By Chris McGrath
Seoul, SOUTH KOREA–The physical wellbeing of the horse, and the integrity of the horseman, dominated the agenda on the second day of the 37th Asian Racing Conference in Seoul on Wednesday.
The spectre of gene doping-which has been viewed as “the elephant in the room” by some veterinary and bloodstock professionals-was candidly addressed in a session that had worrying potential to be identified, in years to come, as the most significant of the week.
Horsemen were urged to awaken to the existential threat to the Thoroughbred, and certainly to pedigrees, that could arise from manipulation of genetic therapy or engineering to enhance performance, as opposed to treat disease. In mice, for instance, running capacity has been stimulated in experiments to a staggering extent: from 800 metres to six kilometres.
An international panel of experts has been working since 2016 to teach the sport vigilance regarding the kind of wholesome applications already operative in the equine world-as, for instance, in the injection of growth genes into a bowed tendon.
Heartening, then, to learn of the world’s first test to detect equine gene doping, disclosed by Dr Natasha Hamilton, appointed by Racing Australia as Director of the new Equine Genetics Research Laboratory in Scone, New South Wales. Its focus is the kind of gene therapy that might be legitimate, in a sick horse, but threatens to create what Hamilton termed “Frankenstein horses” from treatments that might assist muscle growth, for instance, or delivery of oxygen. She costs the test, which targets unique sequences created by the medical processing of DNA, at under A$40 and expects that it should be ready to launch next year.
She left no doubt that a single positive test would be a catastrophe. “The question isn’t do we really have to worry?” she said. “It’s can we afford not to worry? We have to make absolutely sure this never happens.”
On the same premise, Dr Kanichi Kusano of the JRA’s Racehorse Hospital at Ritto Training Centre, urged delegates from all points of the compass to return home with the same mission. “Check with the laboratory in your jurisdiction whether they have the appropriate experts and equipment to conduct research or analysis to detect gene doping,” he said. “We have a great risk of creating a genetically modified Thoroughbred, which would infringe the very definition of what a Thoroughbred is.”
Dr Teruaki Tozaki, Technical Advisor at Japan’s Laboratory of Racing Chemistry, stressed that genetic editing-which differs from the kind of therapy targeted by the breakthrough test-was dangerously accessible, both in terms of cost and the level of technical competence required. He warned that other equine breeds are already subject to genetic engineering, with a “super-horse” likely to be foaled in Argentina next year.
Veterinary science, after all, has ample on its plate without these sci-fi horrors. Knowledge of the most basic of all challenges to equine health, the limb fracture, is still opaque according to Dr Chris Whitton, Head of the Equine Orthopaedic Research Group at the University of Melbourne. What is clear, however, is that “repeated high loads will cause material fatigue, and bone is no different from any other material-apply enough load and it will eventually fail.”
Whitton explained that the faster a horse moves, the greater the load: to the point that, at the gallop, the fetlock will bear four tonnes-the equivalent of three small cars-on each stride. Damage, moreover, is cumulative. On the other hand, given enough rest the bone will repair itself. Much work still had to be done on the effects of different types of surface and exercise, and also on the detection of bone damage. But Whitton was emphatic that increased rest, both in duration and frequency, would diminish catastrophic injuries.
Dr Tim Parkin, Head of Equine Clinical Services at the University of Glasgow, explained how progress had been made in identifying categories of risk by data analysis; but that the rarity of breakdowns made the data unhelpful in terms of specifying a particular horse at risk. He urged other jurisdictions to match the Asian practice of securing veterinary access to the medical history of all horses, to provide a better filter of risks.
Gene doping was not the only challenge to the sport’s integrity under examination. Earlier Professor Jack Anderson, Director of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne, drew lessons from the experience of other sports that had suffered damage to their brands through the manipulation of betting.
“Nothing corrodes quicker than the whiff of corruption,” he said. “People sometimes say so what, the bookies have lost a few bob but they’ll get it back in the next race. But a fix in a race is a fix on every consumer who has contributed to the pot. Insider information and player education is the key. It’s people whose livelihoods depend on a sport who are often the ones who undermine it from within.”
He commended the anti-corruption models of Australian and UK racing, but warned that these were “extremely resource intensive”. He also counselled against recruitment of investigative specialists to pass judgement-typically, ex-policemen-when this should be entrusted to those versed by their own experience in the subtleties of a particular sport.
The Hon Justice Jack Forrest of the Supreme Court of Victoria reprised the recent cobalt and sodium bicarbonate scandals to have undermined the sport in his homeland, and urged jurisdictions to resist undue variation in the mitigations they entertain when penalising use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The stakes for the sport, in its quest to remain a trusted betting vehicle, had become clear during a morning session focused on current strategies and opportunities in global wagering-in which renewed growth is anticipated to maintain a 3.9% curve both this year and next.