Scientist employed in bid to solve Paget’s reserpine mystery

Jonathan Paget is heading to Australia for his birthday - and the Australian Three Day-Event.
Jonathan Paget. © Mike Bain

The backers of New Zealand eventer Jonathan “Jock” Paget have employed a scientist in a bid to find the source of the banned drug found in his mount, Clifton Promise, following his win at Britain’s Burgley International Horse Trials.

It was revealed last week that Clifton Promise had tested positive for the drug reserpine, which is used as a long-acting sedative. The drug is marketed in injectable form under the name, Rakelin.

Another horse, Clifton Pinot, ridden by Kevin McNab, also tested positive for the drug following Burghley.

Frances Stead, the founder of Clifton Eventers, which develops eventing horses and lists Paget as the the principal rider for its team, said yesterday: “We have employed an expert scientist to help analyse the various sources of possible contamination that we have identified.

“As those involved with high level equine athletes will know, they take a great deal more into their bodies than just grass.

“As a result, this is a very expansive and complex exercise, and even then it is probably impossible to cover every possible source, we hope to cover as many as we can and as thoroughly as we can.”

It said it had asked the FEI for information on the concentration of reserpine detected in the A sample, which might provide some insights into how the drug got there.

Stead said the knowledge of those investigating the matter was growing by the day, as information was supplied about the drug.

“Reserpine is a very long acting sedative. It remains in the body for weeks if not months (scientifically it has a half-life of 11 days).

“It’s in commonly found grassland and hedgerow plants in the UK, and so it could be grazed naturally or get into hay.

Third place-getters Kevin McNab and Clifton Pinot.
Kevin McNab and Clifton Pinot. © Kit Houghton/FEI

“It is also apparently used in several human medications, allowing the possibility, for example, that a person using one of these could have contaminated the horses indirectly and unintentionally.

“Furthermore, we have been told there are several other substances that are very similar to reserpine in their scientific profile and these could apparently be mistaken in analysis for Reserpine. We are looking at how any possible incorrect identification could be clarified,” she said.

Stead again reiterated that none of the parties involved had done anything with the intent of administering any prohibited substances.

“Obviously, after the shock and disbelief of the initial news, we knew we had a big task on our hands to prove both riders’ innocence, and since then the team has been working tirelessly on that objective.”

Stead said the starting point of the FEI’s policy is the opposite to normal law process – effectively both riders “guilty until proven innocent.”

“Therefore, if it is confirmed there was reserpine in the blood of these two horses [through testing of the B sample], the onus is on them to prove how it got there.

“With this as the start point, we have already commenced many avenues of investigation,” she said.

Stead said they wanted to known the concentration of the drug found in the A sample.

“This was not in the information from them advising that the substance had been found.

“Whilst we accept that this is a banned substance under FEI rules at any amount, knowing the relative concentration is particularly important to help us understand how and when it might have entered their systems.”

She continued: “On top of the extensive investigative work we are undertaking, we are also well aware of the many comments that have arisen about the weakness of security systems at top eventing competitions.

Jonathan Paget is leading the field on Clifton Promise.
Jonathan Paget Clifton Promise. © Mike Bain

“It has always been a very friendly and trusting sport – one of the things that attracts owners like ourselves to it.

“Burghley is no different to the other top 4-stars: All you need is to be issued with the required coloured wristband.

“Anyone wearing one of these then has access to the whole stable area at any time of day or night, with, as far as I am aware, the only ‘shut down time’ being for a few hours the night after cross country.

“It is common for complete strangers to ask to talk to and pat a horse that they may have no connection with, and not surprisingly, Clifton Promise in particular was very popular.”

Stead said she wanted to stress that Clifton Eventers, Jock Paget and Kevin McNab firmly supported all policies that prevented the use of any substances that enhanced the performance of any horse.

“We all want a clean sport and a level playing field for competition. It is the only fair way for the best combination to become the winners on the day.

“I think everyone has already worked out that, in this instance, there was in actual fact no ‘enhanced performance’ by a horse being asked to jump round the Burghley cross-country course – probably the toughest in the world – while sedated with reserpine.

“Similarly, I cannot think of any rider wanting to come out to try and show jump clear the next day on a tired horse with the added factor of any sedative in the horse’s system.

“However, Clifton Promise’s blood sample was taken after the prize-giving at the conclusion of the whole competition, and it is this test sample that allegedly contained reserpine at that time.

“Logic says that this is the last thing the rider or anyone associated with the horse would want. However, it would appear that logic does not come into the evaluation of this matter.”

Stead said it was a tough time for all involved with the two horses, and in particular for Paget and McNab.

“These are two of the most honest, hard-working and ethical people anyone could have the pleasure of being involved with.

“We are all confident the truth will come out and we will find the solution to this mystery.

“If reserpine is confirmed to have been in the blood of these two horses at Burghley we look forward very much to finding out how it got there, as we all know it was not a deliberate action by anyone associated with these lovely horses.”

She also expressed her sincere thanks to those who have voiced their support. “The fact there is such a groundswell of goodwill towards us is very much appreciated.

“The team is very positive and strong, and it is very confident that we will get to the bottom of this and that everyone’s name will be cleared.”

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