Loss of major win highlights the importance of reading rules *H&H Plus*

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  • The case of Balnaslow, who won the 2018 Aintree Foxhunters’ Chase, has taken 973 days to be concluded, and highlights why it is so important to read the rules of the equestrian sport in which you compete. H&H reports on the disciplinary hearing

    A DOPING case that resulted in a major title changing hands 973 days on highlights the importance of being aware of sport rules.

    Northern Ireland-based trainer Graham McKeever escaped a suspension and was fined £1,500 on 9 December, in relation to a urine sample containing a banned substance was taken from Balnaslow, who was first past the post in the 2018 Aintree Foxhunters’ Chase.

    The case highlights the importance of reading and understanding the rules – in any discipline – and why equestrians competing under anti-doping regulations are urged to retain feed samples, as the trainer had no solid evidence to support his explanation of suspected contamination. The feed company denied any suggestion of contamination.

    The then 11-year-old, who has now been disqualified, was found to have more than double the permitted amount of cobalt in his urine sample, in what the trainer and his representative argued was likely the result of feed contamination.

    Although cobalt is an essential trace dietary mineral, inorganic cobalt salts have the potential to increase the production of red blood cells and there are also concerns that exposure to significantly increased levels may have welfare implications. This is why in 2016 it was added to the British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA) list of substances banned on racedays, above a specific threshold. Cobalt joined the FEI’s banned list in 2017.

    The conclusion of the McKeever case means the win passes – two years, seven months and 28 days later – to second past the post, Bear’s Affair for trainer and jockey Philip Rowley and Alex Edwards, and owner George Barlow.

    Such is the delay, the “winning” (now retrained) Bear’s Affair has been trotting past the judge in dressage arenas more recently than he has passed the start on any racecourse.

    The case was set to be heard in November 2019, but was adjourned when the disciplinary panel talked Mr McKeever, a licenced trainer, out of representing himself at the hearing where he could have faced up to a two-year ban from racing.

    A year on, Mr McKeever – with legal representation – was back before the BHA disciplinary panel. In a case that took close to three years to come to a final hearing, the decision took a little under three hours to resolve.

    Mr McKeever and his legal representative Andrew Ford repeatedly denied any deliberate administration of cobalt to Balnaslow by the trainer, any of his staff or vets, and said the positive test was likely a result of contaminated feed. But there was no evidence to show this and the feed company strongly denies it.

    No evidence of cobalt was found by BHA inspectors at Mr McKeever’s yard. The panel also heard while there was CCTV at Aintree, this had been overwritten by the time it was requested.

    Mr McKeever said he had not read the rules of racing, nor updates from racing authorities.

    He added that he did not know what cobalt was before Balnaslow’s positive test, and had not given it to the horse at any time.

    He said he was unaware cobalt had been the drug involved in other high-profile racing and sporting cases widely reported before 2018, as he is “not a nosy, curious person” and is “more interested in looking after his own stock” than what others are doing.

    Louis Weston, representing the BHA, pointed out that cobalt was listed as an ingredient in the feed Mr McKeever had been giving to the horse. The substance had been removed from the feed as a result of the 2016 ban, but the ingredients list had not been updated.

    Mr Weston argued that it was “nonsense” Mr McKeever, who had used all that batch when the BHA inspectors came knocking in May 2018, had taken all reasonable precautions if he had not read the list of what was supposedly in the feed when a banned substance was listed, even if it was not present.

    Mr Weston added that reading the label – and the rules the sport’s participants are bound by – would have been a start.
    “It is unreasonable to go through life, looking in the other direction when you have an obligation to protect a horse from this particular problem,” he said.

    In his closing statement, Mr Ford said Mr McKeever “was a frank and honest witness”, an experienced trainer with no positive tests before or since in the 20 years he has been operating, and “did not have any knowledge” of what cobalt was or that it was banned.

    Panel chair Brian Barker CBE QC said this was a serious case and after consideration, a ban was not appropriate. Written reasons are to follow.

    Mr McKeever was given six months to pay the £1,500 fine, and the £26,685 prize money was withheld.

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