O’Leary happy for Last Instalment to take dope test
Philip Fenton-trained runner still on track for Cheltenham
Last Instalment, ridden by Brian O’Connell, comes home to win the 2014 Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown. Photograph: Inpho
Last Instalment took another step closer to participation in the Cheltenham Gold Cup yesterday with the news that his owners would accede to any British request that he be drug tested. The chestnut is the most high-profile horse trained at Carrick-on-Suir by Philip Fenton, who faces charges of possessing anabolic steroids.
Fenton’s case is at such an early stage that he has not even entered a plea and it will not be raised again at his local district court, west of Waterford, until 20 March, the week after the Cheltenham Festival. Despite the presumption of innocence, there remains no avoiding the likelihood of Fenton’s arriving in Gloucestershire next month under a cloud of suspicion but the British Horseracing Authority is determined to do what it can to minimise the concerns of the sport’s followers.
Top of its wish list is a drugs test for any horse that Fenton wishes to send over for the Festival, notably Last Instalment, the recent winner of the Irish Gold Cup and third-favourite to follow up in the English equivalent. He carries the colours of Gigginstown Stud, the ownership vehicle of Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, whose brother, Eddie, said they would have no objection to a test.
“We can work with the BHA and the Turf Club [the Irish regulator],” he said. “We’re completely clean. They can do any test they want. We’ll welcome them with open arms. Gigginstown would welcome anybody who can clear the air over anything.”
That news will be met with some relief at the BHA’s High Holborn headquarters, where officials have had little reason for contact with the Irish-based Gigginstown to this point. The O’Learys have been vocal in their support for Fenton this week, describing him as “a friend”, while Eddie dismissed the court charges as “a storm in a teacup”, so a favourable response to the request for a drug test was not being taken for granted.
BHA officials will take this weekend and the early part of next week to finalise their planned response to Fenton’s charges. Details are likely to begin emerging by Tuesday, at which point the Festival will be a fortnight away.
A BHA spokesman said: “Following extensive and positive co-operation from the Irish Turf Club, we are now considerably better equipped with regard to information relating to this matter. As a result we are actively exploring all options, including the possibility of BHA conducting tests on those horses holding entries for Cheltenham.”
Given O’Leary’s newly stated position, it must be long odds-on that Last Instalment will be tested very shortly. It is not yet known whether other owners in Fenton’s yard will be similarly accommodating but the price of refusal may be that their horse is prevented from running.
Fenton was not responding yesterday as attempts were made to clarify the likely extent of his Festival team. He is thought likely to run Dunguib in a handicap and Value At Risk in the Champion Bumper.
Both those animals represent owners who have no other horses in training. They are therefore in a different position from the more prolific Barry Connell, who said this week he would not allow his Fenton-trained The Tullow Tank to run until the trainer’s court case had been concluded.
Approached later, Connell said he did not wish to enlarge on the reasons behind that stand, beyond insisting that it should not be interpreted as a withdrawal of support and that he would not have felt comfortable had The Tullow Tank raced at Cheltenham.
So far none of Fenton’s other owners has adopted Connell’s self-denying position. Frank Berry, racing manager to J P McManus, did not wish to discuss the subject at Clonmel this week; McManus has a maiden hurdler, Badgerfort, with Fenton.
Irish racing was further undermined this week by the news that a second trainer, Pat Hughes, is facing similar charges but the sport’s good name was defended by Brian Kavanagh, chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland.
His organisation is responsible for the funding, organisation and promotion of Irish racing and provides the Turf Club with the funding it spends on integrity matters.
“As for the reputation of Irish racing, there’s no issue there, as far as I’m concerned,” Kavanagh said yesterday. “We have a comprehensive system of testing, as they have in the UK, both on the track and in training.
“I can’t talk about these specific cases and we’ll have to wait to see what happens with them in court. But people can be assured that there is a strong testing regime in place.”