There are so many things that can affect a horse’s performance, most of them remaining a mystery to punters.
We can’t always know how a horse is being prepared and how well that preparation is going. We are not privy to how much the horse weighs or whether it has grown, and we aren’t necessarily told when any valid medication or treatments have been applied.
Another major reason for a drop in performance in the past, has been contaminated horse feed.
Why is Horse Feed So Important?
Not all horses eat the same things. Much like humans, diet is a huge part of a thoroughbred’s training. Some athletes prefer a big diet, working it off quickly by sprinting, boxing or playing football. Others are built more for endurance and need a diet which reflects this.
Our race horses are in a similar boat.
Horses of course are herbivores. Their diet needs to include a good deal of fibre, accounting for more than half of the total ration and at a minimum of 1.5% of the horse’s overall weight.
Feed has to be adapted. A trainer will not necessarily simply accept whatever proportions a feed supplier recommends. Horses are individuals. Some need more protein in their cereal-based diets, with supplements added to the feed.
Horse’s stomachs are relatively small. With this in mind, little and often is the key, with most horses eating rations several times a day. A concentrated feed is given to racehorses, often three times a day.
The basic feed is made up of cereals including barley and oats, with the starch contained within converting to glucose which is essentially the horse’s fuel for racing. An excess of starch however can lead to ulcers, which is why trainers face a difficult balancing act in preparing their horses.
Knowing When the Feed is Bad
Occasionally, horse feed is bad.
From the smell alone, trainers and stable staff can tell when grain has spoiled and it will produce a mouldy odour. Bugs and their droppings may be spotted, meaning bad feed is usually easily noticed and replaced.
Sometimes however, feed can get contaminated without trainers knowing.
How Does Feed Get Contaminated?
When we talk about horse feed becoming contaminated, many will think this is the work of some sort of skulduggery. That’s not what it’s about at all.
In the main, contaminated feed is not the same as misuse of veterinary drugs which can enhance a horse’s performance. It does happen though, and it’s bad for the horse and for the sport.
Horse feed contamination, including simple adulteration and deterioration, can happen when something is found present in the feed which isn’t part of the intended formula.
Most contamination is accidental. Intentional feed contamination has tended to come within the pet food sector, but within horse feed and especially within horse racing all cases have been unintended.
Common causes of horse feed adulterants are antibiotics or ionophores intended for hooved animals including goats and sheep. Often, this is because of a simple mislabelling of feeds or individual ingredients. It can also be caused by a failure to clean equipment between the manufacture of feed batches.
When the adulterant comes in antibiotic form, much like in humans it can tend to mean the horse’s body isn’t naturally fighting infections. This can lead to severe diarrhoea, sometimes even being fatal.
Examples of Contaminated Feed Within Horse Racing
Luckily, and largely because of the money involved and the security surrounding thoroughbred racing, contaminated feed within this industry is rare.
2014 Morphine Scare
In 2014, a bunch of horses in training tested positive for morphine in their post-race samples.
Morphine is on the list of naturally occurring substances by the BHA, but its use is permitted as an out of competition drug rather than being for use on race days. Drugs and treatments not allowed on race days are usually discontinued by trainers a number of days before a race, just to be safe.
One of the horses testing positive for morphine in 2014 was Estimate, owned by the Queen. As you’d unfortunately expect, some of the headlines were rather predictably sensationalist given that the bare facts were that a royal runner has tested positive for a drug.
It was found quite quickly however that the positive result of Estimates post-race test, and that of the others horses involved, were as a result of horses consuming contaminated feed.
It was thought that the contamination of the feed occurred naturally owing to the presence of poppy seeds.
Poppy seeds contain amounts of morphine and codeine opiates. Poppy seeds can enter the supply chain unwittingly at various stages including harvesting, transport, processing and even storage.
2020 Feed Contamination
In 2020, there was another scare for horse racing involving contaminated feed.
One equine nutrition company had switched its supplier of molasses, which is the juice extracted from sugar during refining. It was thought molasses was the cause of the scare.
The feed at that time had contained trace amounts of Zilpaterol.
This is the drug used to fatten up cattle in the USA, though it is banned in Europe and of course is not allowed within horse racing.
Traces of Zilpaterol were found in post-race samples from horses in France, with warnings sent to users of the same product in Britain and Ireland.
Where Does the Responsibility Lie?
Ultimately, if and when it is found that a bad sample given by a racehorse comes from contaminated feed, then the responsibility remains with the feed provider.
A trainer or owner cannot know that the feed is contaminated, only that it has perhaps gone bad. Trace amounts of banned substances cannot be detected by the trainer.
It’s a tricky situation, as part of the conditions of being granted a licence are that the trainer is responsible for what happens at their yard. Even if a staff member is to blame for something, it’s the trainer who faces a fine or in extreme cases a ban.
A trainer must personally ensure that every tube of cream, oral medication, injection, feed or anything else being applied to a horse in their care comes from a reputable source. If a positive sample is given for a banned substance, any win can be taken away and the prize money not awarded.
Stopping contaminated feed of course is the hardest thing for a trainer to do when it comes to horses producing bad samples.
Owners and trainers have in the past argued that a threshold should be set on certain substances, such as the aforementioned trace amounts of morphine. This is so that stables which buy feed in good faith which turns out to be contaminated do not incur penalties.
This is more than fair. As mentioned, poppy seeds and therefore other contaminants can enter the equine feed supply chain at various points and cannot be detected by a racing stable.