Man Vs Horse – the doping stakes

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Horses have been in the news rather a lot this year – firstly around what they were being put in, and now because of what is being put in them! So, under starters orders, lets have a quick gallop through equine drug testing.


They’re off

The Godolphin stable is one of the richest and most famous racing stables in the world but has been shaken by the positive drugs tests for eleven of it’s horses.  On the 9th of April the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) collected 45 samples from horses at the Godolphin stables.    The trainer has subsequently admitted to doping 15 of them, 11 tested positive and he admitted four more.  The drugs the horses were given were the anabolic steroids stanozolol and ethylestranol.  The samples were collected for the BHA ‘training programme’, the equivalent of ‘out of competition’ samples in human testing.  The BHA say they do a targeted approach to this testing and they do not give away the reasons why various stables may be tested.

The long straight

In 2012 BHA undertook a large number of race day tests (from around 8 % of runners) and only 0.19 % of them were positive (compared with a total figure of around 2 % positive for humans).  One of these was for stanozolol from the horse Chief Buccaneer   This horse was not banned at all but had the result stripped from the race.  The horse had been in the care of a trainer who had then passed it on without informing the new owner that the horse had been administered stanozolol.  The person who gave the horse the drug has been banned for five years.   In training 600-700 tests were completed in 2012, with no data being available as to whether there were any doping substances detected.

The BHA has a zero tolerance policy on doping substances both in and out of competition.  This includes all non-medication drugs, from amphetamine to cocaine to EPO and anabolic steroids.  For medications they allow use for treatment but on race day there must be no trace remaining.  They do allow traces of antibiotics or worming treatments to be present, presumably to prevent spread of any infection.

The policy of BHA differs slightly from human tests through WADA.  In humans the drugs which provide a short term immediate action, such as cocaine and amphetamine are banned in competition but not in training. The drugs likely to provide a long term stimulus are banned at all times (EPO, anabolic steroids).  Both stanozolol and ethylestranol are listed as anabolic agents under the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) code and are prohibited at all times.

Stanozolol became infamous in 1988 when Ben Johnston was found to have used it prior to winning the 100 metres title at the Seoul Olympiad.  Over the past 20 years many athletes have tested positive for stanozolol in power sports (eg. sprinting, weightlifting, bobsleigh).

The finishing straight


The outcome of this tail of whoa?

The horses have all been banned for 6 months.  If a human had tested positive for these drugs they would be facing a two year ban for a first offence.  The horses probably didn’t go out and get the drugs themselves though so it is not quite analogous to human athletes.  The trainer has been given a much publicised eight year ban.  This is similar to the kind of ban a serious repeat offender would get if they then helped the authorities.  It has been mentioned this would have been the length of ban Lance Armstrong would have faced had he been cooperative.

The horses will possibly still be fitter and stronger in six months time than if they had never taken stanozolol.  The effects of a muscle building drug are long term and so would take longer to lose any gains made.  A stimulant is out of the system in a few hours and would not have a lasting effect.   If these are one off administrations of the drug it may be that the long term effects are negligible, but if they had been using the drugs for a period of time combined with training the gains could be large.


Sorry for the poor puns, I didn’t get a post up on the horse burger scandal so thought I’d make up for it here!

Thanks for reading!




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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.