Day At The Track

Drugs expert backs disqualified Kiwi trainer

11:12 PM 14 May 2012 NZST
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Raglan Tim Butt
Raglan - A Sands A Flyin gelding
Duane Ranger photo
Tim Butt

Australian harness racing stewards who disqualified leading trainer Tim Butt dismissed some compelling evidence from one of the world's foremost authority on drugs in racing.

When Butt fronted Sydney stewards over the positive test to arsenic returned by Raglan after the Miracle Mile, he was armed with testimony from University of Kentucky Professor Thomas Tobin, the man who virtually wrote the book on drug detection.

But despite evidence of a flawed threshold level, and the mysterious disappearance of the control sample, Butt was still outed for six months, a penalty set down for appeal before the end of the month.

Butt's sample was among a batch sent to Hong Kong for testing, Australian authorities determined to crack down on a rumoured abuse of the so-called new wave drug ITPP.

But while Hong Kong is the sole jurisdiction capable of testing for ITPP it is also the only one which tests for arsenic, and it was that substance, not ITPP, which they detected in Raglan.

Tobin confirmed there was absolutely no relationship between arsenic, which is an environmental substance found in every horse's urine, and ITPP, which is a synthesised drug.

Raglan was found to have 0.44 milligrams of arsenic per litre, above the allowable 0.30, but Tobin said it was highly unlikely that a regulatory threshold set in Hong Kong 30 years ago was appropriate for the entire continent of Australia.

The figure was set after measuring the arsenic levels of 8000 to 10,000 horses at one track in Hong Kong. Anything above a certain level on the distribution curve was deemed to be positive despite the statistical certainty that some outriders were still part of the normal population.

Tobin said nobody knew what a normal arsenic level was in Australian racehorses. Arsenic was a highly variable environmental substance, and suburban Australia was much more variable than urban Hong Kong, affected by a myriad of things like agriculture, mining and local rocks. It was ``highly likely'' that a high normal for arsenic in Australia was higher than the statistical cut-off for Hong Kong of 30 years ago.

The "overwhelming probability'' was that Butt's horse, and a galloper who tested positive last September, were simply at the high end of the normal distribution.

Tobin said only Hong Kong tested for arsenic and, as a variable environmental substance, it was not classified as one of concern in the United States. It was not even among the 900-odd substances capable of influencing performance listed by the Association of Racing Commissioners International.

It could not even make the lowest fifth tier of substances like antacids.

Tobin said it was of major concern that no report existed of Raglan's control sample sent to Hong Kong.

The control was crucial to eliminate the possibility or contamination at the point of collection or in the laboratory.

Veterinary experts consulted by the Star-Times said it was imperative that the control was tested at the same time, and in the same lab, as the urine sample.

Butt's legal team believes the control was instead tested in Perth but stewards have been reluctant to confirm that or indeed that the Perth lab was not certified for arsenic testing at the time it analysed Raglan's sample.

Tobin said he had failed in his attempts to obtain from stewards the standard operating procedure guidelines on what exactly was necessary before positives could be called.

The stonewalling was of particular concern given that under the Australian judicial system stewards both lay the charges and rule on them, whereas in New Zealand the stewards lay the charges and an independent committee hears them.

Tobin said he believed it ``highly unlikely'' technically that Butt had contradicted the arsenic rule as defined in the Australian rules of racing.

Hong Kong's certificate of analysis specified the ``total arsenic'' detected whereas the Australian rule stated simply arsenic and scientifically there was a crucial difference, he said.

The "total arsenic'' in urine, which included its metabolites, was usually considerably higher than the ``free'' arsenic.

Tobin said he was far from convinced that ITPP abuse was as rife as people imagined or indeed as effective as claimed. Not one positive to ITPP had been declared.

Tobin is well credentialled to comment as his laboratory in Kentucky synthesised the reference standard which was made available to racing laboratories around the world.

ITPP, or myo-inositol trispyrophosphate, contained highly charged phosphorous atoms which could not readily cross membranes so it was questionable whether it could make the haemoglobin in blood release more of its oxygen.

Testing had been done on mice, which showed an increased capacity for exercise, but the dose needed to help a horse would be huge, he said.

Tobin said when one of his colleagues bought ITPP being marketed on an internet site, the substance that arrived was not ITPP at all but an anti-cancer drug.

Tobin's reservations are shared by Australian Dr John Vine, laboratory director of Racing Analytical Services in Victoria.

"Several samples of materials claimed to be ITPP have been analysed by the Australian racing laboratories and so far, with one exception, these materials have been shown not to be ITPP.

"The one exception so far was a multivitamin/electrolyte mixture which contained a very small amount of ITPP, but far too small to have any effect in the horse based on the doses used in mice.''

Vine said he was not aware of any specific studies of ITPP in horses. ``Whether the results in mice can be extrapolated to horses is unknown and, according to some studies I have seen, it's unlikely they can.''

Vine said several racing laboratories, including his own, now had the methodology to detect ITPP in blood and urine.

Significant numbers of contemporary and stored samples had been tested without any positives. Testing would continue on a random and targeted basis.

Vine said ITPP and arsenic were two distinct materials.

"Internet suggestions that arsenic is a component of ITPP are as nonsensical as saying a banana is a component of an apple.''

by Barry LICHTER (Courtesy of the SUNDAY STAR-TIMES)

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