Drug tests begin for polo ponies

New policy created in response to death of 21 horses at U.S. Open last year, 16 horses randomly tested so far
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Jun 01, 2010

NATIONAL REPORT — Sixteen polo ponies have been tested since the U.S. Polo Association (USPA) unveiled its random drug testing program earlier this year.

Horses at two USPA events in April were tested, including three horses from each of the four semifinal teams at the U.S. Open Championship and two horses from each of the two finalist teams at the USPA President's Cup.

"The tests are so recent we are still waiting on the results," says Peter Rizzo, USPA executive director.

While the USPA unveiled its random drug-testing program in January, the rules were not officially published until Feb. 25. Members of the USPA then had 30 days to familiarize themselves with the new procedure, making March 28 the earliest date that a horse could be randomly drug tested.

"I was very proud of the fact that everyone understood why it was being done," says Rizzo, who was present during the testing. "Everyone was very helpful, positive and completely understood the test. Everyone knows it's for the welfare and safety of the horses and players."

The new drug testing policy came in response to the death of 21 polo ponies at the U.S. Open championship in 2009. Tests found an overdose of selenium as the probable cause.

Six months later, on the recommendation of the USPA Polo Pony Welfare Committee, the USPA Board of Governors unanimously voted to require random blood and/or urine testing.

The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Testing Laboratory will conduct the tests. Stephen Schumacher, chief administrator in the Drugs and Medications division of the USEF, confirmed that USPA horses have been tested.

If a horse is selected for a test, samples will be taken after the polo match is over, but before the horse leaves the competition area. Schumacher says they are testing for a variety of substances including doping substances, short-term tranquilizers and long-acting sedatives.

According to USPA's Web site, permitted drugs include dewormers, hormonal therapies, anti-ulcer medications and antibiotics — except penicillin procaine.A prohibited drug or substance is any stimulant, depressant, tranquilizer, local anesthetic, psychotropic (mood or behavior altering) substance or drug that could influence the horse's performance, according to the USPA. Other prohibited substances include adenosine triphosphate and selenium in any application and amount; and all vitamins and minerals when given in excessive dosage quantities for non-therapeutic reasons.

Dr. John Harvey, executive associate dean at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, says the USPA took a proactive approach after the tragedy. The university's racing lab performed lab work as well as necropsy and urine analysis on approximately 15 of the affected horses last year.

"We didn't find anything of concern, other than the selenium. When the 21 horses died, the public perception was 'who knows what they're injecting into the horses.' We didn't find anything suggesting a rampant problem," Harvey says. "I don't disagree with them doing it [the drug testing], but it is important to point out that they are not doing it because we found big problems. The U.S. Polo Association elected to do the testing to reassure the public that they care for the horses, like any other athletes."

As for intravenous selenium, Harvey says he does not see a need for it.

"It could be done as a dietary supplement," he says. "There are risks — like infections — associated with any intravenous drugs. If I was in the horse business, which I'm not, I would not be giving IV selenium to my horses. I'm not convinced you need it in the first place. "

There is no penalty during the 2010 pilot program, but horse owners will be notified if a prohibited drug is found. By 2011, penalties — still being determined — will be enforced.

"We will be testing throughout the country — from the east coast to the west coast," Rizzo says. The USPA can revise the program at any time. For a full list of prohibited drugs and medications, visit http://www.uspolo.org/.

Ms. Fellenstein is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio.