Day At The Track

New tactics on drugs aimed at beating cheats

01:47 AM 06 May 2012 NZST
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Drug cheats beware - the noose is tightening with New Zealand racing authorities about to launch an unprecedented boost to their testing regime. The Racing Integrity Unit will this week start sending samples to leading labs overseas, a tactic which led to New South Wales officials disqualifying top Canterbury trainer Tim Butt for six months.

And in a few weeks, after final trials are complete, the RIU will start using hand-held testing machines at race meetings, which will stop dopers from getting a free ride at remote country racetracks.

RIU chief Cameron George had the first initiative well in train before Butt's penalty was handed down last week but the case highlights perfectly why he believes it is necessary to have swabs screened overseas.

Harness Racing New South Wales regulatory manager Reid Sanders said the arsenic that was detected in Butt's pacer Raglan when he ran in the Miracle Mile last November would never have been found had the sample not been sent to Hong Kong.

Sanders said the HRNSW board approved a doubling of the integrity budget in the wake of the New South Wales corruption scandal, which is still playing out after stewards were found to have tipped off trainers about what races would be tested.

That provided the money to send swabs to Hong Kong, and a confirmation test in Western Australia, the only two southern hemisphere jurisdictions where arsenic can be detected.

Raglan was found to have an arsenic level of 0.44 milligrams per litre, 1 1/2 times above the threshold of 0.30, despite Butt saying he had no idea where it could have come from.

Sanders said the state's new system of freezing samples had also enabled them to send away previous samples taken from Butt's horses.

"They also contained arsenic but came in under the threshold."

Sanders said it was hoped Butt's appeal would be heard in two weeks - he failed last week in his bid for a stay of proceedings.

Overseas labs have tests for a much wider range of substances than Sydney, including arsenic, a poisonous heavy metal but long used in small doses as a tonic because of its ability to improve horses' appetites and improve their coats.

Trainer Harry Telford routinely used arsenic as part of a tonic for champion galloper Phar Lap and in 2008 scientific tests confirmed the horse had lethal levels of arsenic in his system when he died in 1932.

In more recent times, arsenic has again hit the headlines as a component of the drug ITPP, believed to be widely used in American harness racing.

ITPP, or myo-inositol-prispyrophosphate, was developed in France in 2005 and makes the haemoglobin in blood release more of its oxygen, quickly enhancing physical performance.

A testing assay was developed in Kentucky only late last year and Hong Kong has the only lab in the world which can detect it.

Sanders said the recent crop of positive tests in New South Wales were a result of the increased testing and overseas screening now being done.

"Previously we tested one in every 10.5 horses. Now we're testing one in every 4.3 runners."

At Menangle last Saturday night, 78 horses were tested, with 35 per cent of those swabs destined for freezing and/or being sent overseas.

The figures for New Zealand are not quite as impressive but still represent a marked improvement on previous years.

Form the start of last season up to January 12, 10.5 per cent of thoroughbred runners were drug-tested, that figure rising to 13.1 per cent including TCO2 testing, 9.1 per cent of harness horses were tested (18.2 per cent including bicarb) and 7.6 per cent of greyhounds were tested.

George said a "stack" of horses was also tested in out-of-competition raids before the New Zealand Cup meeting.

Of the 116 runners at Alexandra Park last Friday night, 18 were post-race urine tested and another 23 blood tests were taken.

"Obviously I'd love to swab every horse but no jurisdiction outside Hong Kong does that. We do have financial restraints."

New South Wales' coffers had benefited from the sale of Harold Park, and the windfall from the recent judgement on bookmakers.

"They obviously had to do something anyway after one of the biggest scandals in years."

George said it was expensive sending samples overseas for testing but the New Zealand Racing Board had willingly approved the extra funding.

A proposal he put to board chairman Michael Stiassny urging a ramping up of testing, "because we were falling behind" was answered positively within 24 hours.

While the laboratory here was still a fine facility, like most states of Australia it did not have the very latest technology to combat a rapidly moving landscape of doping.

ITPP, for example, was one of an evolving group of drugs which George said made his job "like wrestling smoke".

"We can't test for some substances that word on the street says could be being used here.

"Now I have the approval to send samples to places like Hong Kong when it's deemed appropriate."

George said the first batch would be sent out this week - ones he had hand-picked out of frozen storage after studying betting patterns, form reversals, trainers' strike rates and intelligence on "who might be using what".

"Every trainer should be aware that we're exhausting every avenue we can to get drug-free racing.

"At the drop of a hat we can now send away a sample if we have any concerns and do a full blown test, for everything."

George said the industry could not afford the 20-odd positive tests that had been returned in the 14 months since the RIU came into force.

Every code would come under intense scrutiny - even greyhound swabs would be sent overseas, he said.

George said he hoped to also make inroads into doping by shutting off the borders.

The RIU now had a very healthy and developing relationship with government agencies like MAF.

"There is plenty of evidence of trainers importing substances from other countries.

"You'd be amazed at how many unlicensed products are caught at the border."

George said his ultimate scenario would be MAF, armed with a list of all trainers, notifying the RIU of everything brought into the country.

Courtesy of BARRY LICHTER and the Sunday Star Times

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