Much more effective drug testing required in Irish racing
Cloud of suspicion which surrounds the sport needs to be urgently addressed
Trainer Willie Mullins with Hurricane Fly and jockey Ruby Walsh (left) on the gallops at Cheltenham. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire
Willie Mullins refers to it as “the cloud” that will hang over Cheltenham this week, the “it” being drugs and their use within racing. But the “it” is more insidious than that, far less ‘look-at-me’ obvious and more a murky ‘what-might-be’ unease. That’s the problem when the spectre of medication rears up: even with the best will in the world the doubt ‘it’ generates taints everything.
Even if the issue isn’t mentioned much directly during jump racing’s greatest festival, the doubt will be on everyone’s mind. Anyone pretending otherwise is deluding themselves.
The most smiley of cheerleaders won’t be able to ignore it should Last Instalment win the Gold Cup but ground conditions could yet prevent a nightmare scenario whereby a horse trained by someone facing charges on possession of anabolic steroids wins the most high-profile race of the season.
However Philip Fenton will have two other runners at the festival and racing history is littered with examples of a weird synchronicity when it comes to throwing up unlikely results, fairytale or otherwise. The reality is that the most fascinating result all week will be if Fenton trains a winner and what the reception will be.
That though is to deal in the particular, and the question of drugs within racing is very much a general one, and very much an Anglo-Irish one, whatever resentful vibe there might be about a single specific incident peeing from a great height on this meeting.
An accident of timing has conflated things in a way that, for instance, Nicky Henderson’s three-month ban in 2009 didn’t.
In terms of ingredients that had one of Britain’s top trainers, a scion of establishment, responsible for a horse owned by the Queen which wound up testing positive for an anti-bleeding drug. But the case finished during the summer when focus had switched to the flat.
Last year the Godolphin steroid scandal embroiled British racing’s biggest investor Sheikh Mohammed who was absolved with unseemly haste of any connection to the doping of 15 horses by authorities who didn’t even deign to interview him, preferring instead to pin everything to an individual whose reach apparently managed to extend to Newmarket from Dubai without much logistical hassle at all.
Drugs, and public trust that they’re not being used to cheat, is the greatest challenge the sport faces, in both Ireland and Britain. In comparison an attempt last week to big-up the issue of security at Cheltenham in terms of horses being “nobbled” was a relative triviality. That fear is as old as racing itself. It’s always there, always will be.
But the issue of medication, and its use within the industry, is fundamental to racing’s image of itself and crucially to the world.
Irish racing faces a choice between facing up meaningfully to the problem, and taking whatever pain might be required to acquire long-term benefit, or indulging in a cosmetic fire-fight. Whatever the outcomes of any upcoming court hearings, though, the industry here will remain ‘antsy’ for quite a while to come.
A list of trainers’ names is reportedly in the possession of Department of Agriculture officials after they found it during a raid on the property of a retired veterinary inspector who subsequently pleaded guilty to possession of banned animal medicines including a steroid.
Speculation is rife within racing as to who those names might be. Of course even if names do eventually get into the public domain it won’t prove anything. But it all adds to a pervasive sense of doubt, uncertainty and unease.
Without wishing to get too Spielberg silver-lining about it, an upside of all this is that minds have been focused on the need for much more effective and extensive testing procedures. The Turf Club has outlined proposals that are a seismic shift in terms of aspiration. Time, and money, will decide if actions match the ambition, but one can’t start without an outline and Irish racing’s integrity service has that now. As silver-linings go, it’s not an insignificant one.
But that’s for the longer term. Right now we have Cheltenham, and whatever the circumstances, Cheltenham is different, on so many levels. Cheltenham is so different that team competition, usually a fundamental breach of racing rules, is even officially approved with the new Prestbury Cup, an attempt to project some Ryder-Cup type PR sheen onto an age-old Anglo-Irish rivalry hardly in need of burnishing.
The new Cup is a reflection of a new era. Last year saw the visitors outscore the hosts in terms of total winners for the first time – 14/13. Some bookmakers are giving odds of only 7-1 about this week being even better. And with everyone keeping an eye on the flag, all the cribbing done for the rest of the season will be forgotten.
It has been a winter of dire prophesies on the back of paltry fields and long odds-on solos, with blame squarely attached to a handful of powerful owners and trainers apparently thumbing their noses at jump racing’s supposedly egalitarian spirit; the same owners who pony up to keep the best horses in training here which now allows everyone to indulge in a Team Ireland idea that in any other week of the year would be scoffed at out of hand.
It’s also worth pointing out on the 50th anniversary of Arkle winning his first Gold Cup that he was owned by a duchess, not some yahooing pub-syndicate up for the craic, and trained by Tom Dreaper whose 26 festival winners were only overhauled by Willie Mullins last year.
Dominance by a select few is nothing new. Racing has bigger problems than that.