New Zealand eventing rider Jock Paget will be clearing a couple of days in his diary before long to head to Lausanne, Switzerland, for an appointment with the FEI Tribunal.
The hearing can now be locked in, following confirmation that the B sample taken from his mount, Clifton Promise, tested positive for the long-acting sedative reserpine.
Paget rode Clifton Promise to victory at the Burghley International Horse Trials in September, but a blood sample taken from the horse at the end of the competition tested positive for the substance.
Paget exercised his right to have the B sample tested, and it is understood he had a representative present at the laboratory for the analysis, as was his right under FEI regulations.
Paget has strongly denied being a drug cheat, and was adamant that no-one associated with the horse would have knowingly given him anything containing reserpine, a medication not permitted in competition.
His many fans are supportive of his plight, as he serves a provisional suspension pending the outcome of the yet-to-be-scheduled disciplinary hearing.
Frances Stead, who owns Clifton Eventers, which has provided Paget with his most competitive mounts, is standing firmly with her rider, and initially promised to be open about the investigation launched to get to the bottom of the failed test. It emerged that a scientist had been engaged to help in the matter.
A week or so later, Stead explained that a lawyer who specialises in such cases had been engaged and the advice was to proceed without the transparency she had intended. This is entirely understandable.
Since then, little has come out of the Clifton Eventers camp.
Since the B sample result, there have been some positive comments from Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ) chief executive Jim Ellis about the case.
Ellis told New Zealand’s RadioSport: “We have information that very strongly lends us to offer our continued support to the rider in the case that he will make to the FEI. And I think we believe that will be both plausible and persuasive to that tribunal.”
He confirmed to Stuff.co.nz that Paget’s spirits were high.
“Jock and the forensic toxicologists believe that they have answers to put forward a persuasive case,” Ellis said.
“Jock’s take is that there is enough that he’s seen to date that really does give him some confidence.
“Once you believe you’ve found an answer it’s then about how much you can prove you’ve acted reasonably, you haven’t been negligent and so on.”
Paget, facing an “entry point” disqualification of two years, could potentially reduce that if he can show that he had not acted wilfully or knowingly in giving reserpine to the horse, but that is no easy task.
He can do so if he is able to prove that he and his team were conscientious and careful in the way in which the feeding regime was established and executed.
Should he be able to prove he was not at fault, he could even argue for no suspension. By that stage, of course, he would already have served several months of his provisional suspension. (The regulations do allow a person who is provisionally suspended to apply for it to be lifted if he or she collects evidence they feel would justify it, but it would seem to be rarely used.)
This seems better news for Paget, but many fans and riders will not be aware of just how high the bar is set by the FEI under its Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication regulations, a key component of the FEI’s Clean Sport initiative.
The regulations are based around what is called the strict liability principle.
This means that the rider – known as the Person Responsible under the regulations – is strictly liable whenever a prohibited substance is found in a horse’s sample.
It does not matter whether the positive test was a result of something given to the horse intentionally or unintentionally. It also does not matter if it was given by a groom or even a veterinarian in error. Nor does it matter whether the horse got any competitive advantage from the substance.
This – while requiring the confirmation of the FEI Tribunal – means that the disqualification of Paget and Clifton Promise from Burghley will ultimately be automatic, even if he can prove, and the tribunal agrees, that he was not at fault.
This is only fair to the other competitors. It may seem unfair on some levels to the individual concerned, but the strict liability principle greatly simplifies the process. It makes it impossible for an unscrupulous rider to pass the buck to another party in order to retain their title or prizes.
Even though the principle of strict liability applies, the rider still has every opportunity to explain how the breach came about, and whether any blame is attached to them. The tribunal can take that evidence into account in deciding on a suspension or fine.
Paget has 21 days from the notification of the result of the B sample to submit his evidence to the FEI, though it is understood there is an option to ask for an extension to this deadline.
A rider who has submitted evidence is under no obligation to appear. In effect, they can let the witness and expert statements stand in his or her defence, and await the decision of the tribunal. Alternatively, they can submit their evidence and request the opportunity for a final hearing, which they are entitled to attend in person or by telephone.
Those found in breach of the regulations will automatically be disqualified from the competition concerned and must return all medals, prizes or money. The tribunal, which usually comprises three lawyers from a panel of seven volunteer lawyers, may then impose a competition ban of up to two years, a fine or costs, or a combination of the three.
There are several possible scenarios in the Paget case, but the most likely would seem to be that the horse was given a complementary feed which, without the knowledge of Paget and his support personnel, contained reserpine.
To obtain sympathetic treatment from the tribunal, Paget would need to produce evidence to demonstrate that he took all reasonable care in providing the feed to the horse.
How could one categorise that level of care?
It is commonly expected that all FEI registered riders would carefully monitor all substances ingested by their horses to ensure compliance with the rules.
In Paget’s case, it is known that ESNZ high performance squad riders have a clear duty of care and protocols to support this. It is understood that riders are obliged to check use of any new product with the team vet and that samples of feedstuffs are kept for any future analysis required.
It is also a reasonable expectation that riders investigate the nature of any feed products and also obtain quality assurance of manufacturing processes.
If a complementary feed was tested at a laboratory for the presence of banned substances and also assessed by a veterinarian before being fed, one would hope the tribunal would show considerable leniency.
How could a horse fail a test on a product previously tested? The manufacturer might change the supplier of a raw ingredient, or issues with quality control could mean that one particular batch of a product produces a positive test. It is unrealistic to expect an elite operation to scientifically test every batch of every product it purchases to feed a horse.
Just what evidence Paget and his team will offer to the FEI Tribunal remains to be seen.
The good news is that Ellis, on the basis of what he knows, remains upbeat and – while reaffirming his organisation’s full support for FEI and ESNZ Clean Sport policies – has reiterated the New Zealand national body’s support for one of the country’s finest competitors.
The Burghley title will ultimately go to the second place-getter, fellow New Zealander Andrew Nicholson, though the formalities of the transfer will not occur until the tribunal process has been concluded.
What Paget’s many thousands of fans will be hoping for is evidence that the positive test for reserpine was a result of some misfortune in the feeding regime, which happened despite the greatest of care.
He may then be able to get back in the saddle and continue his career, with the equestrian fraternity left in no doubt as to exactly what happened in the lead-up to Burghley that ultimately saw Clifton Promise fail a test.