids for any purpose, and conducts both post-race and out-of-competition testing. In Japan, using prohibited substances in races, including anabolic steroids, is illegal under the nation’s Horse Racing Law, with offences punishable by incarceration and significant fines, in addition to any penalties that might be levied by the JRA.

In Hong Kong, the Jockey Club’s policy is to allow a strictly controlled therapeutic use exemption, restricting it to one product, a testosterone suspension specifically licensed for use in a horse, which can only be administered by one of the Club’s vets when there is a valid clinical welfare justification and prior approval has been obtained. Again, the horse may not run for 90 days afterwards.

However, the new hard line has not met with unanimous approval. There have been mutterings of discontent, particularly in Australia. Melbourne equine vet Dr. Johnnie Walker was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald after the ruling there as saying: “It is great PR to make a release like this one but it doesn't help the horse because the major use of anabolic steroids is therapeutic in trauma injuries, colic, and diarrhoea. Those problems could cause serious weight loss, and the ban deprives vets of an effective treatment.

“If a horse is going to be boxed for eight weeks because of a serious leg injury, [anabolic steroids are] used to speed up the rate of injury repair. The drug helps a return to competitive, drug-free racing faster than would otherwise be the case. My understanding is the EVA [Equine Veterinarians Australia] gave this as their advice and it was just ignored.”

Australian Trainers' Association president Colin Alderson warned of a backlash, saying sensible use of steroids had no sinister connotation, adding they were a significant cost benefit to owners.

“Racehorses need every bit of help - we can't even give them an Aspro,” Alderson said. “You give a horse a dose of steroids to help it thrive out in the paddock, you can bring it back earlier and start earning some money earlier for the owner.”

But McGauran said: “Once we started delving into veterinary and scientific advice, we found two recurrent themes. The first was that use of steroids is infrequent and for most trainers, their use is a rare event, if ever, so their use has been highly exaggerated. 

“The second aspect is that training and veterinary care has moved on since the early 1970s, when anabolic steroids were par for the course for horses spelling [in pre-training] and even in the early stages of training.”


Additional reporting by Ashley Herriman and Steve Moran.

Read: Steroids in racing: Why a total ban is logical - and necessary

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