A thoroughbred trainer, an owner and an ex harness trainer have been found guilty in New Zealand racing's first EPO case.
Ashburton trainer Len Faber, Dunedin owner Calvin Fisher and retired Invercargill trotting trainer Donny McRae escaped charges of attempting to administer the prohibited substance EPO but still face heavy penalties for conduct detrimental to the interests of racing.
The controversial blood doping substance, which has been the scourge of competitive cycling, was found during a raid of Faber's stables last September, resulting in two of his runners, The Hand Of Faith and Force Majeure, being ordered out of feature races at Riccarton.
Racing Integrity Unit investigators were alerted to the syringe of EPO when contacted by vet John Beeman who visited Faber's stable the previous day to administer pre-race medication to the two horses.
During an April sitting into the case, a Judicial Control Authority committee heard how Faber quizzed Beeman about the drug, which he claimed was given to him by another vet, and supposedly made horses go faster.
Faber told him he was not prepared to use the drug unless he knew what it was or that it was safe to admimister.
When Faber asked what kind of racing advantage the substance might provide, Beeman replied that if it was EPO it would produce more red blood cells in the body, leading to better ability to carry oxygen to tissues, improving performance and reducing fatigue.
Beeman told Faber that EPO was the drug that Lance Armstrong and many disgraced Tour De France cyclists had taken to boost their performance, to which Faber replied that was exactly what he'd been told when given it and that it couldn't be detected.
When interviewed the following morning by racecourse investigators Robin Scott and Kylie Williams, Faber initially said he had no drugs on the property other than those given him by Beeman. He later admitted the substance he had shown Beeman was in his car.
Faber also changed his story about where he got the drug. At the morning interview he said he had been given the vial by an owner, whom he did not name. On second interview that afternoon he identified the owner as Calvin Fisher.
The committee heard how Fisher had been given the vial by his friend Donny McRae, who uses EPO in the course of his own medical treatment.
McRae, who held a harness trainer's licence until 2011, pleaded guilty but was too unwell to attend the hearing - he undergoes renal sympathetic denervation to combat hypertension, gets dialysis and has type II diabetes and had his right foot amputated in December, 2013.
McRae, who regularly attends Dunedin Hospital for treatment when he stays with Fisher, told Scott that Fisher had asked him to look at one of his horses, Dragon's Glory, (whom Fisher co-owns with Faber) who was very weak and testing their patience.
McRae said the horse didn't look too good and, believing it was spelling, he told Fisher he could have some of his out of date EPO, inject it, then get a blood test done to see how it worked.
Fisher claimed he took the vial thinking of it as a last resort to strengthen the horse, but never as a raceday enhancement.
While Fisher denied that McRae specifically identified the substance as EPO, committee chairman Murray McKechnie said all the evidence pointed to the contrary.
McRae and Fisher were close friends and had talked about cyclists and the drugs they had used and there had been a direct reference to Lance Armstrong. By July, 2013, the conduct of Armstrong had become notorious worldwide.
The RIU pointed out Fisher acknowledged in cross examination that he was aware that Lance Armstrong had taken EPO and he had discussed Lance Armstrong juice with McRae. Fisher acccepted that Lance Armstrong juice was EPO.
In dismissing the more serious charge of administering EPO, McKechnie, however, said the evidence did not establish, beyond the passing of the vial to Faber, that any further actions were taken by Fisher or Faber to use the substance.
Both men had recounted that any use of the substance in the vial was conditional on consultation with a vet.
Faber had spoken to Beeman about what might be in the vial which was unopened, and the packaging around it had not been disturbed.
"We conclude that Mr Fisher's conduct was in the nature of preparation and the actions he took were too remote to constitute any meaningful steps towards the commission of the offence of administering a prohibited substance to a horse."
McKechnie said Faber was not a persuasive witness. He was hesitant in many of his answers and the accounts he gave of the relevant events were not consistent.
He concluded that while Faber may not have known for sure the substance in the vial was EPO he did know it was highly suspect. He was not straight forward with his vet because he was highly suspicious of its contents.
The committee was satisfied that there were a number of conversations between Fisher and Faber about the vial and, given Fisher's knowledge of what it contained, it was a compelling inference that some of that information must have passed to Faber.
While Faber made no attempt to administer the drug before his discussion with his vet, he had the vial for many weeks (about two months) and had done nothing to have it checked out.
"The argument for Mr Faber that he did the right thing in raising the subject with Dr Beeman may have some initial superficial attraction," McKechnie says in his decision.
"It was said for Mr Faber that he would not have used the substance unless it was given the all clear by a veterinarian. That argument could lead to a situation where trainers take into their possession material or substances which they strongly suspect to be unlawful and would then seek to excuse themselves by saying that they were not going to engage in any administration of the substance until they had obtained a veterinary clearance.
"The committee takes the view that Mr Faber should never have taken possession of the vial."
Further, after been told that all the big trainers were using it to win races and it didn't prove positive, he must have been suspicious that something about it wasn't kosher and should have gotten rid of the vial.
Faber said he never intended using the drug and, in the end when the horse came right, it sat there for so long he forgot about it.
The charge Faber faced did not require proof that he knew the vial contained EPO, McKechnie said in his judgement.
The circumstances of the discovery of the EPO and the scratching of his horses had led to intense media interest and publicity, which was plainly detrimental to the interests of racing.
It was also detrimental to the interests of racing that owners and trainers should be in possession of substances which in the case of Fisher he knew to be EPO and in the case of Faber he had information which all pointed to the substance being prohibited.
The committee will not decide on penalty for the trio until either further submissions are put or another hearing is scheduled.
New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing's chief veterinarian Andrewe Grierson said, internationally, EPO had the highest possible classification of a class one drug. Controlling bodies viewed any trainer found in possession of EPO as having committed a grave offence.
Faber, Fisher and McRae face a fine of up to $50,000 and/or suspension or disqualification for any period up to life.
- Sunday Star Times