Franconia has been disqualified from a Listed race she won at Newbury last year, having tested positive for ketamine which probably derived from recreational use of the drug by her groom, a disciplinary panel ruled on Thursday.
John Gosden, her trainer, was fined the unusually low sum of £500 by the panel, which decided he had taken precautions to avoid such an eventuality but could conceivably have done more.
Racing Post.com reports that presenting the BHA’s case, Tomas Nolan described how investigators were initially baffled as to the cause, ketamine being a powerful anaesthetic generally confined to veterinary clinics and not found in racing yards. Gosden said it was never used at his Clarehaven stables in Newmarket.
But, some weeks into the investigation, a staff member came forward to admit recreational ketamine use, which he said was confined to his weekends off. He was described by Gosden as a “vulnerable person” who had come into his employ as “a man in a bit of a muddle” and the panel directed that in the circumstances he should not be named.
The groom said he took care to wash himself and his clothes between using the drug and returning to his job, but had sometimes kept ketamine in his wallet, which he had taken with him and used on the trip to Newbury.
Nolan explained: “The individual believes there would have been residue in their wallet and that, as they used this wallet on the day of the positive, there was an opportunity for this residue to transfer to their hands and therefore into the system of Franconia.”
Nolan said the BHA had consulted with an expert pharmacologist as to whether this could be a plausible cause of the positive test and was told that it could. The expert, he said, had “concluded the level found in this horse could be caused by coming into contact with only one 50th of the 25mg amount which is apparently commonly snorted by human users”.
Gosden said he had been gratified by the groom’s frankness in coming forward to confess their occasional habit. Asked what disciplinary action he had taken, the trainer said: “I should probably have fired him. Maybe I should have done.
“But he could have lied and denied, and no one would have been any the wiser. It was the fact that he was open, and we solved the whole case, if you like, that I felt in the end he had been honourable. He’d made a stupid mistake, but he didn’t try to do anything wicked.
“I stood by him and will continue to do so. He seems quite content now, maybe a little too happy-go-lucky. But suspending him wouldn’t help, that becomes public, everyone knows who he is. Firing him, I don’t think is right. What do I do? Do I cut his pay, I don’t think that’s right either? Maybe I’m too soft.”
Reading from the pharmacology report, Gosden said he had been impressed by the sensitivity of the testing equipment. “It was apparently 270 to 400 picograms that were picked up,” he said. “One picogram is one trillionth of one gram.”
The quantity involved was clearly not enough to influence Franconia, as the Newbury performance was the second best of her five-race career. Gosden ridiculed any idea that he might have intended to dose a horse with ketamine.
“It creates a sort of trance-like state in human beings,” he said, “and in a horse, if you give enough to affect them, they would immediately lose co-ordination and no doubt would have a terrible accident. So, it’s not the kind of thing you’d want anywhere near a horse, except in a clinic as anaesthetic.”
With that in mind, he deplored a report on Thursday’s Today programme on BBC Radio 4, speculating his licence might be suspended on the basis only of the fact that ketamine had been found in Franconia.
“Due to the recent case of bullying and the Bryony Frost issue, now racing has become the next scapegoat,” Gosden told the panel. “My name was up as having given ketamine to a racehorse, champion trainer looking at a potentially lengthy ban, it was very dramatic stuff on Radio 4.
“Everybody who won’t bother to read the result of this inquiry will all assume that I go around giving ketamine to horses to make them win races. I can tell you it was shocking to listen to. It puts a stain on your character.”
The panel chairman, Philip Curl, said: “We wish to acknowledge Mr Gosden’s yard is well run and efficient. We also wish to commend him for all the co-operation he gave to the BHA in getting to the bottom of this matter.
“We conclude that, whilst in this particular case, Mr Gosden has used most reasonable precautions, we do not feel that he has proved that he used all reasonable precautions. We will spell out in the reasons [to be published in the coming days] some additional precautions we consider ought to have been taken.”
The panel heard a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs had been in place at Clarehaven for some years. The groom in question is a graduate of the British Racing School, which includes ‘drug and alcohol awareness’ in its courses and teaches the importance of avoiding contamination.
“We have notices everywhere about not urinating in horses’ boxes,” Gosden said on the subject of contamination. “We do talk to staff about cleanliness. We talk to them all the time about behaving in a correct manner.”
But Nolan argued more could have been done to stress to staff the specific risk posed by recreational drug use in triggering a positive test that would lead to a disqualification. Gosden acknowledged it as “a valid point”.