Saturday, July 4, 2009

Lessons inherent as top Brit trainer draws ban, fine

Noted British trainer Nicky Henderson was handed a three-month ban and a £40,000 fine (that's $65,000 to us Yanks) for a medication violation uncovered in one of the Queen's own horses. reports that Henderson's charge, jumper Moonlit Path, was found to have been treated with the banned substance tranexamic acid, an anti-bleeding medication. The British Horseracing Authority determined that the drug was administered to Moonlit Path -- who debuted with a sixth-place finish in February -- but it was not logged on the records, deemed an effort to hide its use from authorities.

Moonlit Path has raced three times since, twice finishing fourth but being pulled up and not completing the race on May 15 at Aintree. She's earned £262 from her four starts.

"The treatment wasn't recorded in the horse's record-book and they concluded there was an attempt to hide the fact the horse had been given this substance," said Paul Struthers, public relations officer for the BHA. "They concluded that the reason it was done was because they knew the horse shouldn't have been given it."

Struthers said Henderson's previous clean record played into the decision not to disqualify him from the sport entirely. And the BHA considered the fact that tranexamic acid is considered effective for the condition Henderson was trying to treat -- pulmonary bleeding.

"Contrary to what some people believe, the panel's view is that if a horse has a tendency to bleed, (tranexamic acid) will stop it," Struthers said.

The penalty has supporters and detractors -- some who don't like it label it too harsh, while others decry its perceived leniency.

Rupert Arnold, chief executive of the National Trainers Federation, labeled the penalty "severe," offered sympathy to Henderson, and called for a U.K. meeting of the minds on treatments that he said benefit a horse's welfare without enhancing performance.

"While not condoning any breach of the rules, the NTF has sympathy with Nicky Henderson since every trainer's main concern is the welfare of their horses and it is therefore a cause of great regret that a senior trainer of such impeccable reputation should fall foul of the rules on prohibited substances by acting in the interests of his horse," said a statement from Arnold, published by

"This is becoming a difficult area for trainers to manage and there is a debate to be had about the sense of banning the use of treatments that protect the horse's welfare and are shown not to enhance performance. The NTF has already opened dialogue with the BHA on this subject and looks forward to progressing them."

Racing pundit John McCririck chastised the BHA for its decision, calling it "absolutely outrageous." He said Henderson was "a man of proven integrity" who has been "condemned in a secret court in a tribunal, of which we have not seen the evidence."

Yet Henderson himself wasn't complaining. Not much, anyway.

"I am obviously hugely relieved that this saga has been concluded and, even though this seems a harsh sentence, we accept the findings and can now look forward again to the future and an exciting season ahead," he said in a prepared statement published by Racing Post. "... Although the medication should not have been administered, I can only reiterate, as the panel has accepted, that it was only given in the interest of the welfare of Moonlit Path herself."

Perhaps Henderson isn't as concerned as he might be due to the timing of the ban. Eight-time champion jockey Peter Scudamore notes there aren't many top U.K. jump races between now and October. And the fine -- though seemingly substantial -- isn't so much for a conditioner of Henderson's stature; after all, he trains for the Queen.

"If they had banned him for a year, that may have affected his long-term career," Scudamore told Racing Post "As it is, he has received a stiff fine of £40,000 -- but he'll be able to pay that."

Critics of Henderson and of his punishment focused both on the fine, and on whether he received enough time on the sidelines compared to the severity of the offense -- knowingly administering a banned substance, and apparently trying to hide it.

Tom Tate, former president of the National Trainers' Federation, said he sympathized with Henderson, but said Henderson knew the rules.

"I've much sympathy for a co-trainer, and one with such a fine record and reputation as Nick, but I suppose we all want to win races and we all want to look after our horses, and the rules are the rules," Tate said. "Unless they change those rules on these prohibited substances, we're all bound by that."

Conditioner Milton Harris went further, saying Henderson got off easy because of his stature as a top trainer with lofty connections.

"I don't want to see any trainer getting a ban, but the fact of the matter is that if they have found him guilty, which they have, it surely has to be a longer ban than three months," Harris said "The fine means nothing as he is a wealthy man, but if someone else had broken the rules the ban would have been longer. All we want is a bit of consistency for all, regardless of status."

The Telegraph reports that the tranexamic acid finding was the first of its kind in the U.K., and calls Henderson's punishment a lesson to other British trainers that "few will forget in a hurry."

"Nearly all trainers rely almost entirely on vets to guide them through the minefields that involve drugs, be they permissible or outlawed. It is nonsense to suggest that horses should not be treated within the Rules to raise and prolong their quality of racing life," writes J.A. McGrath in The Telegraph. "For that reason, trainers choose a vet they know, respect and trust. But at the very end of the road, the trainer holding the licence carries full responsibility."

That is a lesson that shouldn't be lost on U.S. trainers, veterinarians and racing authorities, as well.

When Patrick Biancone's barn refrigerator was found to contain vials of cobra venom, he blamed a vet (whose name indeed was on the bag) and his attorney requested punishment by fines instead of suspension. But even when Biancone was fined for his prior offenses, it wasn't expensive. During the cobra venom scandal year of 2007, he'd already been given a stay of a 15-day suspension in California where the fine was just $10,000 for a race-day medication violation, and Kentucky had given Biancone a 15-day suspension but no fine for using a banned bronchial dialator, apparently to enhance performance of a horse. He ended up banned for a year over the cobra venom findings and received no fine at all.

I've harped on this before, but Biancone is the ultimate proof that in the United States, trainers can violate the rules repeatedly without losing their livelihoods to the authorities. Common medication violations are so prevalent -- and with the exception of Biancone's cobra venom scandal, typically so poorly covered and catalogued -- that they hardly make news. A trainer draws a 15-day ban, transfers the horses into the hands of his assistants, and comes back after a vacation (if he left at all) with his business none the worse for wear.

Britain sends a message with its suspension of Nicky Henderson -- violators will be punished. That its conditioners and horseman community are so willing to debate Henderson's punishment publicly shows the magnitude both of the offense and of the punishment.

Over here most conditioners would duck questions about another trainer's suspension, fearing, I suppose, that next time we'll be talking about them.

There's considerable latitude for discussion on whether the United States should follow the lead of most foreign jurisdictions and ban all race-day medications. But it's past time to get serious about punishing those who violate the medication bans that are already in place.

Fifteen days isn't enough even for minor offenses. And a $10,000 fine is a lot to someone trying to scratch out a living, but for a conditioner charging $100 or more per horse in his barn for day money and collecting 10 percent from each winning purse, particularly stakes purses, it is obvious chump change.

Trainers and veterinarians over here need to be sent the message that offenders won't be tolerated. Violations should draw fines commensurate with the offense and a suspension -- with active horses transferred out of the barn's hands -- that threaten to cost them clients. Habitual violators should lose their licenses and their careers.

Otherwise, any statements the racing industry might issue about its concern for horse welfare simply can't be taken seriously.

1 comment:

  1. For McCririck to call the sentence "outrageous" is, well, outrageous. Mr. Henderson obviously knew the rules, so obviously he also has to abide by them or face consequences.

    I don't know how hard a 40K penalty is on him, but to ban him until Oct 11 is a joke. He misses exactly four minor Listed jumps races, and it's highly unlikely that any of his horses would have started during the bottom-feeder summer National Hunt season.

    The first "real" fixtures of the new season will be Oct 16-18. Essentially, the BHA has decided for him whether to have the first prep start of next season on the second or third weekend of the first month he would have considered anyway.

    As for the NTF's argument: this might be worth discussing, but only if such horses are automatically banned from stud service.

    I couldn't agree more with what you wrote about violation penalties and their publication in American racing.


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