Top yards have been forced to withdraw their horses from competition after positive dope tests were linked to suspected feed contamination of products produced by Gain Horse Feeds. Here is what we know about the case so far...
RIPPLES are being felt across the equestrian world following suspected contamination involving a major horse feed supplier.
France Galop announced on 2 October that it had launched an immediate investigation after five horses tested positive to prohibited substance zilpaterol, with the most recent positive result on 1 October.
The investigation pointed to a “common denominator in all five positive cases” of racehorse cubes, racehorse mix or opti-care balancer, marketed under the brand name Gain Equine Nutrition.
“However, at this stage, it cannot be confirmed that this feed is the source of the positive test,” said the statement. “Additional testing is currently being carried out.”
Gain advised its customers to “refrain from feeding our equine products to their animals” until further investigations are completed.
Zilpaterol is a synthetic beta-agonist, approved for use as a performance enhancer in some beef production systems outside the EU, but the company stressed that it has “never formed part of any formulation in any of our animal nutrition ranges”.
Martin Ryan, head of Gain Equine, apologised to all customers and added: “A thorough investigation and trace back of all feed ingredient sources is under way as a matter of urgency to determine how this external contaminant could have found its way into some batches of our equine product.”
The situation resulted in trainer Aidan O’Brien pulling all four of his runners from the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (4 October), including Derby winner Serpentine who was a late entry at a cost of €72,000 (£65,410), and other races on Sunday.
A statement from Ballydoyle on the eve of the Arc said results of the urine samples taken from the horses came back positive from the French laboratory.
“There is a possibility that the contaminant may have left their system by the time of racing, however we have no guarantee of this and in order to protect the integrity of racing, we have decided to withdraw all our horses from racing tomorrow [Sunday, 4 October],” it added.
Other trainers who also feed Gain, including Aidan’s sons Donnacha and Joseph, withdrew horses who were set to run in other races at the meeting and further afield.
In Britain, trainer Roger Varian announced he had changed his feed with “immediate effect” and withdrew all his weekend runners “in order to take maximum precaution”.
Leading British event rider Gemma Tattersall said she had “no choice but to withdraw” Santiago Bay and Chilli Knight from Little Downham CCI4*-S (5–6 October) owing to contamination concerns.
“The horses have been prepared carefully, are fit and healthy and ready to be competitive, but I was left with absolutely no choice but to withdraw as I just simply cannot risk competing knowing some of my horses’ feed might have been contaminated,” she said, adding that she is so sorry for her team and owners.
“I’ve always absolutely loved Gain horse feeds and my horses always look and feel amazing. I have never had even the slightest concern about feeding it to all of my horses and even went to the Olympics feeding Gain. I so hope they can get this very difficult situation straightened out so we can go back to feeding our favourite.”
A further update from Gain, issued on Sunday (4 October), said the team is “hugely disappointed” some of their customers have withdrawn from important equine events.
“Intensive testing of our equine feed ranges, batches and individual ingredients has been under way around the clock since this issue first emerged in France,” said the statement.
“We are continuing to work closely with all appropriate agencies, including the Irish department of agriculture, to fully investigate the source, nature and extent of this contamination. We are also in close contact with horse racing regulatory bodies. We will provide a more detailed update once further information is available.”
THE news raised questions about how the substance got there, and what riders, trainers and owners with racing, competition and sales entries in the near future can do next to ensure their horses are clean.
The FEI has an “elective testing” option, where urine samples of registered international competition horses can be tested on request for up to four substances on the elective testing list. But a British Equestrian spokesman told H&H that zilpaterol is not on that list, so this is not an option.
Horse Sport Ireland (HSI) lists Gain as a sponsor of Team Ireland’s underage showjumping and eventing teams – providing a travel bursary for those competing on European Championship teams as well as regular equine nutrition advice – and official feed consultants to HSI’s team.
HSI declined to comment when asked by H&H what options there are for Irish riders with entries in the near future who want to avoid a positive test, given the FEI elective testing route is not applicable.
Aidan and Joseph O’Brien are working with Racing Victoria in Australia on out-of-competition testing on the 10 horses that arrived in Melbourne on 2 October ahead of the Spring Racing Carnival this month, with results expected to take up to a week.
The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) is working with its contracted laboratory, European colleagues and the manufacturer as tests continue.
The BHA urged trainers to cease using all Gain products immediately until further investigations to find the source are completed, in advice sent on 2 October.
It added all entry and entry handling fees for runners withdrawn over contamination concerns at the weekend would be reimbursed.
The BHA also encouraged trainers to record the batch number, product used, date and location of purchase and retain a small sample for future reference.
Further guidance was expected as H&H went to press on Monday (5 October).
Latest advice from the BHA, issued on Tuesday lunchtime (6 October), advised trainers that elective testing will be available from today for those who feed Gain products and who have entries this week.
The BHA has also confirmed positive tests for zilpaterol from elective testing will not result in sanctions under racing’s anti-doping rules.
“The elective testing will be undertaken by the BHA’s analytical laboratory, LGC, and samples will be processed and prioritised in order of race entry,” stated the update, adding elective testing is done at the trainer’s expense and costs £133.61+VAT for each sample.
“We anticipate that the sample analysis may take up to three working days to complete, though every effort will be made, within reason and depending on the volume of tests, to return results in time for any races in which horses are entered.”
The statement added: “We are continuing to gather information on the excretion of Zilpaterol from horses which have been fed contaminated feed, in an effort to provide advice on a suitable withdrawal period. We will update the industry at the earliest opportunity.”
Refunds will be given for horses due to run today (6 October) or tomorrow (Wednesday, 7 October) who are withdrawn on Gain contamination concerns. Further updates are expected from the BHA regarding entries from Thursday onwards.
The veterinary view
David Rendle, chairman of the British Equine Veterinary Association’s health and medicines committee told H&H zilpaterol is not a drug that is used in horses but is a member of the same family of drugs as clenbuterol, which is used “widely and safely for the treatment of airway disease in horses”.
“Like clenbuterol, zilpaterol acts on beta adrenergic receptors and can have a number of different effects within the body,” he explained.
“Zilpaterol is produced for use as a feed supplement in beef production outside the EU. In cattle, the drug promotes muscle development and reduces fat deposition. Because it has the potential to enhance performance, it is banned in race and competition horses. When administered at the same doses as fed to cattle, zilpaterol will cause side effects in horses such as sweating, a high heart-rate and muscle tremors.”
Mr Rendle added that the information provided so far shows the recent positive tests were the result of “extemely low levels of contamination in horse feed”.
“Modern toxicology laboratories are able to detect minuscule quantities of veterinary pharmaceuticals and there is no need to be concerned that horses fed the contaminated feed are at any risk of ill health,” he said.
“There is no data in the public domain on how quickly the drug is cleared from the horse’s body, but from reports in other species, comparison with clenbuterol and looking at the events over the past week it seems that it is cleared relatively quickly over a number of days and potentially up to a week.
“In the absence of pharmacokinetic data, knowledge of the thresholds that are used in toxicology laboratories or published withdrawal times, one cannot give reliable advice on how many days after feeding a horse might test positive at competition.
“Unfortunately there is no mechanism currently in place for horse owners to be able to test their horses ahead of competition. Regular veterinary laboratories that do equine work will not have the ability to test for the drug.”
H&H 8 October 2020
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