Canterbury harness racing spotlight goes on performance-enhancing formalin

Addington Raceway. Photo: Getty Images
Addington Raceway. Photo: Getty Images
Formalin kills bacteria and helps to harden cows’ hooves when used as a foot bath to ensure maximum penetration. It is suitable for sheep, goats and cattle, though not on horses to treat bleeding. The chemical is the latest performance-enhancing substance identified in Canterbury’s harness racing industry thanks to Woodend Beach trainer Jesse Alford being nabbed by a sting operation. Chris Barclay reports.

A company marketing formalin for the farming industry promotes the product online with an associated nine-page safety data sheet.

Section 2: Hazards identification highlights the dangers posed by the general purpose disinfectant “recommended for use in the treatment and prevention of footrot.”

The chemical, which includes formaldehyde – the colourless, flammable, pungent substance used to embalm and preserve corpses – is classified as hazardous in a variety of ways.

It is acutely toxic, inhalation; acutely toxic, oral; harmful to human target organs or systems; skin corrosive; eye corrosive … it is a known or presumed carcinogen.

Jesse Alford in 2019. Photo: Harness Racing NZ
Jesse Alford in 2019. Photo: Harness Racing NZ
Jesse Alford took the necessary health and safety precautions when using a syringe to inject 10 millilitres of formalin into the neck of Jimmy Cannon on February 25 at his Woodend Beach stables.

However, the disgraced harness racing trainer made one critical oversight which led to him being banned from the industry for seven years by the Judicial Control Authority for Racing.

The 30-year-old never realised covert surveillance – a camera planted by Racing Integrity Unit investigators – was monitoring his illegal treatment of the five-year-old gelding.

Formalin is used to staunch bleeding but is banned for use in the racing industry because it can affect the horse’s cardiovascular system. 

The harness, thoroughbred and greyhound racing watchdog had been tipped off Alford was doping horses. 

After he injected Jimmy Cannon, Alford did likewise to Johnny Nevits, shortly before RIU investigators descended on the property to discover several empty syringes in a rubbish bin, a third primed for use and a half-full two-litre plastic container of formalin.

Alford also unsuccessfully attempted to ‘tube’ Johnny Nevits, an illegal process where a mixture of bicarbonate of soda and water – known in the industry as a ‘milkshake’ – is administered to improve a horse’s stamina. Ultimately, he injected the horse with formalin instead.  

Jimmy Cannon and Johnny Nevits were set to race later that day at a New Zealand Metropolitan Trotting Club meeting at Addington Raceway.

The RIU believe Motor Mouth, a third horse at the stable, would have been treated by Alford had investigators not swooped.

Betting records contained several unusual bets that had been placed on Johnny Nevits and Motor Mouth the day before they were due to race. Motor Mouth was initially quoted as a $9 chance to win its race; it had shortened to $2.80 when it was scratched.

Alford returned to Canterbury harness racing headquarters earlier this month for a penalty hearing before the JCA after pleading guilty to two charges of administering a prohibited substance on race day and one charge of attempting to administer a prohibited substance.

The JCA unveiled its punishment last Tuesday, barring Alford from holding a training licence until May 9, 2028. Given Harness Racing New Zealand is working on a code of conduct, there is no guarantee he will ever return.

Jimmy Cannon died on April 13, according to the HRNZ website. There was no suggestion his death was associated with doping. Johnny Nevits and Motor Mouth were transferred to another stable.

A nine-year ban had been proposed for Alford by the RIU; a JCA committee opted for seven after taking into account his early guilty plea and remorse.

Harness Racing New Zealand hopes Alford’s use of formalin is an exception rather than the norm.

“This is the first case (involving formalin) the RIU has dealt with in regard to harness racing in this country,” said HRNZ chairman John Coulam.

“I believe the use of formalin is a recent development, and hopefully this is an isolated incident.

“It’s use in New Zealand came to the attention of the RIU once they were able to analyse the substances that Jesse Alford was found to be administering.

“Now that the substance has been identified it would be reasonable to expect that current testing will now include this substance,” said Coulam.

Andrew Grierson. Photo: Supplied
Andrew Grierson. Photo: Supplied
The RIU does not comment on the drug testing regimes used by NZ Racing Laboratory Services Ltd in Takapuna, though an experienced equine vet acknowledged it was difficult to detect formalin.

“There’s been a lot of work done on it internationally but it’s still not easy. The best way to catch someone using formalin is to catch them red-handed,” said Andrew Grierson, chief veterinarian for Harness Racing New Zealand.

“One of the problems you have with doing a trial (to improve detection) is you need ethical approval, and it’s really hard to get that across the line when it’s already known as a carcinogen.”

Formalin had been used in the past to treat bleeding, before the dangerous side-effects were apparent, and now registered treatments – like Lasix – are preferred.

However, they can only be administered four days before a race, meaning the horse has no advantage at the track. In Alford’s case formalin was injected hours before the races started.

“They’re not using it because it’s the best treatment out there, it’s because it’s hard to detect,” said Grierson, who is also the co-owner of the standardbred farm Woodlands Stud.

While possibly a recent development in New Zealand, the illegal use of formalin has been prevalent across the Tasman for several years.

In 2015, a Racing NSW inquiry into cobalt doping heard it was common for horses to be treated with formalin/formaldehyde before racing.

More recently, the Queensland Racing Integrity Commission warned racing industry participants last October against the use of the formalin after the organisation learned the chemical was being used to stop bleeding from the lung, known as exercise-induced pulmonary haemorrhage.

QRIC director of veterinary services and animal welfare Dr Martin Lenz said while the use of the chemical may for a time cause blood to clot, it also causes many other effects in tissues it comes into contact with, the majority of which are harmful.

“Bleeding from the lung, is extremely common in racehorses and there are other more effective and welfare-friendly ways to manage the issue, including maintaining good stable air quality, modifying the horse’s training regime and the judicious use of frusemide within the applicable Rules of Racing.”

Alford’s case, and last month’s suspension of greyhound trainer Angela Turnwald after one of her dogs tested positive to methamphetamine after winning at Addington, has renewed calls from animal welfare group SAFE for the Ministry of Primary Industries to prosecute.

SAFE spokesman Will Appelbe insisted MPI should be pursuing criminal charges under the Animal Welfare Act.

“The Judicial Control Authority is run by the racing industry. It’s a kangaroo court. Serious animal cruelty belongs in a court of law,” Appelbe said.

Criticism of the JCA prompted a staunch defence by RIU general manager Mike Godber.

“The JCA is an independent statutory body established under the Racing ACT 2003. The hearings are often chaired by very experienced ex-High Court and Court of Appeal judges whose independence and integrity could not be questioned,” he said.

Regardless, Appelbe insisted the onus was on MPI to be more proactive.

“The MPI should not be leaving the racing industry to police themselves. If horse and greyhound racing fell under normal animal welfare rules, these people would face hefty fines, possible jail time, or both.”

The Star sought information on the number of prosecutions the MPI had made specific to the racing industry.

Statistics were not available before publication, but a scan of the 85 animal welfare-related media releases posted on the MPI website between May 5, 2015, and May 9, 2021, does not record any racing-related prosecutions.

That may change, however, with the MPI announcing it will investigate Turnwald, who was fined $3500 and suspended for four months.

Alford might also draw further punishment as the MPI and the RIU are understood to be developing a memorandum whereby all evidence and records in cases relating to animal welfare will be made available to the government department.

Formaldehyde or formalin. Photo: Getty Images
Formaldehyde or formalin. Photo: Getty Images
MPI director of compliance Gary Orr said the organisation is also engaging an independent expert to provide additional advice regarding the application of methamphetamine to a greyhound as well as formalin/formaldehyde and bicarbonate of soda to a horse.

“Just like other agencies that have prosecution powers, animal welfare cases require a high standard of evidence to be successful in court,” Orr said.

SAFE’s criticism of the MPI’s lack of action has been backed by an expert in animal welfare law.

“The problem is MPI is a very reactive organisation, they’re ill-resourced and simply not well equipped to investigate and enforce the law in every given circumstance, it’s simply not good enough,” University of Otago senior lecturer Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere told TVNZ.

Ferrere argued the Alford and Turnwald cases were “open and shut” cases under the Animal Welfare Act.

“It’s a clear breach of the act in my opinion and it’s something both MPI and New Zealanders in general should be very concerned about,” he said.

SAFE chief executive Debra Ashton would have preferred Alford to be banned indefinitely and insisted MPI investigate.

“Given the seriousness of his actions, this case should have been heard in a court of law where he could face criminal charges under the Animal Welfare Act. Whenever animals are mistreated, MPI should be investigating,” she said.

“The Racing Integrity Unit’s purpose is to manage the integrity of the racing industry and investigate and prosecute breaches of the Rules of Racing.

“They’re not equipped to lay criminal charges . . . that is the MPI’s job, but ultimately we need a Commissioner for Animals that can be the voice for all animal welfare complaints so when people put animals at risk, it is investigated and justice can be sought.”









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