By Kevin Blake
Last week saw the much-talked-about case concerning the well-known equine veterinarian Tim Brennan come to a conclusion in the Irish courts.
To briefly summarise it, Brennan was alleged to have been found with unauthorised substances whilst in the yard of Champion National Hunt Trainer Willie Mullins in February 2015. Given the profile of the Mullins yard and with drugs in sport being such a serious issue, it was a case that attracted inflammatory headlines and generated no shortage of chat and speculation inside and outside the racing industry.
However, when one delved into the details, it soon became clear that it was not nearly as concerning for the integrity of the Irish racing as the sensationalist headlines suggested. Indeed, the three substances found in his possession that were the focus of this case could hardly have been less concerning. They were:
• Catosal: Rather than being a pain killer as was claimed by several media outlets last week, it is actually a vitamin B12 supplement.
• Quinidine Sulfate: A tablet used to treat heart problems, specifically atrial fibrillation, in horses.
• Hemo 15: A multivitamin supplement that isn’t authorised for use in Ireland, but is permitted and very common in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The reason that charges were brought against Brennan was that he did not have the paperwork to justify having those substances in his possession at the time they were found. When the case was finally heard last week, Brennan pled guilty to three counts of possession of unauthorised animal remedies and one count of failing to keep records in respect of an animal remedy, while 10 other charges were struck out.
In contrast with how other judges have assessed similar cases in the recent past, this judge acknowledged that this was a technical breach of the rules rather than anything more sinister, issuing Brennan no penalty and ensuring that no conviction was recorded against him. While some headline writers persisted in trying to sensationalise the story after the verdict was revealed, this really was a case of much ado about nothing.
Rather than being likely to be indicative of an underlying problem with drugs in Irish horse racing, what this case served to highlight more than anything are the concerning constraints that equine veterinarians are obliged to work within in Ireland due to the medication regulations set by the Department of Agriculture.
In Europe, medication regulations are set by the European Union, but it is up to the relevant authorities in each country to decide how strictly to interpret those regulations. With the food industry being of such economic importance in Ireland, the Irish Department of Agriculture chooses to interpret and enforce these regulations very strictly indeed, far more strictly than the equivalent departments in the likes of Britain or France do. The well-meaning intention of this is to make it as unlikely as possible that residues of inappropriate medications make it into the human food chain.
An unintended consequence of this is that with thoroughbred horses essentially being considered the same as sheep and cattle in the eyes of the Department of Agriculture, it means that equine vets are very much restricted in the variety of medications that are readily available to them, many of which are routine and readily available in the likes of Britain and France.
This makes the job of the equine vets in Ireland very difficult. They regularly have to treat horses with less effective, less convenient and more expensive medications than they would like to. This can be a particular problem in the case of antibiotics, as the Irish regulations only permit a very narrow spectrum of antibiotics which can make it difficult for vets to treat more serious conditions in the most effective way possible. They may even have to leave serious ailments untreated, as the appropriate medications are not available to them in Ireland, especially in emergency situations that demand less common medications.
The difficulty of obtaining the medications they desire is only exacerbated by the fact that the tight regulations in what is a small market in Ireland have meant that it is often uneconomical for pharmaceutical companies to license valued equine products there, so they don’t produce them for the Irish market. This issue has come to public prominence in recent years when there has been a number of severe shortages of the vaccine for equine herpes virus in Ireland, which put the Irish horse population at unnecessary risk to an outbreak.
The concerns that this reality creates on a horse welfare level should be obvious, but it is also has detrimental effects on the competitiveness of Irish-based horses. With the medication regulations being much more relaxed in rival racing nations such as Britain and France, Irish-based horses are effectively at a disadvantage in the standard of treatment and medication they can receive. Not only does this have potential implications in competition, it also has the potential to make Ireland a less attractive country for international horse owners to keep their horses in.
This situation can lead to veterinarians being presented with moral dilemma whereby they have to choose between following the letter of the law to the detriment of the horses they are treating or take a chance in bending the regulations to provide the best treatment to the horses they are treating.
As frustrating as it is for practising equine vets to be confronted with such dilemmas in what would be routine cases in other jurisdictions, what is even more concerning for them is the manner in which the Department of Agriculture seeks to criminalise those that break their rules. As has been shown by a number of recent cases in Ireland, no punches are being pulled in pursuing criminal convictions, despite the offences being minor in nature in the greater scheme of things, with reputations and livelihoods being destroyed by such cases.
An obvious bigger-picture offshoot of the Department of Agriculture pursuing those that transgress the rules in the rigorous manner than they have is the negative perception of the bloodstock industry it creates in the public eye. In this day and age where drugs in sport is such a powder-keg issue, many in the media only need a sniff of a medication transgression to run with damaging and often unreflective headlines such as those described above. If a case is serious enough to justify such headlines, no one will ever complain, but in minor cases many would consider them inappropriate and unfair to the equine industries. The food industry may be of the utmost importance to the Irish economy, but the bloodstock business is of major significance, too, and cases such as these can only damage the international reputation of the Irish racing industry.
One must also question whether the aggressive pursuit of cases such as these are an appropriate use of the time and resources of the Department of Agriculture and the government. The completed case against Tim Brennan took over 2 1/2 years to go through the courts to its conclusion. There are surely more significant threats to both the food and equine industries that better warrant such aggressive pursual?
This whole situation just seems unsatisfactory to the point where finding a solution should be a priority for all involved. While some thoroughbred horses may end up in the food chain, there is no thoroughbred horse that is bred with that intention. Thus, it would surely make sense to introduce new regulations whereby any thoroughbred that is registered with Weatherbys is automatically categorised as not being for human consumption, thus removing almost all of possibility of thoroughbreds entering the food chain. The Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association are reportedly lobbying for a change in this vein and their campaign should be supported by all that care for the Irish thoroughbred industry.
Such a change would help make a clear case for the Department of Agriculture to make an exception for thoroughbred horses and loosen the medication regulations that apply to them in line with the regulations in Britain and France, which appeals as being in the best interests of all concerned.