MYSTERY SURROUNDS DOPING CLAIMS

16 December 2001

Expert veterinary opinion is very persuasive in refuting allegations that use of the substance on racehorses is rife.

Put up or shut up. That’s the message the racing authorities ought to send to trainer Charlie Mann, who claims that horses in Britain are being doped with EPO “every day of the week”.

Either he should be commended for breaking the biggest scandal in a hundred years or he should be charged with bringing racing into disrepute.

For we all love a doping story – why do you think so many publishers still put out racing thrillers in search of post-Dick Francis millions. And when you can get a successful trainer like Charlie to claim it is EPO, that it can’t be detected, that the authorities are doing nothing about it, all you have to do is to put some pictures of Tour de France cyclists and of Paula Radcliffe holding up her famous “EPO cheats out” banner at Edmonton and you have case proven.

Or do you? What exactly are Charlie and, to a lesser extent, vets Tom Ahern and Colin Duncan alleging? Are they actually saying that by taking vials of synthetic human EPO (erythropoeitin, a naturally occurring pentide hormone which stimulates the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen) they are going to have the same dramatic improvement that runners or cyclists have?

If they are, they had better stand by for a pretty heavyweight barrage from the disbelievers.

“These claims have all the credibility of a real life Harry Potter,” is the scathing response of Des Leadon, head of the Irish Equine Centre and just about the most internationally travelled of all veterinary figures.

“They perpetuate the blind belief that some guru of the needle can come along totally ignorant of the science of pharmacokinetics (the study of drug distribution through the body) and consistently enhance the performance of an animal bred to be an athlete for two hundred years. The equine athlete and the human athlete are completely different. If you try to give a horse human EPO it is likely to be very dangerous. The idea that this is happening `every day’ is absolute garbage,” adds Leadon.

The reason for this veterinary irritation is the constant return to the utterly flawed comparison with the human athlete, the avoidance of the central fact that a horse, as an animal of flight, has a 30 per cent supply of extra red cells, which get naturally injected into his system in moments of effort. “To cut out EPO in human sport,” says the Jockey Club’s Chief Veterinary Officer Peter Webbon, “the authorities have set a level of 50 per cent red cells in the body; every one of the horses which ran at Cheltenham on Friday would have 70 per cent red cells. If somehow you got them any higher, the blood would become like sludge.”

Indeed, the only two reported tests of EPO on horses unearthed by the Racing Post’s David Ashforth in a far-reaching piece of research on Tuesday were at American universities in 1997 and 1998, and both cases developed serious anaemia. “Of course, I’m not saying that unscrupulous people won’t try things,” says Webbon, whose conciliatory, “just show me the evidence” tones notably hardened as the week wore on. “But if it was happening regularly, you would expect an increase in the number of heart attacks and sudden deaths on the racetrack. We have detailed statistics and they have stayed constant at around 20 annually, and that’s from a total of some 78,000 individual starts a year.”

Webbon, like Leadon, is an experienced horseman himself, but it is the skills and knowledge he picked up in his former job as principal of the Royal Veterinary College at Potters Bar that make him such a convincing witness. He is too cool to be drawn into the “can you test for EPO” controversy, just confining himself to the statement: “Let’s say that we would pick it up.” But concludes very firmly: “I’m convinced there is no widespread use of EPO and we are talking about allegations with no direct evidence. It’s getting ridiculous.”

So what fuels the likes of Charlie Mann to continue to cry “foul” in spite of these rebuttals, in spite of the fact that it would take millions of pounds of laboratory research to develop a synthetic equine EPO, and that even if you did, the blood system would be unlikely to benefit?

Charlie Mann has talked darkly of things being “not natural” but has not named names. Let him put up or shut up. Unless he suddenly sings a much more impressive tune, it will be difficult for him to avoid the suggestion that what inspires him is the most common of all racing’s besetting sins. It is called jealousy.

Charlie is an engaging and hard-working guy. He was a brave and competent jockey and now ranks 13th in the trainers’ table with 25 winners and almost £150,000 logged this season.

But he is 40 winners behind Paul Nicholls, 58 behind Phillip Hobbs and a whopping 115 behind the phenomenon that is Martin Pipe.

At Ascot on Nov 24, Charlie ran his huge and promising three-year-old hurdler Abbot, who had made a trail-blazing debut at Newbury 10 days earlier. Abbot set off in front as 11-8 favourite but was duelled all the way by Tony McCoy on a Martin Pipe trainer filly called Live The Dream. Three hurdles out, Abbot cracked and Live The Dream struggled home tired but triumphant, her pursuers hung out to dry.

So the old Pipe trick had worked again. He had taken a moderate performer from another trainer, (Live The Dream had finally won a selling race at the 10th time of asking on the Flat), subjected it to his uniquely intensive interval training regime and then attacked from the front to probe any cracks in opponents’ fitness or resolution.

When Pipe first started record breaking a dozen years ago, jealous rumours were rife that he was “blood doping”. Quite sensible people were saying outrageous things. But the simplest answer was to take up his then jockey Peter Scudamore’s suggestion to “go down and have a look” and to accept Peter’s conclusion: “His horses run faster because they are fitter than the others”.

I first went down to Pipe’s Somerset base in the opening week of January 1990. I was astonished by a level of obsessive commitment and organisation unmatched in his profession. On return, I wrote an article. The first line still stands. “When will the losers learn.”

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