British Olympic show jumper Michael Whitaker may be barred from riding at an Olympic Games for life after one of his horses failed a dope test.

An International Equestrian Federation (FEI) tribunal on Thursday (24 September) found that Michael was responsible for a mistake that led to his stallion Tackeray being fed food laced with the synthetic hormone altrenogest at the La Baule Nations Cup meeting (14-17 May).

He was banned from competition for four months and ordered to pay CHF3,000 (£1,800) in fines and costs.

Under a 1992 British Olympic Association by-law, any athlete found guilty of a doping offence by a national or international federation can no longer be part of a British Olympic team. But there is opportunity for appeal.

The rule adds: “…an athlete or individual, who can establish before an appeals panel that, on the balance of probabilities, his or her offence was minor or committed without fault or negligence or that there were mitigating circumstances may be declared eligible for selection”.

Michael told H&H: “[My legal team] is going to try to appeal against the rule. It’s not the same as if I was a runner and had tested positive for the drug myself. This was an accident.”

The FEI allows altrenogest to be given to mares when they are in season and the tribunal accepted Michael’s claim that a feed for another horse, Portofino, which contained the drug, was given to Tackeray accidentally.

The FEI tribunal heard how Michael’s groom, Cynthia Gurrie, drove to La Baule with the two horses, but because of a delay at Dover, arrived at the French venue late.

Ms Gurrie told the FEI that although she did not remember confusing the feeds, it was the only explanation for the positive test and had been caused by her tiredness.

There was no suggestion Michael administered the drug intentionally.

Michael said care on his yard is meticulous, with mares and stallions kept in different areas and numerous safeguards to stop contamination of medications. But he added: “Mistakes can, and do, happen.”

British Equestrian Federation world class performance manager Will Connell said: “I support Michael’s appeal. He has rightly been punished by the FEI but I think a lifetime ban from the Olympics is a step too far for what the FEI accepts was cross-contamination.”

The FEI ban — which ends on 25 October — meant Michael was not available for the European Show Jumping Championships.

This article was first published in Horse & Hound (1 October, ’09)