A serious breach of security apparently occurred at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games the evening before the Marathon phase of the Driving competition. Sometime during the night, one or more individuals vandalized the carriage of driver IJsbrand Chardon from the Netherlands. Seat cushions were slashed and there was concern that the mechanics of the carriage had been sabotaged. Chardon requested and received a delayed starting time and he recovered to post the best score in the Marathon.
If the intent was to compromise the Dutch team’s chances in the Driving competition, it was a boneheaded play that failed. The damage to the carriage was an expensive annoyance that Chardon overcame in spectacular fashion. Far more troubling is the realization that the Dutch horses, and presumably the horses belonging to others, also were at substantial risk. The carriage was stored inside the stable area, supposedly secured by a chain link fence, a plank fence, and a gate with guards. How someone managed to damage the carriage tucked away in a "secure" area is anybody’s guess. Maybe it was an inside job. There is no way to know. At last report officers from the Kentucky State Police were investigating.
The veterinarian for the team from the Netherlands reported that the horses appeared to be okay, which is a good thing. But what if something, a prohibited medication for example, was slipped into their feed or water under cover of darkness? Something that would be obvious if horses from the Dutch team were tested for drugs?
Testing for prohibited medications always has been a priority, but incidents at recent Olympic Games have upped the ante. The goal is to insure that everyone competes on a level playing field.
At the 2004 Olympics the German show jumping team and Irish rider Cian O’Connor had their gold medals taken away after positive drug tests. Things were worse in 2008, when six horses, including five show jumpers, were disqualified as a result of positive tests. According to a recent article in the New York Times, German rider Ludger Beerbaum, who was on the team that was disqualified in 2004, summed up his philosophy as follows: "In the past, my attitude has been, anything that is not detected is allowed." A similar attitude seems to pervade professional bicycle racing, which is better known for its constant drugging scandals than race winners. Horse sports do not want to go down that road.
So how are penalties assessed if a horse tests positive for a prohibited medication? Unlike human athletes who are responsible for their own decisions and actions, a horse which tests positive has not done anything wrong.
Horse racing, the United States Equestrian Federation, and the FEI all enforce some variation of the absolute insurer rule when it comes to medication violations. Unlike criminal trials in which the defendant is presumed innocent unless the prosecution can prove guilt, the absolute insurer rule says that the individual responsible for a horse that tests positive is guilty of the violation unless he or she can prove innocence. The logic is straightforward: since horses cannot drug themselves the people who care for them are held resposible. Sanctions can be severe and include disqualification from the event where the violation occurred, suspension from future events, and fines. Various legal arguments have been raised to challenge the rule, but so far it always has been upheld in court.
According to Article 10, Section 10.4.1 of the FEI Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Regulations, the person responsible for a horse that tests positive must establish that "he or she bears no fault or negligence" for the rule violation and also must show how the medication was administered to the horse to avoid penalty. The burden of proof is squarely on the humans involved and it can be a heavy burden.
Proving a negative is not as easy as it might sound. How would you prove, for example, that you did not watch reruns of The Andy Griffith Show on Saturday?
Would evidence of an obvious security breach in the stable area and an apparent intent to harm the Dutch team be sufficient to satisfy the burden of proof? There is no way to know for certain. Let’s hope that the argument does not have to be tested in an FEI hearing or in court.