Racing: BBC accused of sensationalism in diuretics report

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The Independent Online
NEWSNIGHT, the flagship of the BBC's current affairs output, was yesterday accused of "sensationalism" and "going down the tabloid route" after it broadcast a report in which Frankie Dettori admitted taking drugs to manage his weight. The programme claimed that there had been a "huge increase" in the number of jockeys testing positive for diuretics, the so-called "pee-pills" which can reduce a rider's weight almost instantly through dehydration.

Dettori told the programme that "I took pee-pills, diuretics, laxatives, all sorts. I tried everything. Unfortunately, it's part of the job, not because we like it, but because unfortunately it's a thing we have to do to keep our weight down. Like everything else, you start with one, then it doesn't work and you have to take two or three, and in the end you're almost taking a full packet to make it work." When asked whether he still takes dieting drugs, he replied: "I try not to. I try to eat a balanced diet, but it is very difficult."

Another rider, the apprentice Paul Fitzsimons, claimed that the Jockey Club's recent decision to add diuretics to its list of banned substances "hasn't made much difference. Some lads still do it behind the scenes and they carry on taking them, regardless of what it can do to you, especially in the long run."

On the face of it, these claims are evidence of a persistent drug culture in Britain's weighing rooms, involving some of our most famous riders. Blow the froth off the pint, however, and there is only a dribble of ale underneath. The supposed "huge increase", year-on-year, in positive tests for diuretics is from two to nine - in other words, from practically none to hardly any. Dettori, meanwhile, is required to provide more specimens for testing each year than almost any other jockey, because he rides so many horses. He has never tested positive, and nor, for that matter, has any other leading rider.

Jockey Club officials and jockeys' representatives reacted to the claims with a mixture of anger and frustration. Riders today have a far greater understanding of nutrition and fitness than was the case even 10 years ago, and the days when jump jockeys would go straight from an all-night drinking session to ride at the Cheltenham Festival are also long gone. In France, by contrast, more that 50 riders tested positive for diuretics last year.

"It's very disappointing," Michael Caulfield, the secretary of the Jockeys' Association, said yesterday. "The truth is that they drive up and down the motorways all summer and all winter, have a couple of bottles of Volvic and then off they go again. They work incredibly hard, and I admire them for that. If you put them on a 100 metres track in Seville, they might be smaller than the other runners, but they wouldn't look out of place in terms of muscle development. They are finely tuned athletes. If they were into pee-pills and other stupid activities, they wouldn't last, because as soon as you drop below full fitness, you're out of the game."

Caulfield insists that if drugs were a serious problem in the weighing room, the testing regime would expose it. "No one escapes testing. Hundreds of jockeys have been tested, and the results have been staggeringly good. We know that young jockeys starting out may try these things. That's not a shock, we all did things at 17 that we later realised were stupid. But they soon find out that they feel dreadful, and that it's no way to control your weight."

John Maxse, the Jockey Club's public-relations officer, said: "We have already reacted to the figures which Newsnight is trying to sensationalise, by adding diuretics to the list of banned substances. We were able to identify that all the cases were young riders who were not having frequent rides and maybe asking themselves to lose weight too quickly.

"I think Frankie gave them a long interview, speaking in depth about what he does now, and what he used to do in the past, and you can guess what is on the cutting-room floor. A few months ago they decided to jazz up Newsnight and spread the net of stories they covered, and what they've done is to go down the tabloid route."