Training will become a game of Russian Roulette unless harness racing officials become more proactive investigating high bicarbonate levels and allow trainers to prove their innocence, says trainer Mark Jones.
Jones, one of the country's most celebrated reinsmen and now a successful trainer at Burnham, is concerned at Harness Racing New Zealand's proposal to introduce strict new penalties for breaches of the TCO2 rule.
A remit that will go before the annual general meeting of clubs in Christchurch next month would see the TCO2 threshold lifted from 35 to 36 (with a margin of error of one) to bring it into line with the thoroughbred code and overseas jurisdictions.
But with it would come a dramatic rise in the penalties handed out, fines of only a few thousand dollars replaced by minimum disqualifications of two years for a first offence, five years for a second breach and 10 years for a third offence.
The proposal came under immediate fire from Amberley trainer Jamie Keast yesterday when he was suspended for six months for his third high bicarb, after Westburn Creed tested 36.2 at Kaikoura last November.
And while Jones says the lifting of the level is long overdue, he has good reason to oppose the draconian bans given he is facing a bicarb charge of his own after Remiss returned a level of 36.2 at Forbury Park on June 5 while Jones was away in Nelson.
After the mare came close to testing high again on another trip to Dunedin three weeks later, returning 35.6, Jones was forced to sack the horse, not prepared to risk a second charge.
Jones has no idea why Remiss tests high but says his attempts to prove his innocence have been rebutted by the Racing Integrity Unit.
''Under the rule, you can't beat them. It's one of strict liability and they say they don't have to do or prove anything. It's an easy kill for them.''
Jones said he had invited the RIU out to his property to show them the $100,000 CCT camera security system he had in place.
But his assurances that he had taken all possible precautions were met by a blunt claim that the horse should not have been left unattended, albeit briefly, when strapper Kimberley Butt was out on the track driving.
''I told them I was prepared to pay for them to take the horse for a week then transport it down to Dunedin, test if before it leaves, then again on arrival to see if it its bicarb rises.
''They told me that even if the level went over 36, it would be no defence.
Jones said all he was asking for was a measure of common sense and the chance to prove his innocence. And that would be an absolute necessity if HRNZ introduced two-year disqualifications for first offenders.
''I don't like being accused of things I haven't done and it's my livelihood on the line,'' said Jones, fearful that his lifeline of selling horses to Australia will be cut off if his reputation is dented.
Jones said RIU investigator Kylie Williams told him if he wanted to race Remiss again she would give him permission to give her a warm-up on the track earlier in the night to lower her level by one to two points.
''But I refused. I shouldn't have to do that to be able to race a horse.''
Instead he passed Remiss on to his father Peter to train and, warmed up twice before she raced at Addington last week, she tested at 34.8.
''But if he hadn't warmed her up before the tests, the level could have been close to 36 or even over.''
Ironically, Peter Jones is also training Mattjestic Rebeck, who landed Rangiora hobby trainer Neville Gorrie in strife in June 2013 when it tested 36.3, resulting in his being fined $1800.
Jones said it was simply outrageous to suggest that Gorrie, along with fellow respected Ladbrooks trainer Gavin Cook, whose horse Valhalla tested high at 37 and 38.3 last year, should be disqualified for two years.
Jones, who has an earlier bicarb strike against his name, when Algeepee tested 38.2 at Addington in 2010, would be looking at five years out.
''You could never come back after that long. I'd have to sell my property.''
Jones said he's had other horses with unexplained bicarb variances, such as Fair Dinkum Bromac, whose resting paddock level of 30 routinely jumped four points when he went to the races. He had been the same when trained by John Hay.
''It's all very well for their vet to say high levels can only happen with administrations but so many things can affect them.
''I need to figure out why it's happening to me. Am I over-training them, is it in my feed?
''I know the pre-mix feed I use has preservatives in it. That wouldn't be enough to put the level over by itself but put that together with dehydration, stress, lung infections and you can come up with a lethal cocktail. That's scary.''
Courtesy of Barry Lichter
Reprinted with permissin of Fairfax media