Capsaicin is at the centre of a string of positive drug tests but the AGCO and the CPMA remain tight-lipped about the issue. Trainers, however, are more than ready to express their opinions on the 39 and counting cases that remain unexplained.

The Role of the AGCO and CPMA

The Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency (CPMA) is the regulatory body that supervises betting on horse races in Canada. The CPMA is also responsible for testing samples from racehorses to deter the use of prohibited substances.

Last September, the CPMA issued an advisory reminding industry members that capsaicin has always been a prohibited substance and classified as such because of its painkilling properties. Then, this June, the CPMA issued a certificate of positive analysis for capsaicin in 11 horses at Woodbine, Fort Erie, and Standardbred tracks Hiawatha and Clinton. All 11 horses were placed on the stewards’ list by the AGCO officials for 15 days. Since then, a total of 39 cases have been confirmed in Ontario.

Between the initial warning, and the increasing number of positives many wonder whether the CPMA’s testing process or thresholds have changed, but the CPMA denies that either is the case.

“CPMA has not changed its testing for capsaicin; the tests used are the same as before June 2020,” said a CPMA spokesperson. The agency also acknowledged that “since testing for capsaicin is qualitative (presence/absence of drug) no thresholds are applied.”

The organization released a statement in July stating that multiple capsaicin positive cases would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, the AGCO Equine Drug Unit continues to investigate the positive test results through their seven step equine drug program process. They are currently at stage five where they gather information for the investigation. In stage six the AGCO will decide on a ruling. The ruling is issued by the head office in step seven and the licensee may file a notice of appeal with the Horse Racing Appeal Panel (HRAP) within 15 days. Chris Bennett, the detective sergeant for the Equine Drug Unit, was contacted but could not provide any comment on the investigation at this time.

Woodbine Racetrack provided the following statement:

“The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario are actively investigating the rash of capsaicin positive tests in the province. Woodbine Entertainment believes there to be no nefarious activity related to these positive tests. The health and welfare of the horses and the integrity of the sport are of the utmost importance and Woodbine is supportive of the AGCO and HBPA’s efforts to resolve this issue.”

Possible Causes

On July 24th the AGCO sent out an industry notice  that stated a potential source for capsaicin could be a product known as ZEV, specifically bottles with the LOT no #190104 Exp:01-2022.

The primary use of ZEV is to provide temporary relief for coughing in horses. However, capsaicin is not listed as an active ingredient in the product.

“It’s an old product, it’s been around forever, and nothing has changed,” said David Earn, the vice-president of Dominion Veterinary Laboratories which manufacturers ZEV. He went on to explain that “the government dictates which ingredients are included on the label and while capsaicin is included in the product it is not on the label, but it is listed on the website as an ingredient.”

Other reports note that the positives could be from cayenne pepper paste or “Rap Last” ‒ both are pepper-based products that horse people use to prevent horses from chewing on their leg bandages.

While Rap Last is a pepper-based product, some horse who tested positive have never had it applied to their bandages.

A single product common to all trainers has yet to be identified. Further, many horses have raced that continue to get ZEV and use their regular products that contain pepper without testing positive.

Ontario HBPA president Sue Leslie outlined her organization’s stance on the issue. “I just want to be clear that as far as myself personally, and the HBPA, we are firmly in support of our trainers. We do not believe that anyone did anything wrong on purpose and we are doing all we can to defend them. I have personally spent a lot of time on this issue and I am going to be very disappointed if the outcome isn’t fair.”

Penalties for Capsaicin Positives

Capsaicin is classified as a Class II drug based on the Uniform Classification Guidelines for Foreign Substances which is published by the Association of Racing Commissions International. A Class II drug carries a weighty suspension; a licensee such as a trainer or owner may receive a 1 to 5-year suspension as well as a $10,000 monetary penalty for a first-time violation.

Regarding options for trainers whose horses test positive, leading practitioner in equine law Catherine Willson states, “The rules relating to drug testing and appeals are listed on the AGCO website under horse racing. Drug offences are pretty much strict liability, meaning that if your horse tests positive it is very difficult, if not impossible, to have it overturned. It’s on a case-by-case basis.”

Trainers are Frustrated

Several Woodbine-based trainers with positive capsaicin tests are extremely concerned about the results and wonder if or how they will affect their livelihoods.

“My first thought is that to have that many trainers and that many positives in that short of time there is a problem with the testing,” said Nick Nosowenko whose horse Peace Seeker tested positive. “You can’t just sit there and blame one product that we have been using for twenty years and all of sudden within two months there is x-number of positives.”

Nosowenko is also frustrated that a source for these new positives hasn’t been found.

“For it not to be figured out at this point I think there is something wrong in the testing. Either it’s too sensitive or something has changed.”

William Tharrenos trains two horses, Crafty Conquest and All Inclusive, who tested positive for capsaicin in June and were placed on the stewards list for 15 days.

“Sue Leslie is helping us with the situation, but the AGCO is handling this very poorly. The CPMA should be ashamed of themselves for how they handle drug testing in this industry,“ he said. “Nobody has explained anything to us three and a half months in.”

Trainer Mike Mattine whose trainee Souper Hot also tested positive for capsaicin is equally as irritated.

“Well the horse that tested positive, yes it was a shock because he is the soundest horse in my barn and he never wears bandages,” he commented. “We’ve had ZEV in our barn for thirty, forty years, as long as we can remember, and now they are telling us there is capsaicin in it and could be the problem?”

To add to the situation, there has been an unusually long delay in getting the notice of a positive result. Typically trainers are informed within two weeks of a positive drug test and are required to pay back any purse money. However, trainers have been informed a month after the race about the capsaicin positives, long after they have spent the purse money in question.

As the season progresses, horsemen are waiting for a definitive ruling. Many of the horses that tested positive and were placed on the stewards list have run without incident after the 15 day period ended. It’s unknown whether trainers will face more penalties such as paying back the purse money, be fined, or suspended after the AGCO investigation.

Woodbine trainer Steve Owens is adamant that there shouldn’t be any penalty issued at this point. Owens’ horse, Ghost Island, tested positive for capsaicin in July and was placed on the stewards list from July 30 – Aug 13.

“We shouldn’t be penalized for anything. Number one, the capsaicin is in a lot of products that nobody knows about,” said Owens who doesn’t believe that the penalty is proportional. “You would be better off giving Bute and Banamine and taking the 15-day penalty than taking a six month to a year penalty for giving a horse ZEV.”

Mattine, whose horse has raced twice without incident following the positive test, agrees. “What I have been stressing and telling other horsemen and people in the AGCO and from the HBPA that this should have been thrown out a long time ago.”

Trainers continue on despite the unease and wait impatiently for the result of the AGCO investigation, and many note that the one common denominator is the lab that ran the tests.