Don’t jump to conclusions over the positive drugs test on the Queen’s filly ‘Estimate’

23 July 2014

The news that one of the Queen’s horses, Estimate, tested positive for morphine, a banned substance, hit the headlines yesterday evening and unsurprisingly caused a bit of a stir. If the drugs test is confirmed by the British Horseracing Authority then the five year old filly would be disqualified from the 2014 Gold Cup at Ascot in which she came second (and which she won in 2013). She was last night still expected to be racing at Glorious Goodwood on 31st July.

Morphine is a painkiller (or a sedative), rather than a performance-enhancing drug, and one that is permitted for use in training, but not in competition. The thing is, morphine is highly unlikely to have affected the performance of the horse at all. It is most likely that the official line coming from John Warren, the Queen’s racing advisor, is correct: her feed was accidentally contaminated – most probably with poppy seeds. As the vet and racehorse trainer Jim Boyle said on Radio 5 Live: ‘a positive result is 99.99% of the time due to a feed contamination’. The feed company Dodson & Horrell currently seems to be most likely source of the problem, and according to a statement from them, ‘the investigation is currently centring on Dodson & Horrell’s supplier’.

But the fact that a royal horse tested positive to a banned drug has created ripples, simply because the Queen is one of the world’s most high-profile racehorse owners. Any headline linking racing and drugs (or indeed any sport and drugs) immediately encourages people to jump to conclusions that are often wrong (especially when the BBC news ticker says that it’s the Queen who has tested positive morphine!).

An unfortunate news ticker from the BBC

An unfortunate news ticker from the BBC

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The problem is that racing – and indeed a number of other equine sports – has had issues with banned substances in the past, so any potential breaches are treated very seriously. Racehorses are tested fairly frequently; about one in every ten racehorses will be test for drugs in a year. Although they are selected for testing by the stewards, it will normally either be the winner, or horses that performed surprisingly well (or badly) that are picked.

In 2009 another of the Queen’s horses, Moonlit Path, tested positive for tranexamic acid, for which the vet was struck off for a year, and the trainer banned for 3 months. More recently, a doping scandal at the Dubai-owned Godolphin Stud meant that the trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni was banned for eight years, and another Newmarket trainer, Gerard Butler, for five. Endurance riding has also been under serious scrutiny in recent years over problems with horse doping in the Middle East.

So it’s no wonder that the headlines got people concerned. But it seems that this time around there is – fortunately – little to worry about.

PS. On another horsey note, ITN’s Tom Bradby has been accompanying David Cameron on a trip to Shetland ahead of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony this evening. Bradby’s Twitter feed is full of pictures of the PM posing with Shetland ponies. I suppose both are notoriously stubborn – does anyone have any other comparisons?


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Show comments
  • Jackthesmilingblack

    There I was thinking the Queen had tested positive.

  • Adam Carter

    If the drug masks pain then how can you say it isn’t a performing-enhancing drug?
    Go out and run 400m at your absolute limit – hurts, doesn’t it?
    That it is permitted during training is just as bad if the training load can be increased and/or recovery time reduced. That’s how anabolic steroids work, the cheats who take them still have to train very hard.
    The horse tested positive, why is it not the first assumption that the trainer and owner are at fault. A human athlete would be held responsible for substances in his body, why not the nearest human among the horse’s connections?

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