The European Horserace Scientific Liaison Committee
Anyone heard of it? No? EHSLC? Still no-one? Thought not. Neither its full nomenclature nor its clumsy acronym elicits anything approaching a visceral response amongst racing professionals. This does not sound a sexy topic for discussion or debate – those at the Racing Post would surely agree, given that mention of this body has popped out from between their covers just twice in the past four years. If, in a private moment of extreme narcissism, you have ever ‘Googled’ yourself, I can guarantee that, however insignificant you are, you will find more references in cyberspace to you and your namesakes than to EHSLC.
This is curious. Rightly, racing preoccupies itself with the notion of integrity: maintaining a veneer of absolute probity is understandably this or any sport’s ne plus ultra. While we’re counting, integrity issues have warranted no fewer than 926 RacingPost articles in the corresponding period, yet the collective whose purpose more than any other is to ensure horses perform on a level playing throughout the five major European racing nations field barely warrants more than a couple of lines. It strikes me that the organisation whose mission statement is to “harmonise technical doping control policies and procedures… [and] to engender cooperation between the member countries in research underlying the suppression of doping” likes to keep a low profile.
Fortunately, Trainer was able to track down Peter Webbon for assistance. Webbon is happily rather less of a shrinking violet (91 Post mentions, in case you are interested) and is also what is commonly referred to as a ‘key player’ at the EHSLC. Dubbed ‘The Enforcer’, Webbon is now one of the sport’s most powerful individuals. Currently the Jockey Club’s director of welfare and science, he will assume overall control of racing’s integrity remit in April when he becomes the first chief executive of the newly branded Horseracing Regulatory Authority. When the appointment was announced, Toby Balding declared: “He will be brilliant. He is a very informed and switched-on operator. He will be excellent at the job.” Webbon and outgoing Jockey Club head Christopher Foster have been among senior administrators from several racing jurisdictions across Europe to have collaborated with independent expert pharmacists, chief veterinary officers and analysts in driving forward the work of EHSLC.
“The organisation started in 1992 as a joint initiative between representatives of Great Britain, France and Ireland,” explains Webbon. “In 1997, or thereabouts, we brought Germany and Italy into the fold. In order to maximise our effectiveness, we tend to work not as one single body that meets from time to time, but rather in smaller groups and working parties that are able to put forward suggestions and scientific findings to the relevant governing administrators who are then able to execute policy decisions.”
Implicit is a welcome recognition that horses compete internationally on an increasingly regular basis and, thus, there is an obvious danger that misunderstanding and misapplication of medication when abroad can occur. By harmonising drug thresholds and releasing data on detection times, the theory goes that unfortunate disqualifications can be avoided. Within this, more nuanced disparities also need to be ironed out. Webbon cites Scandinavian racing’s absence from EHSLC: “Although fewer British trained horses run in Scandinavia, they do tend to compete in the bigger races on a more regular basis than was the case. In Sweden, for example, the regulations state that there is a specific period of time before a race when certain drugs may not be administered under any circumstances, irrespective of whether a test returns a positive result. Theoretically, the authorities can ask to see the medication records of any trainer and disqualify a horse that actually tested clean and which, under domestic regulation, would be a legal competitor. This is a situation that we are striving to eradicate in EHSLC countries.”
There are those who would argue a “when in Rome” policy – that it behoves the trainer to familiarise himself with foreign regulations. It is surely realistic nowadays, however, to expect a certain level of assistance from, and cooperation amongst, the governing bodies when time constraints impinge so heavily on the busiest yards. There is, after all, evidence enough to suggest that trainers already feel a sense of disenfranchisement when it comes to doping policy. Rupert Arnold, the experienced chief executive of the National Trainers’ Federation, has concerns over the manner in which policy changes precipitated by the work of EHSLC insinuate themselves into the rule book.
“The first key issue on testing,” says Arnold, “relates to the sensitivity of tests and whether procedures are changed. We feel we get very little feedback from the regulators unless we push hard for it. This comes to a head when a rash of positives presents itself, as was the case with clenbuterol last year when trainers were contacting us to say that they weren’t doing anything different.” Arnold advocates the introduction of something akin to the current American model in this respect. “In the United States,” he says, “Horsemen’s associations tend to agree to a testing protocol with their particular state regulators where everybody knows exactly where they stand. If modifications occur, the associations are consulted.
One EHSLC inspired initiative concerned changes to the Jockey Club’s C7 Code of Medication Practise. There were subtle, but significant, alterations into which we were allowed no input – the Jockey Club just went about their job.” According to Peter Webbon, EHSLC will release a lumpy pack of information to show the fruits of its labour over the last seven years that will coincide roughly with this publication - it is hoped that this goes some way to assuage Arnold’s worries. To do so, however, it must be clear, palatable and accessible; not a straightforward task given the complexity and volume of the material at hand. Such a release will gauge the productivity and the utility of EHSLC.
As Webbon concedes, however, measuring its success and efficacy is an almost impossible task as a security body is essentially only informed by its failures. Rather as British intelligence was lambasted for its failings in the aftermath of the London bombings, so a body such as this is only truly scrutinised when there is a spate of dope test failures or a single event that is in some way deemed newsworthy.
In order to be accorded any credit, it must release its own findings and seek to present a positive impression. Nobody hoists the bunting for MI5 when we all manage to travel home safely on any given day. It is here that we arrive at the interesting pragmatic reality of EHSLC. Certainly, its basis in science and the advancement of drug testing technology and harmonisation is sound, but where it is most potent is in its capacity to protect racing’s image and to manage our expectations. That is, to keep us feeling warm and fuzzy when dark thoughts of racing’s besmirched integrity invade the sport’s collective consciousness. Look no further here than the EPO ‘raids’ of January 2002.
Martin Pipe, Paul Nicholls, Venetia Williams, Len Lungo and Alan Jones were visited simultaneously early one morning – each and every horse was tested only for presence of the performance enhancer EPO, of which there had been extensive speculation at the time, and each test returned negative in double quick time. This was the first time such testing had been carried out without prior warning to the trainers involved and was presented as new policy enlightened by the collaborative power of EHSLC – Britain was merely aligning itself with pan-European policy whilst, according to Peter Webbon, “safeguarding the industry.” Incidentally, “no horse in Britain has ever tested positive for EPO.” I am not suggesting that such unannounced out-of-competition ambushes are bad per se – there are now about a dozen that take place quietly each year – nor positing that they do not act as some form of deterrent to would-be cheats.
This particular instance, however, was no more than an exercise on the Jockey Club’s part to allay fears of widespread drug abuse. To suggest that they attempted to keep this out of the public eye is folly – this was the whole point and was realpolitik at its most brazen, with its deliciously press friendly rhetoric of ‘dawn raids’ and so forth. EHSLC, of course, facilitates such exercises by providing a collegiate ‘research based’ backdrop to proceedings. This is simply how any government operates – the Jockey Club (or HRA) is New Labour and EHSLC is the European Commission, “moving to strengthen practical cooperation between member states,” with its working parties, delegations and information networks.
When asked whether he is confident that racing has actually been made tangibly cleaner, Webbon is far more the pragmatist than the utopian. “You would have to be very naïve,” he suggests, “to think that we will find every illicit drug out there, but there are new technologies that are sure to act as deterrents.”
The interesting development cited may indeed make some think twice, namely the storing of samples (rather in the manner of a DNA database) so as that new technologies may revisit these some years later with the potential for different results. While he recognises the difficulties that could ensue here – the disqualifications and reallocation of prize money, not to mention the overwhelming bloodstock implications – Webbon outlines the possibility that this could uncover systematic breaches of regulations if more than one re-tested sample from the same yard was to betray a concerted effort to flout the authorities.
This is ostensibly admirable, but to what extent is this appeasement? What would happen if a swathe of retested samples came up positive? Would the consequences for the sport be sufficiently cataclysmic for this to be brushed aside? These are suggestions that would, I have no doubt, be vigorously denied, but presentation of an untarnished sport is obviously crucial, particularly at a time of impending financial Armageddon for racing. And this is fundamentally why I question any overarching international racing body such as EHSLC.
Each member state, and particularly racing’s present Britain, is consumed by perfectly understandable self-interest – lofty visions of consensus and ideas-sharing are often undermined. In this case, it appears that suggestions are made, but individual administrators can use or ignore them at will. Why is it, for example that Italy, in common with America, regularly tests for ‘milkshakes’? (Excess drenched doses of bicarb to reduce fatigue in horses). While, in Great Britain, according to Peter Webbon, “a few of these tests for excess CO2 were carried out pre-race a few years ago, but we’ve got the kit in the lab if we want to use it.”
The current EHSLC press release regarding detection times is most welcome and is not before time. In addition, a desire to harmonise doping procedure is a commendable one. It is hard, however, to conceive of the EHSLC as a unified force for improving racing’s integrity. Rather, it is a useful management tool and adjunct to an increasingly well-oiled Public Relations mechanism.