The curious case of clomethiazole in a showjumping horse

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File image. © Cymon Taylor

Clomethiazole is a strong sedative used in human medicine to treat agitation and restlessness. It is used in limited circumstances and is highly toxic, meaning doses need to be carefully controlled. 

It is not available in most Western countries and does not have any legitimate use in veterinary medicine. It is not considered to have any performance-enhancing benefits for horses. Indeed, its use would likely decrease the health status of an animal.

So, how could a showjumping horse competing at the South East Asian Games in Kuang Rawang, Malaysia, in August, 2017, end up testing positive for the substance?

That was the fundamental question that went before the FEI Tribunal when it considered the case of Adventure E, ridden by United States-based Philippines rider Colin Syquia.

The case continued on longer than most, while the parties made inquiries and sought expert advice on how the substance, banned under FEI rules, may have ended up in the horse’s system at a concentration of 1 nanogram per milliliter.

Syquia had requested that the B sample undergo analysis. It returned the same result.

He provided the tribunal with statements from several experts and provided several possible explanations for the positive result, centering on the possibility of contamination.

The level detected was unlikely to have any pharmacological effect, the tribunal was told.

Syquia asserted that the sampling procedure was flawed, which gave rise to the possibility of contamination. The FEI disagreed and the tribunal ultimately ruled that he had not put up a plausible case for contamination at that stage.

He said he was not immediately notified of selection for testing after the competition, so no supervision/security by FEI stewards upon conclusion of the final round and before the medal ceremony was provided.

During this time period, the horse was therefore exposed to non-accredited well-wishers and photo-seekers.

During the competition, he had  been warned of a possible sabotage attempt, after which his team demanded that their grooms be allowed to rotate watch on the horses all night before the final. Hourly checks by the grooms on the horses were allowed, however not between 3am and 6am.

His request to place wireless cameras was denied.

He said the stable area where the horse was kept was not always secured and was accessed by various persons without permission. Furthermore, wild monkeys were around the whole stable area throughout the entire event.

He noted that clomethiazole was distributed in Malaysia for research purposes and that studies connected with this substance had indeed been carried out in Malaysian universities.

Considering that two individuals who carried out the sampling worked for the University of Putra Malaysia, it appeared more than possible that either of them could have been a carrier of clomethiazole, he argued.

Inadvertent contamination at the event was also an option, he said. The horse was in contact with a considerable number of unauthorized people, which, coming from countries in which the sale of clomethiazole was not prohibited, may have been carriers of traces on their hands or clothes.

Also, the poor cleanliness conditions at the event and the regular visits by indigenous monkeys to the stables area may have favored accidental presence of pills or other substances containing clomethiazole in the surroundings of the horse, which, by ingestion, may have caused the positive test.

He said it was completely unrealistic to believe he would give his horse clomethiazole and any such notion should be discarded. He said he had a good reputation as a horseman. The drug had potentially negative effects for horses. Furthermore, it was not available in the US, where he was based, nor the Philippines.

Considering the circumstances, it was clear that it would be simply impossible for him to indicate with absolute certainty the precise source of the clomethiazole.

He said he noted that the Annual Report on Prohibited Substances of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities in 2004 mentioned nine positive clomethiazole cases, all originating from Thailand.

During the event, the Thai National Federation was stabled next to his team and thus his horse.

In this context, numerous encounters took place, some of which were captured in photos.

He told the tribunal that he would never have expected that one of his horses would return a positive drug test. He was now afraid to compete in FEI competitions.

Since he was not familiar with the team vet, he had allowed only FEI-appointed veterinarians to check the horse at the event. The only thing he noticed was that the horse was taking naps, but in his view the horse was re-charging from travel.

The FEI, in its submission, said the strict liability principle applied in such cases. The rider had a personal duty to ensure no prohibited substances entered the horse’s body.

It rejected the assertion that there was a contamination risk around the collection of the samples. Three veterinarians were present and they followed protocols. All those handling the samples wore gloves.

The FEI said it accepted that Syquia was a careful individual with no intention to dope his horses, and that he had several procedures in place to avoid a positive test.

The FEI found it very unfortunate that he had not found any plausible explanation or causal link to the rule violation.

It argued that a two-year suspension was warranted, together with a fine of 3000 Swiss francs and a 1500 franc contribution towards legal costs.

The tribunal, comprising Armand Leone, Henrik Arle and Laurent Niddam, found that, on the balance of probabilities, the positive finding was caused by probable human contamination.

“It is likely that contamination occurred in the stable area or in the warm-up area.”

It said cumulative evidence led its members to this conclusion.

The Thai team, it noted, was stabled next to the horse. Clomethiazole is sold in Thailand and is available in Malaysia only for research purposes. It is not available in most Western countries, including the US, and the only nine known equine doping cases involving clomethiazole concerned Thai horses.

Further, the public entered the horse warm-up area after the competition and members of the public patted and touched the horse before the groom took the animal away.

It laid out several reasons that pointed away from intentional doping. These included the lack of access to the substance, its toxic nature, and the rider’s testimony during the hearing.

The tribunal found that although Syquia took some actions to prevent the positive finding, he was not without fault as he had a responsibility to maintain a clean and protected environment for the horse in the stable area, and had a responsibility to keep the horse away from non-accredited persons at a competition.

Therefore, in the case at hand, he was responsible for the presence of the banned substance in the horse, but bore no significant fault or negligence for the violation. This entitled him a reduction in penalty.

The tribunal imposed a suspension of 1 year and nine days. It levied a fine of 3000 Swiss francs and ordered him to contributed a further 1500 francs toward legal costs.

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