Hay contamination behind horse’s failed drug test at top showjumping event

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Autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale, flowers in a pasture in Italy. Photo: Enrico Blasutto
Autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale, flowers in a pasture in Italy. Photo: Enrico Blasutto, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Contamination of forage by autumn crocus has again featured in an FEI Tribunal decision, with authorities agreeing that no fine or suspension was warranted against the Irish rider.

The rider, Michael Kearins, competed Severly Hille in Hamburg in late May last year in a five-star Global Champions Tour/Global Champions League jumping event.

Severly Hille tested positive for demecolcine, which at the time was classified as a banned substance but was on track to being reclassified as a “Specified Substance” from January 1, 2018, based on the fact that it is known to be a contaminant of certain forage.

Demecolcine is used for rheumatic treatment and chemotherapy because it improves radiotherapy results. It can control leukaemia and gout.

Demecolcine and the related colchicine are both metabolites of the flower Colchicum autumnale, more commonly known as the autumn crocus. The additional presence of traces of colchicine, as was the case in the testing of Severly Hille, added considerable weight to the likelihood that contamination of hay by autumn crocus was the cause.

There is no known use for demecolcine in veterinary medicine.

The alkaloids of the autumn crocus are all very toxic, and it is unlikely that any horse would be treated with such a toxic substance.

Contamination of forage with autumn crocus seems to be a problem in certain parts of Central Europe, a preliminary panel observed.

On July 11 last year, the panel agreed to lift the provisional suspension on Kearins, but maintained the provisional suspension on the horse.

Subsequently, Kearins and the FEI reached an agreement around the circumstances of the case and its outcome, which was put in writing to the FEI Tribunal, comprising Cesar Torrente, Henrik Arle and Constance Popineau. The tribunal ratified the decision on August 2.

Kearins submitted a statement from his veterinarian, Dr Roman Villar, who said Severly Hille had been under his care for several years. During this period the horse has remained healthy and free of any medical condition requiring demecolcine. The vet said he had never prescribed demecolcine to any horse.

Kearins explained that he was often traveling to international and national shows in different countries and his horses are fed both hay from home, as well as the hay provided by organisers during events.

The FEI said it accepted that the most likely cause of the positive demecolcine finding in this case was some sort of contamination by autumn crocus of the hay sold by the event organisers.

“However, limited information was available from the organisers in relation to where and when the organisers had purchased the hay, but only that it came from several different producers. Hence, further investigation of the hay was therefore not possible.”

Kearins’ case was supported by the fact that there were several other cases from this region, and some of the positive cases were even from the same event organiser.

The FEI noted that Kearins had several procedures in place to prevent positive test results in his horses, and it was satisfied that the he bore no fault or negligence in the case.

He could not have reasonably been expected to take any further measures that would have prevented the substance entering the horse’s system.

It was agreed that no suspension would be imposed, nor any other sanction other than the disqualification of the horse’s results from the event.

The horse’s provisional suspension remained in place until September 4 last year.

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