Racing: Chief vet dismisses allegations of doping

An odd transformation came over many of the punters in Britain's betting shops yesterday afternoon. Suddenly, 99 per cent of them became experts in equine physiology. At the end of the long list of excuses for their own misplaced judgement – the jockey's bent; it was having an easy and so on – there is now another, to be used whenever a horse they had written off comes late to beat the favourite. 'Obvious, isn't it?', they'll say. 'That thing must be on EPO.'

An odd transformation came over many of the punters in Britain's betting shops yesterday afternoon. Suddenly, 99 per cent of them became experts in equine physiology. At the end of the long list of excuses for their own misplaced judgement – the jockey's bent; it was having an easy and so on – there is now another, to be used whenever a horse they had written off comes late to beat the favourite. 'Obvious, isn't it?', they'll say. 'That thing must be on EPO.'

Last weekend, Charlie Mann, the Lambourn trainer, claimed in a Sunday tabloid that the blood-doping protein erythropoietin (EPO), which stimulates the production of red blood cells in humans, is being used on racehorses in Britain on "a daily basis". Yesterday, the Racing Post printed an interview with Tom Ahern, a vet based in Lambourn, who also alleged that unscrupulous trainers were using EPO to gain an edge. In the small, excitable world of racing, this is probably enough to convince many punters that 'everyone's at it'.

Questioning the integrity of trainers is not, of course, anything new in the average betting shop. But the beauty of EPO from the conspiracy theorists' point of view is that you can't see it and you can't test for it. For a run-of-the-mill trainer, meanwhile – a description which does not include the talented and upwardly-mobile Mann – the belief that their rivals are up to no good can be a convenient excuse.

There is little doubt that EPO, which is used medically to stimulate kidney patients to produce red blood cells, is an effective blood-doping agent in humans. It allows athletes, particularly in endurance events such as cycling and distance running, to improve their performances significantly. Whether a synthetically produced version of a human peptide hormone would have the same effect on a horse remains a matter of considerable doubt, however, while in the long term, what evidence there is suggests that it might have severe, and quite possibly fatal, side effects.

"The daft thing about all this is that there is absolutely nothing new," Peter Webbon, the Jockey Club's Chief Veterinary Adviser, said yesterday. "If we were thinking about this before, then we're still thinking about it. No horses' names or trainers' names. There are no names here, no specific references to any specific people, there's a vague reference to the drug changing hands on a racecourse but no reference to which racecourse or which hands. I've spoken to the guy [Ahern] and he makes no specific allegations, even in private."

If you know where to look, EPO is supposedly not difficult to come by. Spain and Italy in particular have a relaxed attitude to its prescription, which makes it almost an over-the-counter drug. The question which remains, though, is whether it can improve a racehorse as it does a human, and if so, by anything like the 15 to 20 lengths mentioned in reports at the weekend. Horses are conditioned to be flight animals by millions of years of evolution. To this end, they have a significant reserve of red blood cells in their spleen, which can be released into their system at times of greatest need. In other words, nature may already have equipped them with the advantage which someone applying EPO to a horse would seek to achieve.

"It don't think it would have the same effect on horses that it does on people, I think we can be 100 per cent certain about that," Webbon says. "What it is less easy to be certain about is what effect it would have, but it certainly wouldn't be as effective in the horse, which is an inherently better athlete than a human."

Webbon also hears little evidence of a problem on the vets' bush telegraph. "We do know that an authoritative study of American standard-breds [trotters] showed that horses given repeated doses of EPO suffered fatal side effects," he says.

"I have no idea whether that would happen to one per cent of horses, or 10 or 15, but even if it happened to one per cent, and it was around in the way some people claim it is, there would still be horses becoming inexplicably ill, and that is just not making its way into veterinary conversations."

What racing needs now is some serious science with regard to EPO, a firm knowledge of what it can (or more probably cannot) do. A reliable blood test would also calm fears that abuse is widespread. If one arrives, random testing at trainers' yards might also be necessary. What serves no purpose at all is wild speculation by trainers who can't quite believe that their pride and joy got turned over last week.

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