Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 30 May 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Anti-Doping Strategy of the Irish Thoroughbred Industry: Discussion
I remind members and people in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off. The next item on the agenda is the anti-doping strategy of the Irish thoroughbred industry. I welcome Dr. Lynn Hillyer, chief veterinary officer and head of anti-doping at the Turf Club.
From the Irish Turf Club I welcome Dr. Lynn Hillyer, chief veterinary officer and head of anti-doping. The committee appreciates her attendance here today at short notice. It was only last week that we decided to bring her in here to hear her views on this issue and how it might affect the greyhound industry.
I wish to bring to the attention of our guest that witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Before I invite Dr. Hillyer to make her opening statement I call on the Vice Chairman to take over. I apologise as I must leave the meeting.
Dr. Lynn Hillyer:
I will run through a few points very briefly and then members are welcome to ask questions. I started with the Turf Club in its new role of chief veterinary officer and head of anti-doping in September 2016 so I have not been in post for very long. However, I come from a background of regulation in horse racing. I have been an equine vet for 20 years, and between ten and 12 of those years were in horse racing. I have specialist expertise in equine internal medicine and anti-doping and I sit on various international committees. I hope to bring that knowledge to the new role.
I will start by going back to basics, namely, why one needs an anti-doping strategy. Again, I am very conscious of the expertise in the room. Drugs are one of the major threats to the perception of horse racing and animal sports in general worldwide. I attended a conference earlier this year tackling doping in sport and it is clearly a threat to all sports, particularly at the moment.
In animal sports we need an anti-doping strategy for reason of integrity and welfare but there is also a social responsibility, for example, where antimicrobial medications are involved. Horse racing and greyhound racing have for decades differentiated between therapeutic and doping drugs but in racing horses, as in any other animal, the use of both types of drug have to be controlled. They ought to be controlled because misuse of a therapeutic drug can result in consequences as serious as a doping drug, but also because in the public eye a drug is a drug.
In Ireland and Britain this came to the fore in 2013 to 2014 with scandals involving widespread misuse of anabolic steroids in horses in training. That gave us a flavour of what can go wrong. Following on from that in racing and horse racing, the Irish thoroughbred industry anti-doping task force was set up. That was a group that comprised stakeholder representatives and it worked hard for approximately 18 months and reported in February 2016. I included with my written submission a summary of the report, the consensus statement. The upshot is that there is no doubt about the agreement within horse racing that this is an important issue that needs to be tackled and there is a commitment for it to be tackled by the stakeholders. The stakeholders range from breeders to trainers to owners and those in HRI and the Turf Club.
There was a wide-ranging set of recommendations but I summarised them for the purposes of our discussion. The first relates to the laboratory. The key recommendation is terms of the laboratory is that it needed to be in Ireland for a number of reasons, and it needed to meet best international analytical standards. That would be backed up by a dedicated anti-doping unit to oversee developments and co-ordinate future strategy. The creation of my role was part of that.
A lifetime ban would be handed down for animals found to contain substances prohibited at all times. Anabolic steroids were specifically mentioned. Increased testing would be introduced for horses off the racecourse, which is known as out-of-competition testing, and testing would be introduced at all stages of a horse’s life. It is fair to say that up until this point, worldwide, there has been a great focus on what happens to the animals during training but not so much focus on what happens with them both within training when they are not being actively exercised or during the brief periods when they have an injury or disease, and also before and after training, which incorporates the sales and stud side of matters, but also what happens to race horses when they have completed their racing career.
The introduction of testing at those stages, namely, sales, stud and out-of-training were specifically identified. The word "intelligence" is used a lot in the sphere of anti-doping and as I am sure members are aware, in this context means processed information, reliable information or assessed information that can be used to direct anti-doping strategy. A commitment was made by the task force to exchange such information because clearly, information that relates, for example, to harness racing or greyhound racing can have real implications for horse racing and vice versa. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was very keen to promote the exchange of information.
Last, but by no means least, in terms of the recommendations of the task force is education. That includes a clear explanation of what anti-doping is and what it is not, what the strategy is, what the rules are and then to have explanatory guidelines, policies and processes. Those task force recommendations, which were made just over a year ago, have formed the basis of our evolving strategy within the Turf Club on the anti-doping side. I will try to summarise the position prior to questions. We must have fair, consistent, science-based principles and we have heard something about that in the past hour or so. Those principles, and following them through are utterly dependent upon having a world-class laboratory and they also require significant expertise and management of the results, data and processes before and after the samples are obtained.
Increased testing throughout a thoroughbred's life is important. It has been said previously that to get the right sample from the right horse at the right time, it is no longer good enough to purely take a single sample from a horse, for example, post race. We need to take samples at different times of the day, different times of the year and different stages of a horse's career. We recognise that. That links in very much with the traceability that has been talked about a lot and we too face challenges on traceability.
We have to maximise whatever resources we have. I have already mentioned intelligence, which clearly comes from other sports. The Management of Intelligence and Drugs Action in Sports, MIDAS, group has been set up and in my brief time in this role, I have seen benefits from that intelligence sharing group with the greyhound industry and others. Other organisations that play an important role include the Department in particular. We all face the same challenges domestically and internationally. I spoke to a colleague in Australia yesterday. I have also been in touch with colleagues in Hong Kong and many other places. We have the same issues and we are sharing information more than ever.
Last but by no means least, we must be accountable, understandable and accessible. It is no longer good enough to make the rules and just dish out sanctions. There must be a huge amount of work upfront to make sure those rules are understood and perhaps more importantly the principles behind them are understood. Consultation, possibly with a small "c" but sometimes with a large "C" is a regular part of our anti-doping strategy now. I hope that has given an indication of where we are coming from.
I thank Dr. Hillyer for her presentation. From listening to the debate she will be aware the greyhound industry Bill is coming through and anti-doping regulations will be a key part of that. We are very interested to see how the Turf Club operates its anti-doping regime. It appears to be very successful. I now invite members to ask questions.
I welcome Dr. Hillyer here this evening. I will start on a positive note. By virtue of the fact that she has been invited here to give her presentation and to give us an opportunity to question her as part of our pre-legislative scrutiny on the greyhound industry Bill augurs well for the horse racing industry, which has been identified as having expertise in the area, in the past decade in particular. As someone who is involved in racing I believe the issue has been very well handled by the Turf Club, which is rightly considered a world leader in anti-doping, rightly so given that this country is a world leader in the equine industry.
I will ask Dr. Hillyer to elaborate on a few points, although they do not directly relate to the medical or science area which is where her expertise lies. She mentioned that it is not sufficient simply to test a horse after it has won a race, that one needs to carry out testing on an ongoing basis. Reference was made to off-course testing. How does that work? What right does the Turf Club have to test a horse in a stable or trainer's yard? Is testing carried out by appointment? What if a horse is receiving veterinary-prescribed treatment, which will go out of the system in a certain amount of time and the trainer will have allowed for that prior to a horse competing?
Can the Turf Club turn up on spec and test the horse, and what consequence might that have?
I remember a decade or more ago when horse racing was in the same position that the greyhound industry is now. One of the major changes made at the time, science aside, was security. Unless one is a trainer or stablehand for the horse, not even the owner can get into a race track's security yard.
In terms of greyhounds, the person who is accused - the trainer or owner - following a positive test may not be the person who is at fault. There can be tampering. The issue of appeals and inquiries following a positive test does not relate to the scientific side, so it is not Dr. Hillyer's brief, and horses and dogs cannot be interviewed, but what appeals and investigative procedures would be most effective where there has been a positive test? A high-profile case in the horse racing circle is ongoing in England, with the trainer saying that he will appeal the decision to the ends of the Earth because there is no way that he is guilty. I do not know whether that means there was interference or the substance came from a source that he did not recognise, that is, food. How would Dr. Hillyer like to see appeal situations handled?
I thank Dr. Hillyer for her presentation. Horse Racing Ireland underwent a similar legislative process a couple of years ago, which is why we wanted to see how it was operating in light of our examination of the greyhound Bill.
What is the optimum annual number of tests for a yard that has 20 horses? Does the Turf Club publish the results of tests, both positive and negative, so that there is a record?
Sport Ireland has referred to strict liability and the fact that all adverse tests lead to sanctions that can be mitigated afterwards based on, for example, whether a supplement was taken. What is Dr. Hillyer's view on that and does the Turf Club operate the same system? Would it be desirable in the greyhound industry?
I thank Dr. Hillyer for attending. In the Turf Club's tests, who does the sampling, how independent is that person and how fearful are the owners and breeders to see him or her approaching? We can have all of the regulations in the world, but unless they have absolute integrity, it can be an issue.
Dr. Hillyer stressed the importance of having a world class laboratory in Ireland, but what is the opportunity to send split samples to other laboratories to have them retested?
Dr. Lynn Hillyer:
I will start at the beginning. Senator Daly asked about the difference between treatments, that is, where a vet has genuinely treated a horse in the yard and we go to that yard to make an out-of-competition testing visit. I believe that the Senator was asking about how we handled such testing. There is provision within our rules of racing, which trainers sign up to, allowing us to enter a premises and test at any time unannounced. That is the starting point. The Senator may know that we are in discussions with the breeders about how we work that same principle on stud farms, given that there are different factors to be considered when visiting a breeding premises as opposed to a training yard.
We have access to test horses in training yards and take samples.
We have access to medication records, which are important for understanding what is happening on the yard and whether there is compliance with medication record requirements. That is relatively new.
As to whether there is an issue when a therapeutic medication is found in a sample versus another substance, it is fair to say that I cannot think of a therapeutic medication that could be found in a horse that would cause an issue, provided it has been given legitimately and is recorded in the medicines register. That is how we differentiate between the two. It is a question of using the medicines register alongside the sample results and intelligently analysing the latter. Medicines registers have made such a difference to our approach since they were set up some years ago. They are crucial in this regard.
Medicines registers are also crucial for some of the more sophisticated ways in which we approach a number of these therapeutic drugs. I will cite an example. If a joint injection is given into a joint, the circulating concentrations of that drug are low compared with the amount that is doing the business at the joint. We recognised a few years ago that our testing hitherto - analysing the screening levels that have been mentioned at this meeting - was not applicable to these locally active drugs. A decision was made through the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities to introduce the concept of stand-down periods, which is what it says on the tin. After a particular sort of drug has been administered, there is a period within which the horse cannot race. I will not say "regardless of what is found in the sample from the horse at that time", because that is used as adjunctive information. The principle of the stand-down is regulated by the medicines register. We use the information we have to hand.
At the same time, it is important we not put too much of a burden on trainers and their staff to maintain registers. I am particularly conscious of the statutory requirement to keep certain information. We are discussing with colleagues how to streamline the situation in order that we are not asking people to double up on recording.
The Senator's second question was on security and a controlled area. This is a matter of strict liability. The first point to make is that we have strict liability, in that the trainer is responsible for what is found in any sample. However, we do our best to help trainers avoid getting into that position in the first place. That is key. Education has to be the starting point, that is, trying to prevent people from getting into trouble in the first place by, for example, not allowing prohibited substances in the stable yard. The stable yard is a controlled area in terms of risks, and people should try to avoid having substances there. They should become informed and educated about simple factors. A good example is fizzy drinks that contain caffeine.
People should try to become informed about cross-contamination from stable staff to horses via hands, which is easily done. For example, there was a recent positive test for a therapeutic drug that is common in humans, atenalol, which affects blood pressure. When traces are found in a horse, it can have an effect. Therefore, it is viewed as a substance that normally does not have a screening level. Trying to assess these areas is difficult, but we rely on expertise within our teams and overseas to ensure we are consistent.
The Senator also asked about investigations. I do not wish to discuss any ongoing investigation, but investigations relate what is found in the sample at that point in time to what has actually happened. The bottom line is an investigation needs to be thorough, transparent and process driven. It is fair to say that, given where the Turf Club was and where it is now going, there must be checks and balances along that path in order that people are aware of what is happening.
For obvious reasons, an investigation can be compromised if information is disseminated inappropriately or at the wrong time. As soon as information can be disseminated, it should be, especially to the people involved.
Each case is different. There are some substances in respect of which, on receiving initial information from the laboratory that something was found, I would act differently than I would had another substance of lesser concern been found, if that makes sense. It is handled case by case. Our investigation would proceed to a disciplinary procedure and, ultimately, sanction.
Does that answer the Senator's questions?
Deputy Pringle asked about how the relevant legislation is operating, testing and options in that regard. In terms of the optimal number of annual tests for a yard with 20 horses, a possibly over-quoted report by McKeever in the United States that was compiled probably 25 years ago consistently states that approximately 10% of racing horses in training should be sampled. Several tests have been worked out to be representative of that number. Things have moved on a little from there. One would do as many tests as one can with available resources but the distribution between on-course testing and off-course testing is the most important issue. There has been a huge shift, particularly in the past two or three years, towards off-course testing and intelligence-based or smart testing based on the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, principles. There is a pyramid with intelligence-led, risk-based testing at the top and more broad-brush random testing at the bottom. Any testing strategy should combine the two approaches with common sense. If one knows one has an at-risk population, the testing frequency would be different from that of a population deemed to be at lower risk. In terms of the parameters that assessment would be based on, it could include intelligence about stable employees, previous screening findings or patterns of drug usage or behaviour amongst veterinary surgeons. There is a plethora of facts that get taken into account. I cannot give a stock answer. The minimum testing figure is about 10%. We publish the results.
Dr. Lynn Hillyer:
Both are published. That is very important. They are published in different ways. The International Federation of Horse Racing Authorities, IFHRA, annually collects statistics which allows international horse racing statistics to be visible against each other. The Turf Cluf reviews and publishes statistics as regularly as we can, as we do for other data such as injury data.
In terms of strict liability, the question is whether sanctions would differ depending on whether there was intent or a mistake. Was the question in regard to the intention behind the adverse analytical finding?
Dr. Lynn Hillyer:
We complete investigations before cases are heard by our panel. At that point, depending on the evidence heard, mitigating or aggravating circumstances would be considered. That is why the investigation is so important. We are very lucky to have a team of skilled investigators in the Turf Club who work very closely with overseas colleagues and those in the greyhound sector. The investigation is crucial.
Dr. Lynn Hillyer:
That is an interesting point. The adverse finding would not be announced as soon as it was technically found in the sample because, by our rules, the adverse finding is not confirmed until after the panel has made a judgment on the matter. The panel would confirm the adverse analytical finding being there. While the adverse analytical finding exists once it has been found in the laboratory, sanction would follow from the panel making a judgment. It is not confirmed as an adverse analytical finding until after the referrals committee has heard the case. Is that clear?
Dr. Lynn Hillyer:
Our technicians are responsible for sampling. Veterinary assistants employed by the Turf Club take urine samples. Blood samples are taken by veterinary officers. Crucially, samples are taken under the direct observation of a representative, usually a trainer. The representative or trainer goes into the box with the horse when the sample is taken. There are issues with that practice in terms of health and safety and so on but the direct observation is important. The representative will then sign to confirm they have seen the sample being taken. That is the start of a chain of custody that continues right through to laboratory analysis. I have not been in my current position for very long but the chain of custody in the Turf Club is a particularly impressive aspect of the system. The Turf Club has employees who transport the samples and everything is checked off and balanced all the way through.
Deputy Martin Kenny asked how fearful owners and trainers are. The answer to that question comes down to the word "confidence" that has been mentioned a few times this afternoon. It is crucial that owners and trainers have confidence in the processes. We have work to do in terms of explaining some of those processes because they possibly have been in the background for a long time. Like everything, it is only when there is a problem that the issue comes to the fore and questions are asked. The testing process has been going on for some time, probably quite well, but it is right that questions are asked when things go wrong. We have had high-profile cases, in the course of which there has been a review of practices. There is not currently a systematic process of review. I hope that measure will be put in place. A new head of legal and compliance has been appointed this year along with several further changes in our team. The new head of legal and compliance may wish to put in place a review process.
Samples going to different laboratories is a very interesting issue. We are lucky in horse racing, as someone said today, that there have been long-standing efforts to harmonise our international approaches to the issue. The screening limits that have been discussed are harmonised internationally in different racing laboratories and are published on the IFHA website for all to see. A laboratory is normally working towards achieving that screening limit or threshold and it may be that the country concerned cannot sign up to it until that level of testing is achieved. However, the limits are in place and harmonised.
In terms of the issue of counter-analysis, that is, analysing an A portion and a B portion of the same sample, both when I worked in Great Britain and now, the trainer can choose whether he or she wishes to have the B sample analysed. There tends to be a case-by-case assessment and it is their choice. There are occasions, in both the UK and Ireland, on which the regulatory authority can require that the B sample be tested. Some substances break down very quickly and there is no time to delay in testing the second sample. One example of that would be dissolved carbon dioxide. That is a bit like fizzy Coke - if one shakes it enough, it goes flat. A sample has to be analysed for dissolved carbon dioxide very quickly and the second analysis would therefore be prompt but that is the exception rather than the rule. As a rule, split sample analysis would take place and the second sample would be analysed in a different laboratory.
Is there a DNA or similar trace to ensure that the laboratory is certain of that? People in the industry hear stories about a blood file being replaced by another. That type of thing cannot happen. Is there a record to ensure the laboratory knows-----
Dr. Lynn Hillyer:
That is a good question. The record is there in quadruplicate. The records are there from when the sample is taken right through to laboratory analysis. That is the chain of custody, which is very important. Accredited laboratories have checks and balances in place to ensure that processes are followed when samples are logged in. The samples are anonymised and have numbers assigned to them. The numbers are tracked through the laboratory.
DNA analysis has previously been requested. We can carry out DNA analysis of a sample if needed. It is not routine and is not usually needed because sufficient checks and balances are already in place.
The Turf Club obviously has a very extensive anti-doping strategy. Do trainers sign up to conditions or is there legislation to back up that anti-doping strategy? If the Turf Club moves to take horses out of training, is there legislation to back up that action or is it just a code of practice?
Dr. Lynn Hillyer:
It is the rules of racing. Trainers sign up to the rules of racing and agree to be bound by them. That gives the Turf Club a certain authority to act. It does not give us authorities as extensive as, for example, colleagues who are authorised officers. An example is powers of seize and search. If I were to see a bottle of stanozolol, which is an anabolic steroid, in a trainer's yard, I would not currently have the power to seize it.