Testing times ahead for doping 'enforcers'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 June, 2008, 12:00am

Terrence Wan See-ming holds up an oversized battery operated clock. Large block numbers flash the time, but it is not the time that captivates Wan's attention. Strangely enough, it is the clock itself and the fact an absence of wires means the time cannot be manipulated, reset or altered.

Wan, the head of the racing laboratory at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, then gestures to the ceiling, to the closed circuit television cameras. Taken together, they make for a strong case should anyone stand to accuse the Jockey Club's lab of tampering.

'I can't,' he said, when asked if he would talk about how his lab functions. 'It's very simple. There is so much money involved [in racing] that there might be people, a small percentage, who try to do something that is not according to the rules of competition.'

His role - to help keep the racing business clean - will change temporarily during August when racing is on hiatus and Wan will run the anti-doping lab for the Olympic equestrian events.

The Jockey Club lab is one of four worldwide approved by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) and the only approved lab in Asia. It tests over 18,000 samples a year, the majority from racing, but others are high-level equestrian samples, including a positive test during the Olympic equestrian test event.

'We are the enforcers, if you will,' Wan said.

'I've tried to find a tie with a cat on it because it's a cat-and-mouse game and the less the people being regulated know what we do, the better.'

Wan's tie is not of a cat. He explains that an absence of information is a deterrent to doping because if no one knows the procedures, then it is more difficult for people to attempt to break the rules.

Two separate doping incidents affected both the team and the individual show-jumping medals in Athens 2004 and any prohibited substances detected during this summer's equestrian events will be the responsibility of Wan and his lab staff of 42. In 2004, Cian O'Connor was stripped of his individual gold medal after his horse, Waterford Crystal, tested positive for several different drugs.

Germany went from team gold to bronze after an illegal substance was found in Ludger Beerbaum's horse, Goldfever, and Beerbaum's results were disqualified.

During these Olympics, Wan has predicted an average of five calendar days to clear a negative sample and an average of 10 days to report a positive test.

Though the time frame may seem long, Wan said the notion of a 48-hour turnaround period customary for human athletes was not possible for horses in part because horse urine is more complex than human urine and the lab had to complete their tests on a limited supply of urine and blood.

A bigger reason was to ensure reliability. In the 38 years of the lab, not a single false positive has been reported and Wan said he wanted that statistic to remain in place.

'To maintain our 100 per cent reliability - 100 per cent, not 99.9 - we use a lot of checking, all the data has to be checked by three different layers before [it] comes to me,' said Wan, who does the final check.

'If the sample really does contain a banned substance you can repeat it with a different process and the result will be the same.'

With security measures, including CCTV cameras, Hong Kong racing has developed a strong deterrent system against doping. But in a classic case of you always want what you can't have, 2006 Boxing Day winner Elfhelm was caught with the drug phenylbutazone after he ate some of his stablemate's feed which contained the drug.

'The food always tastes better next door,' said Wan, adding that accidents or sloppy stable management was often the reason behind prohibited substances, rather than active doping.

Just as there have been changes in the sport, there have also been changes in the FEI's doping policy. One Olympic-first will be elective testing, which competitors can pay for up until the day before competition. The unofficial samples will be checked by the lab to see whether previously authorised or official treatment has cleared the horse's system.

'Treatment with drugs on horses is not rocket science, it's not very precise,' Wan said.

Wan, who is part of the FEI's mediation advisory group, said he was the one who introduced the FEI to elective testing, after he had been doing it at the Jockey Club for years.

Wan said he hoped the competitors would find the service useful as an extra 'reassurance' that the medication had cleared the horse's system.

While the FEI has different categories of prohibited substances or doping, the presence of a banned substance disqualifies the rider's results and can bring about fines and suspensions.

Unlike previous Games, such as Athens where the Jockey Club was the B sample lab for three out of the four positive tests, both of the A and B samples will be analysed at the same lab.

While the decision was taken in part to expedite the testing process, Wan said he still thought testing in separate labs was important.

'In most cases in horse racing, the A and B samples are done by different labs and I personally believe that is a more credible system that gives more confidence in the results, in particular when the second lab is a third-party independent lab,' Wan said.

Given the way doping affected two sets of medals in Athens, attention on possible drug infringements in Hong Kong will come under an obvious spotlight and Wan acknowledged the effort required to test for thousands of banned substances within a small sample.

'I said 'no holidays, I'm sorry',' Wan said. 'The machines are working like mad and the people [will be] working like mad as well.'

Days of reckoning

It will take this many days to report a positive test at this summer's equestrian events at Sha Tin: 10