South African endurance rider Gillese De Villiers has received a six month suspension and a fine of 500 Swiss francs over her mount’s positive test for phenylbutazone and a related substance at the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Normandy last year.
De Villiers’ submissions to the FEI Tribunal even included the results of a polygraph (lie detector) test.
De Villiers’ mount, Tra Flama, who vetted out at the second vet gate on the WEG endurance course, tested positive for phenylbutazone and its metabolite, oxyphenbutazone. The horse had been routinely selected for testing on August 28 last year.
Phenylbutazone, more commonly known as bute, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkiller. It is listed as a controlled medication, meaning it should not be found in horses in competition in order to ensure a level playing field.
The tribunal, comprising Henrik Arle, Randi Haukebø and Jane Mulcahy, QC, noted that no request had been made to administer bute or oxyphenbutazone and no veterinary form had been provided by De Villiers for the use of the substances on the horse.
The positive test results therefore gave rise to a controlled medication rule violation.
De Villiers was notified of the positive test last September through the South African federation and the owners of Tra Flama were notified through the Spanish federation.
De Villiers submitted a statement and evidence that included the results of a polygraph test that indicated no deception. That included her denial in response to the question as to whether she had known that the horse had carried prohibited substances in its system during the event, and whether she had administered prohibited substances to the horse.
De Villier submitted that she had been an endurance rider for 25 years and had completed 18,000km. She has regularly been a member of the South African team for the last eight years.
She said she had never been charged with any breaches of any rules of the sport. She said that she would compete to only finish competitions, and not to win, and that the WEG event had been her first competition where she had not finished.
She said she would always prioritise the health of the horses.
She accepted she was the Person Responsible in accordance with FEI rules. De Villiers said that she had seen the horse for the first time only on August 25. She said the owners had signed an agreement with the South African federation in which they declared that the horse had not been administered any prohibited substances. The contract aimed to protect the horse and the rider.
“She further explained that once she had received notice of the positive finding, one of the owners of the horse had called her and had declared taking the entire responsibility,” the tribunal reported in its decision.
However, according to De Villiers, the owners had not been willing to sign a document drafted by her and thereby formally accepting liability, as they were afraid of potential legal claims against them.
She said she had leased the horse for the event from its two owners, who – together with a team – had solely taken care of the horse’s feeding and care, and who had also taken care of the grooming during the competition.
De Villiers told the tribunal she had been in contact with the owners on numerous occasions, and had asked them to provide their explanations for the positive finding. The owners had not been willing to provide any information.
She told the tribunal that she had not administered any prohibited substances to the horse during the event.
She submitted that the scientific evidence she had furnished showed, on a balance of probability, that the phenylbutazone must have entered the horse’s system orally through the horse’s evening meal on the day before the competition.
She said that, given the circumstances, it had not been possible for her to prevent the phenylbutazone entering the horse’s system, and asserted that she had therefore demonstrated that she did not bear any significant fault or negligence under the rules.
She submitted she had “implemented any/all preventive measures”, but had not been able to thwart the injustice done to her.
She said the strict liability principle that applied in such cases was to her great disadvantage.
On October 23, the horse’s owners submitted a statement. They explained that when the B-sample had confirmed the results of the A-sample, first they had suspected contamination, as the horse had not been intentionally treated with phenylbutazone before the event, or the previous year, and not even since the animals had been acquired in 2009.
They said they had been absent from the horse’s stable from August 23-30 August, during which another individual had taken care of the animal.
They said that, on August 23, another horse stabled together with the horse, Al Hattal, had returned injured from a ride. A veterinarian had been called and had prescribed a course of medication containing phenylbutazone for Al Hattal.
They said the individual caring for the horses had “probably made a mistake” and accidentally given the medication to Tra Flama.
They argued that, given the circumstances, the rider, the owners and the trainer should be exonerated of any liability.
The FEI, in its submission, took the position that neither the explanations provided by the owners, nor those provided by De Villiers, established the source of the positive finding.
The FEI argued that it was not possible – from a scientific point of view – that administration several days before the sampling had caused the positive finding.
The tribunal said that, unlike criminal law, the present case was governed by disciplinary law, for which different principles have been developed, amongst them the strict liability principle.
It acknowledged the specific conditions under which De Villiers competed in the event.
“The tribunal further finds that [De Villiers] has taken a number of steps aimed at – in her view – avoiding a positive finding.”
The panel concluded that De Villiers had not provided unquestionable proof as to how the substances had entered the horse’s system, but rather only the possibility of such administration by the individual caring for the horse.
The tribunal imposed a six-month suspension, effective immediately. She was also fined 500 Swiss francs and ordered to bear the cost of the B-sample analysis.
The tribunal said it had noted De Villiers’ submission that she had voluntarily suspended herself from competing from November 2 last year to February 6.
She did not receive any credit for it, however, as she would have had to accept such voluntary provisional suspension in writing.
The full decision can be read here.