Day At The Track

Todd Mitchell faces a costly disqualification

06:51 AM 26 Feb 2012 NZDT
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Todd Mitchell
Todd Mitchell

Leading North Island horseman Todd Mitchell is facing a harness racing disqualification of up to two years if the judicial committee which heard his case is not convinced high bicarbonate levels returned by three of his horses were caused by illness.

Mitchell, one of the country's most celebrated reinsmen with four New Zealand Cup wins and a successful record as both a harness and gallops trainer, pleaded guilty at a hearing in Auckland last Thursday to three bicarb charges which threaten to destroy his career.

Mitchell already has one black bicarb mark to his name - fined $800 last July when, while caretaker trainer of Southland pacer Vi Et Animo, the horse tested high before the Messenger Championship.

The tribunal heard how Mitchell routinely fed four cups of calcium propionate to all his horses at night, a telling factor given his own counsel, Mary-Jane Thomas, revealed the new way of cheating was not milkshaking but using calcium propionate the morning after a hydrating drench.

But Mitchell denied any raceday administration and Thomas produced evidence that Covert Action (level 36.4, Cambridge April 28), Skip Bo (36.5, Auckland June 17) and Anvil's Delight (36.4, Auckland July 1) were all suffering from a chronic respiratory complaint which caused their total carbon dioxide (TCO2) levels to breach the threshold of 35.

Retired vet Merv Williamson, with 53 years practising experience, and a special interest in performance physiology, told the hearing lung washes taken after the positive tests showed all three horses were suffering from the same condition.

Lab tests showed inflammation in the lungs of Covert Action and Anvils Delight had advanced to the stage he diagnosed them with Chronic Obstructive Respiratory Disease. Skip Bo's condition, while not quite as severe, still pointed to Small Airway Disease.

Respiratory acidosis caused by the disease meant the gas exchange between the lungs and the blood stream would be impaired, resulting in an accumulation of carbon dioxide in the blood.

Williamson said the results demonstrated the real danger authorities faced when relying on testing for TCO2 alone, when more modern machines, robust enough to be moved from course to course, could also measure a string of other markers like pH, calcium, sodium and potassium, and help explain how the elevation occured.

"In humans there are 21 ways that (elevation) can occur and many of those ways apply to horses.''

Williamson said it was unlikely Mitchell would have been able to detect the illness - there were few obvious signs and often it was detected only by poor performances on raceday.

The virus was also highly infectious, had a short incubation period, and could lie dormant in the horse for years, or its lifetime, and flare up only after stressful experiences like racing and travel.

In cross examination by Harness Racing New Zealand lawyer Chris Lange, it was put to Williamson that his explanation did not fit with the results of numerous TCO2 and blood tests taken from the horses subsequently, all of which were in the normal range.

Lange submitted lung wash tests taken days and weeks later did not prove the horses were suffering from a respiratory illness on race night. Williamson countered:

"My reading of the findings were that this had to have been going on for some time to have passed to the chronic stage.'' =

HRNZ head vet Andrew Grierson told the hearing a horse with a respiratory infection sufficient to raise its TCO2 level to the described levels would not be well enough to compete - and all three horses had run placings.

Grierson said he was not aware of any studies which showed horses' TCO2 could reach such high levels solely because of a respiratory illness.

But Williamson said he had treated one horse in Australia about a decade ago who seemed normal but when his blood was tested the carbon dioxide was high and he was found to have a respiratory ailment.

Grierson said it was ``unlikely'' that calcium propionate could raise the level above the 35 threshold unless it was adminstered on the day of the races.

In a controlled test of 1041 horses fed calcium propionate in Hong Kong, the mean TCO2 level was 30.66 and none exceeded 35.

Lange said Mitchell's practice of feeding calcium propionate was ``at best very casual, if not reckless.''

"It is not a licensed animal remedy - it is used as a preservative and mould inhibitor in bread and meat - he bought it from a chemical supplier, and took no veterinary advice on how it should be administered.''

Mitchell told the hearing he had simply followed what other trainers were doing - but he said ``he was not at liberty to name them.''

The admission obviously surprised tribunal chairman Brian Scott who questioned Mitchell further on how he obtained the calcium propionate in an unmarked 20kg paper bag "then blindly fed it based on the recommendations of other trainers.''

Mitchell said he started using calcium propionate after a trip to the United States in 2008 with Mark Jones and a half dozen other trainers where they visited a number of stables and discovered they were all feeding it to help horses recover from exercise.

"A lot of horses tie up in their muscles and it helps them recover.''

When Lange put it to Mitchell that calcium propionate, being an alkali, would also counter the effect of lactic acid build-up in the muscles - the effect of milkshaking - he said all he was told was that it helped horses recover from strenuous exercise.

Scott: ``But you fed it every day - even on days when you were only jogging them?''

Mitchell: "Yes.''

Mitchell said when notified of the first high bicarb (Covert Action) he didn't see the need to reduce the amount of calcium propionate he was feeding - four tablespoons had caused no problems for three years.

He was further comforted by the fact his vet advised Covert Action's lung infection could have elevated the reading.

But after Skip Bo also tested high some six weeks later he cut the calcium propionate dose in half, just in case. He had now stopped using it completely.

"I would never risk losing my livelihood - I'd lose my galloping licence as well,`` Mitchell said.

"I have been working with horses since school and am not qualified to do any other job.''

Mitchell said his partner in the property had a $700,000 mortgage and it (being disqualified) would put me out of business.''

Mitchell said he had complete confidence in his employee Shelley Baikie, who was responsible for feeding the team.

If the staff were doing their jobs properly there would be no chance any horse could consume leftover feed, containing calcium propionate, the next morning, as all uneaten feed was removed from their feed bins.

In her evidence, Baikie told how she was sure she'd given no horses calcium propionate on raceday.

When questioned whether she'd seen any sign of the horses being unwell after racing, she recalled Skip Bo blowing very heavily long after racing at Auckland.

Thomas said Mitchell was not being accused of intentional doping and no evidence had been presented to the committee that the horses had been mistakenly fed calcium propionate on the morning of the races - the evidence showed it was given only in night feeds.

"This case has the potential to remove this man from the industry. You are being asked to determine his future on the off chance someone in the stable made a mistake, not once, twice, but three times. That goes beyond belief.''

Lange submitted if the committee determined the high tests were the result of ingestion of an alkali, like calcium propionate, a lengthy disqualification was in order. HRNZ sought two years.

If the committee decided the explanation was more likely to be a respiratory illness, it could be dealt with by a fine.

Thomas said even if the committee found Mitchell guilty of pure negligence, and rejected the evidence of illness, based on previous penalties a two year disqualification was like ``going to a different planet.''

"There's a significant difference between people who purposely drug their horses to go faster and people who make mistakes.''

Scott and fellow committee member Adrian Dooley reserved their decision but disqualified the three horses from their placings.

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

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