Is a diet pill a performance enhancer?….By Rob Young

Is a diet pill a performance enhancer?….By Rob Young

Michelle Payne received a 4 week ban.Photo courtesy Ross Stevenson

Let’s start by stating the bleeding obvious – Michelle Payne took a diet pill containing phentermine and phentermine is a banned substance. Payne took full responsibility, as she should have under the existing Racing Rules, gets a suspension, so, end of story.

But should it be?

The simple fact is that nearly all jockeys practice some form of weight control. There are comparatively few natural lightweights who can eat anything they like and still ride at 54 kg. The ways riders control their weight can be by diet, sweating, exercise, smoking – even Scotch gets a guernsey – or a combination of all of the above. Smoking & Scotch have been used as appetite suppressants by riders for decades, just think about Roy Higgins and his cigars. And yes, if they can find a diet pill that passes the rules, then that’s an option as well.

The question in the Payne case really should be whether phentermine should be a banned substance. An equally valid question is whether diet pills that are open to prescription by doctors to the general public should be proscribed by the Rules Of Racing to jockeys.

Phentermine is a substituted amphetamine which is used as an appetite suppressant for short term use, as an adjunct to exercise and a reduced calorie intake. Like all drugs, it is safe when not contra-indicated, and when used correctly. In and of itself, it is not an illegal substance for the general community. The brand names for appetite suppressants that include phentermine, and which are marketed worldwide, include Acxion, Adipex, Duromine, Elvenir, Fastin, Osymia, Panbesy, Qsymia, Razin, Redusa, Sentis, Suprenza and Terfamex. It’s not an unusual or exotic drug. It’s also not an unusual prescription to be handed out when weight loss is necessary, and it can be taken for up to 12 weeks. Phentermine can, like all drugs, have side effects. But those side effects are not performance-enhancing. They don’t make riders smarter, stronger, quicker or braver. The known side effects of phentermine, if they occur, are essentially negative, as they are with any amphetamine.

So, if the pills popped by Payne were prescribed by a doctor, and that seems to be the implication, where’s the problem for racing? Why is taking a prescribed medication a “No No” under the Racing Rules when there are no benefits to be gained from ingesting them that would improve a jockey’s performance?

And, are there diet pills that are not caught by the Racing Rules? If there are, why is that so? Wouldn’t it be fairer to put a blanket ban on all appetite suppressants, including nicotine and alcohol?

It’s not a real stretch to think that a woman in her thirties, recovering after a race fall, will put on a little weight. It’s equally not a stretch to think that she might seek medical help to bring her weight back down to racing status, and that’s not illegal. It’s just a pity that, if a doctor prescribed a drug including phentermine, then the doctor is guilty of not knowing the details of the Racing Rules. Last time I looked, a close study of the Australian Rules Of Racing wasn’t in the medical syllabus!

It’s a situation where there has to be a suspicion of bureaucratic overkill.

If the industry wants to persist with the current minimum weights in races, then there will always be problems for most of the older jockeys in maintaining a riding weight that can provide enough opportunities to make a reasonable living. Maybe some of them could actually benefit from some medically-supervised weight reduction!

The ironic thing is that, as a rider becomes more and more successful and more and more in demand, then the whole weight control issue becomes less important. Nowadays, Hugh Bowman, as an example, rarely rides below 56 kg. Throughout his career, Bowman has struggled with his weight, as have many riders. The use of diuretics and other weight control pharmaceuticals isn’t uncommon. In fact, back in 2003, Hugh Bowman found himself in the same position as Michelle Payne. He returned a positive test for phentermine.

Using a weight control pharmaceutical responsibly, and other medical supervision, shouldn’t be an offence unless there is proof that, as with steroids, there is a long-term danger to the jockey’s well-being, or unless there is a performance-enhancing aspect present, or any other side-effect that might increase the risks in racing.

Michelle, and Hugh, broke the Rules, were detected and dealt with. The question is – does the Rule make sense in an era where humans are getting bigger, and the minimum weights in races don’t seem to be following that trend closely enough?