R. v Riesberry – horse racing, doping, fraud and the Supreme Court

October 22, 2015


By Chris Gall – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

A unique case involving horse doping has reached the homestretch as it was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada last week. Here are the facts of the case: Derek Riesberry, a standardbred racehorse trainer, was caught by hidden camera injecting a performance-enhancing drug into a horse. Further, a syringe containing drugs was also found in his truck. He was charged with cheating and attempted cheating at a “game” as well as fraud and attempted fraud – all of which fall under the Criminal Code.

At trial, he was acquitted, with the judge ruling that horse racing is not a “game” within the meaning of the Criminal Code, and further, the Crown had failed to prove “deprivation” i.e. that anyone relied on his injecting or not injecting the horse with the drug. In essence, no monetary loss occurred from relying on the information so there was no deprivation and therefore no fraud. The charges of cheating were also dropped because the judge concluded horse racing was not a “game of chance or mixed chance and skill,” and thus did not meet the Criminal Code definition of a “game”.

The appeal court overturned the ruling and entered convictions on fraud, because he deprived bettors of an honest race and violated the rules of horseracing. The Supreme Court of Canada reviewed the meaning of “game” under the Criminal Code and raised questions concerning fraud, cheating, and whether horse racing involves chance.
There are three potential outcomes for Riesberry: 1) the fraud convictions are confirmed, 2) the fraud convictions are overturned, and 3) a new trial is ordered on fraud charges.

This case is being watched closely by the racing industry in Canada which insists doping is rare, however it is severe enough that six Ontario police officers have been seconded to the regulatory body for horse racing, the Ontario Racing Commission. This case also has implications throughout North America, where horse racing is still big business with $11 billion being bet on horses last year ($5.7 billion of that in Canada). It will be interesting to see how the issue of doping sorts itself out. One possible solution from the USA is the recently introduced Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, which seeks to grant authority to an entity created by the United States Anti-Doping Agency for making and enforcing rules as well as testing for drugs and medications used in horse racing.

Another solution involves pressure applied by corporate sponsors. Scared by doping scandals in other sports, they do not want their brand associated with cheating or scandal. However, this is likely not enough. A real struggle comes from the veterinary business itself, where animal doctors prescribe and sell the drugs they administer. In this instance, the more drugs they prescribe the more money they make which raises issues of animal welfare as well. It is likely the courts themselves do not possess the power to compel real change. This poses a greater challenge when the potential health risks from doping are not faced by the person doing the injecting, and owners themselves may be unaware of what a trainer is doing. All bets are off until regulators, lawmakers, and industry insiders can work together and those in racing come clean.

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