More twists in the tale

The Waterford Crystal saga has all the ingredients of a bestseller, writes Grania Willis , Equestrian Correspondent.

The Waterford Crystal saga has all the ingredients of a bestseller, writes Grania Willis, Equestrian Correspondent.

A urine sample stolen in the driveway of an internationally recognised laboratory. A break-in at the headquarters of a national sporting body. Documents stolen in the raid faxed anonymously to the newsroom of the national television network, followed by dramatic revelations on the lunchtime news.

The plot for the latest Hollywood blockbuster or at least a novel destined for an elevated slot on the bestseller list? No, this was real life - the latest chapter in the incredible saga of Olympic gold medal horse Waterford Crystal's positive dope test.

"It could only happen in Ireland," a source close to the centre of the action commented this week.


So what exactly has been going on in this convoluted case? Cian O'Connor wants to clear his name following the finding of prohibited substances in the A urine sample taken from his horse in Athens. But the theft of the B urine sample in the driveway of the Horseracing Forensic Laboratory (HFL) in Newmarket on October 21st means no confirmatory analysis can be done on that portion of the horse's sample.

The International Equestrian Federation (FEI), which did not announce the theft of the sample until 11 days later - on Monday of this week - has now embarked on a hasty damage limitation exercise.

It has dispatched Waterford Crystal's B blood sample to a laboratory in New York that boasts the most advanced testing facilities available.

Testing is due to begin on Monday in the presence of O'Connor's witnessing analyst Dr Laurent Bigler.

The FEI wants to be seen to be proceeding with the case, even though The Irish Times learned this week that a negative result on the blood sample would almost certainly result in the case being dropped, regardless of the positive result from the A urine sample.

A positive result on the bloods is vital for the FEI but, contrary to earlier reports, it is now known that the FEI's central laboratory in Paris did not test the A blood sample once the urine produced a positive result. Only if the US Equestrian Drug Testing and Research Laboratory in New York can find traces of the two prohibited substances - said to be human anti-psychotic drugs - will the case against Cian O'Connor go ahead.

But the FEI could find itself on tricky ground unless the Paris lab can produce a positive from the A blood sample to back up the result from the US. There would be no hope of making the case stick unless the prosecution compares like with like.

Confirmatory analysis of the urine is now impossible, so the FEI has to provide a matching analysis from both blood samples.

But does the Laboratoire des Course Hippiques in Paris have the same level of expertise in human anti-psychotic drugs and the same advanced screening techniques as the New York lab?

According to a source within the veterinary profession, the French lab specialises in screening for corticosteroids, such as Betamethasone, the drug found in German horse Goldfever's sample. The laboratory director, Dr Yves Bonnaire, is hugely respected within the equine veterinary world, but Dr George Maylin, who set up the American lab, is the recognised expert in the human anti-schizophrenic drug Fluphenazine.

It is for this reason that the FEI re-routed Waterford Crystal's blood sample this week from the Hong Kong Jockey Club lab to New York. Although there has still been no official confirmation as yet, it is believed that Waterford Crystal's A urine sample tested positive for Fluphenazine and Zuclopenthixol, drugs more traditionally used for the treatment of psychosis in humans.

The US Equestrian Drug Testing and Research Laboratory claims to perform significantly more tests per sample than any other equine drug-testing laboratory in the world. It also claims to be able to detect the broadest range of performance-enhancing substances.

The lab not only uses the most advanced screening techniques available, it is also able to calibrate testing equipment to screen for one specific drug, allowing substances to be identified up to 50 days after administration, when they would normally be undetectable.

The FEI is relying on the New York lab to come up with the goods but, if a positive result is produced next week, it seems likely that Cian O'Connor's legal team will be aiming to prove that there have been too many procedural irregularities for any judgment to be made in the case.

They are also expected to plead the Cascade Law, under the terms of which vets can use human drugs in animals where there is no veterinary counterpart. However, Dr Tom Barragry, senior veterinary pharmacologist in UCD and adviser to the European Horseracing Scientific Liaison Committee, does not believe this is a valid argument.

"There are veterinary counterparts for these drugs," he told The Irish Times yesterday.

"Acepromazine could be used instead of Fluphenazine and there are legitimate veterinary drugs such as Xylozene and Domosedan that could be used instead of Guanabenz (a human hypertension drug found in the urine sample from another of O'Connor's horses, ABC Landliebe).

"These are not drugs that you'd use for back injuries or colic", Dr Barragry said. "There are plenty of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Phenylbutazone and there are also licensed painkillers such as Torbugesic.

"In the US, anti-depressants and SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) are widely used in doping to take the edge off horses. Most of these drugs have the side-effect of sedation, but they're primarily anti-anxiety drugs that allow the horse to focus on his job."

Dr Barragry also said the use of cocktails of drugs for horses is increasingly widespread.

"It's quite common to have a mix of drugs, usually from similar families or with similar mechanisms of action", he said.

"The thought behind it is that by using low doses of each in combination, the effects will all add up together, but each individual drug may be beyond detection. A tiny amount of each individual drug can duck in under the screen.

Some of O'Connor's team-mates questioned this week why the Kildare rider was allowed to travel to Athens after the positive test on ABC Landliebe. The mare tested positive to both Fluphenazine and Guanabenz at the Italian Nations Cup fixture in Rome at the end of May. O'Connor was informed of the positive result on July 30th, eight days after vet James Sheeran had administered what he has since described as a "mild sedative" to Waterford Crystal.

Fluphenazine and Guanabenz are both human drugs and the FEI's veterinary department issued a memo on August 5th stating that the use of such drugs would be seen as a "serious attempt" to enhance performance. Despite that memo, the Federation's judicial committee accepted O'Connor's explanation that the positive test was as a result of treatment for colic and, on September 28th fined him 1,000 Swiss francs (€654) and he forfeited prize-money for three victories.

So why did the judicial committee fly in the face of a directive from the FEI's veterinary department and not suspend O'Connor for what the FEI described as a "serious infringement" of its medication rules? Did they believe the minimal sanctions they imposed were sufficient embarrassment for the recently crowned Olympic champion? Or were the red faces solely to be seen in the corridors of the FEI offices in Lausanne?

Whichever is the case, it can hardly compare with the embarrassment felt now in the wake of what even the FEI's most loyal supporters would view as a total fiasco.