Groom’s blunder in Walmart sees rider suspended over horse’s failed drug test

An error by a groom while making a purchase at Walmart has resulted in US-registered rider Paige Johnson being suspended for one year and fined 2000 Swiss francs after her horse tested positive for pramoxine.

Johnson was also ordered to contribute 3000 Swiss francs towards the cost of the judicial procedure before the FEI Tribunal.

She will receive credit for having served more than three months of a provisional suspension, imposed following confirmation of the positive test.

The case involved the horse Luke Skywalker 46, ridden by Johnson in a CSI2* jumping event in Wellington, Florida, from January 17 to 22.

Blood and urine samples were taken from the horse on January 21 for testing.

The testing revealed the presence of pramoxine, a local anaesthetic used to relieve pain and itching. It is classified as a banned substance under the FEI Equine Prohibited Substances List.

The tribunal was told that Luke, like all horses, got the occasional minor cut and a veterinarian had recommended the use of a triple antibiotic cream in such cases, which the vet had indicated was OK under the anti-doping rules provided it did not contain added corticosteroids or pain relief.

A groom, Sergio Molinero, told of going to Walmart on January 5 this year, where he took four tubes of the antibiotic cream off the shelves for purchase.

“I was buying the same triple antibiotic we always buy which is okay under the anti-doping rules. I now realize after Paige was able to find my receipt for the purchase that I made a mistake and pulled the wrong tube off the shelf because it looked so much like the one we always use,” his written submission said.

“I now see that I mistakenly bought triple antibiotic with pain relief, and the pain relief contains pramoxine.

“Luke had some small cuts on his flank where I used the triple antibiotic in January leading up to the event where Luke was tested. The pramoxine must have gotten into his blood stream via these superficial cuts.”

The cream had been applied to Luke twice daily for two weeks, the tribunal was told.

A veterinarian, Dr John Nolan, also provided an account, saying that Johnson was meticulous about her procedures in the barn and continually demanded a higher level of caution than even he recommended.

He said he had worked with many professional equestrian athletes over the years, and he could say without reservations that Johnson was the most careful and ethical rider with whom he had ever worked.

He confirmed that he had advised Molinero that he may use a triple antibiotic on the horse, “but he should avoid any corticosteroid or pain relief in the ointment.”

Regarding fault, Johnson, represented by Lisa Lazarus, argued that she did not breach any duty of care. The evidence showed that her policies and procedures involved an exceptionally high level of care and responsibility, as confirmed by Nolan.

It was confirmed that Molinero had been buying supplies for her horses for 15 years without a single error. It was therefore reasonable to trust him to purchase an ointment he had been using on the horses as needed over that time.

It was argued she could not have predicted or foreseen that Molinero would make this mistake.

To make sure that such a mistake was never repeated, they had changed procedures so only the stable manager and herself were now allowed to make any purchases for the barn.

Molinero, it was argued, had made an uncharacteristic mistake that was not foreseeable or preventable, and no amount of education or training would have changed the mistake on the day in question.

It was argued that for her to be held responsible for Molinero’s mistake, it had to have been a foreseeable risk that she could have prevented by exercising the duty of care reasonably required under the circumstances.

It was further submitted that, in the case at hand, she could not be held responsible because there was simply nothing more she could have done.

The FEI, in response, said that under the anti-doping regulations Johnson had a personal duty to ensure that no banned substances were present in the horse’s body.

Its representatives, Anna Thorstenson and Mikael Rentsch, said it had been stated in several cases that the person responsible – in this case Johnson – could not rely on any other person to perform her duty of care. It was not the same as cases involving an unknown contamination risk, they argued.

The tribunal, comprising Erik Elstad, Laurent Niddam and Henrik Arle, noted Johnson’s explanation that the substance had entered the horse through the use of the wrong cream bought by Molinero.

However, both Johnson and Molinero had considerable experience and therefore inexperience could not be taken into account.

The tribunal found that Johnson did not take every conceivable effort to avoid the banned substance entering the horse. While good procedures were in place, Johnson had not, in the tribunal’s view, met the duty of care expected from her as a rider.

In such circumstances, especially following veterinary warnings to avoid buying the wrong cream, the rider would always be expected to check the label of a product.

“In those cases where she delegates that responsibility to her support personnel, then the support personnel is expected to do so.

“In the view of the tribunal this is the case no matter whether the person buys a product for the first time or for 15 years, as was the case in the case at hand.”

The tribunal found that both Johnson and her support personnel were well aware that two different types of triple antibiotic ointments existed, one of which contained a prohibited substance.

“She could at least have reasonably suspected that the wrong product could be bought or applied to the horse at some point in time.

“While the tribunal agrees that the perceived risk … after 15 years of buying and applying the ‘right’ triple antibiotic ointment was certainly much less, the perceived risk when starting to use the product was however very high.

“The tribunal finds, that the person responsible, by using a triple antibiotic ointment of which a very similar ‘wrong’ product existed, containing prohibited substances, accepted the risk that the ‘wrong’ product might be bought or applied to one of her horses sooner or later.”

Johnson’s suspension will end on April 4, 2018.

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