Bloodstock industry needs to get serious about anti-doping

Irish racing may be steroid-free, but simply declaring it so isn’t enough anymore

Horse trainer Pat Hughes  was convicted in the Carlow District Court for possessing the anabolic steroid stanozol. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Horse trainer Pat Hughes was convicted in the Carlow District Court for possessing the anabolic steroid stanozol. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

 

It’s now five years since six kilograms of the powerful anabolic steroid nitrotain was intercepted at Dublin Airport on its way to the retired Department of Agriculture veterinary inspector John Hughes.  

Nitrotain builds muscle mass and improves a horse’s strength and stamina. It only takes a few days to excrete which makes it all but impossible to detect in any post-race dope test. The amount was described by one official as being of “commercial quantity”. 

Also in 2012 agriculture inspectors found unauthorised animal medicines, including the steroid stanozol at the training establishment of Hughes’s brother, Pat, and a one-kilogram tub of nitrotain at the yard of leading trainer Philip Fenton.

Both Fenton and Pat Hughes were subsequently convicted in the district court. John Hughes pleaded guilty to possessing nitrotain.  

It was a substantial blow to the reputation of Ireland’s world-renowned bloodstock industry, not least because racing’s integrity service appeared to be caught completely by surprise.

The Turf Club was left looking superfluous as State officials, armed with the ability to raid premises, uncovered a murky doping underworld wildly at odds with the glossy brochure presentation that the horse industry in this country likes to exhibit.

That gaping gaps in racing’s anti-doping regime might be exploited should have been no surprise to anyone; neither could it be a surprise that gaps existed.  Yet the anti-doping culture of this billion-Euro industry appeared to be that no fuss equalled no problem, despite rational suspicions that any sport judged to be top of the table in terms of results could hardly be presumed to be relegation material when it came to darker practices.      

Jurisdiction

The Turf Club has always had jurisdiction over yards where horses are trained. Many thoroughbreds, though, spend just as much time out of training as in. All begin their lives on stud farms which have always been unlicensed by racing’s regulatory body. Only State agencies can enter them and State agencies have plenty else to do.

John Hughes was subsequently disqualified from racing by the Turf Club for five years, having refused to reveal who his clients were. Fenton got a three-year disqualification. It finishes later this year. Time is passing, yet gaps in the fight against doping remain.

Racing’s major statement of intent on the back of the steroids controversies was an anti-doping task force comprised of all sectors of the thoroughbred industry, including breeders, trainers, owners and sales companies.

It was given “absolute priority” when set up at the end of 2014. It delivered its report – six months late – a year ago. The breadth of its ambition towards safeguarding the international reputation of Ireland’s thoroughbred industry was impressive.

However, the industry’s progress towards getting its shop in order continues to be glacially slow.

A central crux of the task force report was that protocols be set up between the Turf Club and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association (ITBA) – which claims its membership own 90 per cent of foals born here – to allow drug testing on stud farms.

It is fundamental that thoroughbreds be liable for testing throughout their lives. Such traceability is taken for granted within the food industry. For a sport where reputation counts for so much, and the rewards for cheating can be so great, similar traceability should be a basic requirement.

In terms of basic self-interest it would seem logical then that no one should be more keen to put in place a testing framework which transparently backs up industry claims that it is clean than that industry itself.

However, despite some progress on other task force recommendations, the most fundamental aspect of that report – about implementing a structure which allows testing of a horse throughout its life – is still the basis of “ongoing discussions”, which include the issue of notice ITBA members should get from testers.

The ITBA originally wanted seven days’ notice. Now it says five will do.

Wild creatures

The argument is that breeders may not be home when testers arrive at their doorstep, or that time is needed to catch stock, a suggestion which makes one wonder what kind of wild creatures are around that it needs five days to catch them.

A more mundane consideration could be that a famously conservative sector simply needs time to adjust.

But whatever the excuse, it comes across as stalling. A doping system that forewarns when it is coming is meaningless. To even suggest it is ludicrous. It’s not worth discussing.      

The ITBA insists there is no steroid problem in the breeding industry so there shouldn’t be a problem with Turf Club officials turning up unannounced to prove that. And that begs the question as to why this protocol isn’t up and running already.

This is a sector which has more to gain than anyone in being seen to protect the reputation of the Irish horse. It includes some of the heaviest and most influential hitters in the global horse game. So why is foot-dragging on an issue at the core of racing’s credibility allowed to persist?  

Reputation can’t be presumed. It can be lost. So when racing as a whole can be perceived to be stalling on such a fundamental measure, it inevitably invites the question, why? And the more time drags, the greater the chance for vacuums which will be invariably filled by rumour and speculation.

The Irish bloodstock industry may indeed be steroid-free. But simply declaring it so isn’t enough anymore. One commercial supply of steroids was uncovered. It’s naive to simply presume it was a one-off.

Now the industry’s credibility demands it be seen to promptly and properly fight the doping fight. If it doesn’t, then another task force report will be seen to be making full steam towards that clogged up scrap-yard reserved for cosmetic exercises.

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