Seeing news of a horse failing a post-race drugs test is nothing particularly extraordinary by itself. Whether it be the result of an unfortunate accident or an attempt at cheating, you do not have to look far for stories of horses having traces of a banned substance in their system. It can strike at the highest levels of the sport too. Original 2021 Kentucky Deby winner, Medina Spirit, crossed the line first at the famous Churchill Downs contest but had his title stripped from him after testing positive for the steroid betamethasone.
Across the Atlantic, in 2014, even one of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s horses landed in hot water for testing positive for morphine. The five-year-old filly, Estimate, who won the Ascot Gold Cup the previous year, was subsequently demoted to second place in the prestigious stayers event. There are other notable examples but few more unusual or striking than a case in April 2022, coming all the way from New Zealand, in which a racehorse and its trainer both tested positive for methamphetamine. Given this is a drug usually associated with inner cities, deprivation, gangs and Breaking Bad, this was certainly something unusual for horse racing.
There was nothing particularly unusual about the race meeting that took place in Otaki, New Zealand on 5th January, 2022. There were eight contests on the card, all relatively low-class affairs, each with a prize fund of NZ$12,000 (around £6,000). The fourth race of the afternoon was very narrowly won by a horse named Be Flexi, ridden by Johnathan Parkes and trained by Rochelle Lockett. This nose-length triumph pocketed connections of the Australian-bred Be Flexi NZ$6,720.
That was all there was to it until a routine post-race swab sample found traces of methamphetamine in Be Flexi’s system. Now, meth is not a performing enhancing substance for a horse, so the concern was not cheating, rather it was a welfare matter. Perfectly innocent or accidental contaminations involving banned substances can occur and show up in drug tests but these often stem from the food supply. In the case of Estimate, mentioned earlier, initial suspicions were that poppy seeds, which contain minute amounts of morphine, had seemingly contaminated the supply.
In the case of meth though, it was harder to see it being an accident as it is not the sort of drug that typically finds itself mixed up with horse feed. Initially, trainer, Rochelle Lockett, could not explain how this had happened but did admit that she had consumed the illegal substance herself, back in November 2021. Investigators, keen to get to the bottom of this, then requested hair and urine samples from Lockett, which were returned in late January.
Both samples tested positive for meth, leading to Lockett admitting that she had also ingested the drug on her birthday, this being 3rd January. While this was likely a genuine disclosure, Lockett failed to add the many other times she had consumed meth. Her samples revealed she was a habitual user, rather than someone that had merely dabbled with the drug a couple of times. Further tests even found traces of meth on the driver’s seat of the horse trailer (or horse float to use the local vernacular) that Lockett drove.
A horse being found to have an illegal Class A drug in its system naturally reflects very badly on the sport, so this was never going to be a case that was treated lightly. Lockett’s unwillingness to disclose her regular meth use would have been also taken into account, as it was false of her to ever state she had no idea how her horse could have consumed the drug. This early denial and slowing down of the investigation led to Neil Grimstone, the Racing Integrity Unit’s Manager of Integrity Assurance, to call for a four-year suspension, just one year lower than the maximum permitted.
After hearing multiple different opinions, the Racing Integrity Board, which deals with such cases in New Zealand, ended up settling on a three-year disqualification. Part of the justification for not going higher, according to board chair Geoff Hall, was that Lockett was in the process of getting help for her addiction. There was some additional leniency in the sentence too as the Board stated they would cut the ban in half providing Lockett undertook a drug rehabilitation programme and can prove she is drug free.
A Degree of Sympathy
Of course, nobody in the racing industry enjoys seeing headlines that harm the reputation of the sport but that does not mean they were furious at Lockett. New Zealand has a growing issue with methamphetamine or ‘P’ as it is known in the country. Even back in 2016, the Guardian claimed it had become “the class A drug of choice for Kiwis” and the situation has not improved since, judging by wastewater samples. The fact that a former racehorse jockey and well-respected trainer ended up being one of many New Zealanders hooked on this drug was therefore seen as more of a societal failing rather than a solely personal one.
Speaking at the hearing, fellow trainer, Kevin Myers, who was responsible for getting Lockett involved in racing, pleaded with the board to go easy on her. He said that it was hard for many people to stay away from meth, especially in places, such as Whanganui, where it is so prevalent. He also added that Lockett was a good person and that the industry needed more people like her.
Lockett herself also showed a great deal of remorse over the whole affair, albeit belatedly. Not only did she express regret for inadvertently putting her horse, Be Flexi, in danger but she said “I feel I have let everybody in my whole life down.” She did not attempt to excuse what she had done and seemed committed to getting herself clean. Hopefully, all goes according to plan and she will be back at racecourses late in 2023.
Meth & Horses: How Common Is It?
Lockett’s case mentioned above is not the only one of its kind as there are other instances of horses testing positive for meth. The first in New Zealand came back in 2014, although in this case it was just the horse, I’m Not Ticklish, and not the trainer, Tracy Newton, that had the banned substance in their system.
In the I’m Not Ticklish case, Newton also found herself banned for three years even though she was not directly responsible for her horse coming into contact with the drug. She did not intentionally or unintentionally expose her horse to meth, instead Newton suspected someone had done it following a dispute over a lease arrangement on a stable they were using. As such, she felt she was effectively being punished for not having 24/7 surveillance on her horse and for an act of sabotage committed by someone else.
Many would have sided with Newton in this case but the Judicial Control Authority for Racing responded, stating that not all reasonable measures were taken to ensure something like this could not happen. Additionally, it is a strict liability issue, so ultimately the buck stopped with Ms Newton and it was her that had to bear the burden of the breach.
Frustrated with the whole process, Newton said she was not going to appeal the ruling and would no longer take part in the racing industry. She has been true to her word too, not saddling a runner since I’m Not Ticklish’s extremely heavy defeat on 22nd June, 2014. This may have factored into Newton’s decision as she only had a tiny operation and the form of I’m Not Ticklish, who was her best horse, jumped off a cliff following the win (and subsequent drugs test) that began the whole affair.
In addition to this there have been other examples, such as five winning horses in Texas that tested positive for meth, over just a three-month period. Over in Australia, the aptly named five-year-old mare, Party Till Dawn, was also found with traces of the drug, becoming the second positive case coming out of Queensland in the space of just over a year. There are other instances we could highlight too so the point here is that horses being tested for methamphetamine is, perhaps strangely on the face of it, not as rare as we might first assume.
Why Do Horses Test Positive for Meth?
Sometimes a horse is exposed intentionally to meth, and there were some suspicions of this in the aforementioned Newton case. In other instances though, it is purely accidental and this is something noticed by Dr Alison Vaughan of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Incorporated. She said, “We’re seeing these kinds of cases crop up quite a few times, though it doesn’t always appear to have been intentionally administered to the horse.”.
What is going on is little more than people working with horses, be it handlers or jockeys, consuming the drug in a personal capacity and then inadvertently passing it on to the horses they work with, often in miniscule amounts. It is a drug being used more widely, taken by growing numbers across a cross-section in society, so there is no reason why people within the racing industry would not touch it. In fact, jockeys have more reason than most to take an interest in meth as it is a powerful appetite suppressant. Staying lightweight is obviously an important part of a jockey’s role so taking the Class A substance may well offer more appeal than it normally would as a result.
In New Zealand alone, there have been 14 cases over the last decade in which a jockey (or trainer) has produced a sample indicating there is meth in their system. It does seem to be more of an issue in the region as two of the most newsworthy cases of jockeys having a meth addiction, Jason Maskiell and Tiffani Brooker, were both based in neighbouring Australia.
Another factor playing a part in the number of horse meth cases is that it is does not take a lot to produce a positive sample. Horses do not need to be licking it out of a bag for it to show in their urine as one scientific study showed.
In this particular case, researchers looked at a horse trailer that had been contaminated with methamphetamine. The three horses that spent six hours in said trailer all tested positive post-race. Any trace of meth in the system is treated as positive test too, no matter how small. The researchers involved in the paper suggested there should be a lower urinary methamphetamine concentration limit of 0.15 ng/mL for a ’positive’ result as below this level there are unlikely to be any effects on the horse. Had this been applied, then one of the three horses they took samples off would have not failed its test.
Not Just Meth
The zero-tolerance approach combined with illicit drugs being relatively prevalent in every day society means that it should not be surprising that meth is not the only drug a horse has inadvertently consumed. There are stories, for example, of horses testing positing for cocaine, such as Walk In The Sun following a win in 2018. There was another case in America where a seven-year-old gelding called Minecraft, trained by Jorge Navarro also tested positive for the drug. Such cases are not a huge surprise given that racing has a problematic relationship with cocaine, according to Professional Jockeys Association (PJA) Chief Paul Struthers.
It the Walk In The Sun example, trainer, Jeremy Noseda, announced his retirement from training before any punishment was issued. No racing ban was handed down, therefore, but he was given a £1,500 fine. This may seem a little low given that Walk In The Sun cost €1.4m but the disciplinary panel acknowledged it could not establish how the cocaine entered its system and could only rule out Mr Noseda doing it intentionally.
Some suggested routes though, included “The horse having been being touched by someone who was a regular cocaine user, or because the horse ingested cocaine that had been dropped or spilt on the ground or through chewing on straw or shavings contaminated by urine from a cocaine user.”
As you can see, there are some very plausible explanations, none of which have to involve Noseda himself. As a positive drug test is a strict liability issue though, it is the trainer that inevitably ends up being in the firing line. Although this may seem harsh, it discourages anyone from administering any performing-enhancing drugs, hoping it will not be picked up, but if it is, and they are caught, trying to pass it off as an accident. This was not a genuine suspicion in this particular case, although the disciplinary board dismissed the argument from Noseda’s legal case that the cocaine could not have impacted performance.