Don’t Rush Into a Preliminary Hearing – It’s Almost Always a Bad Idea

Photo by Maggie Tween

BY LISA LAZARUS

This article begins a series that will provide some “dos” and “don’ts” to keep in mind if you receive an FEI anti-doping violation Notification Letter. This month’s “don’t” is: don’t be tempted to request an immediate preliminary hearing to lift a provisional suspension.

For most riders, receiving an FEI Notification Letter is shocking. If this happens to you, you are likely to react indignantly, because you treat your horse with the utmost care. The idea of exposing your horse to anything harmful, or cheating to get a competitive advantage, is completely foreign and repugnant to you. You are upset, you are angry, you are in defense mode.

The FEI Notification Letter will offer you an immediate preliminary hearing to lift the provisional suspension. This offer looks very tempting – most riders respond to it instinctively, wanting to dismiss the anti-doping violation as soon as possible and return to riding. This is almost always a bad idea. This moment is EXACTLY when riders need to take a few breaths, step back, and think about their next moves. Statements made at a preliminary hearing go on permanent record. This is precisely when many equestrian athletes say things that ultimately (and sometimes dramatically) hurt their ability to best defend themselves down the road.

Photo by Maggie Tween

As a starting point, the most important question you will need to answer to emerge successfully from your anti-doping case is: “How?” – “How did the prohibited substance get into my horse’s system?” Answering this question takes time. You need time to speak with your advisors, veterinarians and grooms and, as highlighted last month, to review your stable procedures. You need to find a definitive answer.

If a rider responds to the FEI with a number of theories of how it might have happened, they could ultimately weaken their overall position. The bottom line is this: you only want to provide an explanation that you are certain of and can prove. For example, you might take the time to review receipts of your veterinary products and find that, around the time of your last competition, your groom accidentally purchased a different version of a cream you have been using for years – and it contains a Prohibited Substance. Providing that explanation, along with the receipt, will be the cornerstone of your defense. It is essential that you take the time to do this properly.

The provisional suspension will only be lifted if the rider can show “that there is no reasonable prospect that the violation will be upheld” because he or she has “no fault” or that there are “exceptional circumstances”. These are high thresholds. Rarely will riders have enough information immediately after notification, or be able to present enough evidence to satisfy any of these standards. It is far more likely that they will present their initial feelings and suspicions, creating a potentially damaging permanent record.

Photo by Maggie Tween

You do not want to undermine your defense by reacting emotionally in the immediate aftermath of the Notification Letter and later regretting your statements. Instead, I recommend that you take the time to investigate and be certain of what happened and how you wish to communicate it to the governing body. The right to request a preliminary hearing to lift the provisional suspension will still be there when you are ready – and you will be better equipped to use it.

Lisa Lazarus, former FEI General Counsel, is Head of Equestrian Services at Morgan Sports Law which represents athletes. She can be reached at [email protected].