My Boy Charlie: are the boom times feeding cocaine use in sport?

In recent times jockeys and even greyhounds have tested positive for the use of the drug

Ireland has one the highest rates of cocaine use among young people in Europe.

Ireland has one the highest rates of cocaine use among young people in Europe.

 

It’s 10 years since Kieren Fallon rode Myboycharlie to win the Group One Prix Morny at Deauville racecourse in France, after which he returned a positive test for cocaine. Pure cocaine, apparently, which was unusual, but at least it was the good stuff.

He was handed an 18-month ban, only Fallon didn’t appeal; he’d already tested positive for cocaine the year before, at Chantilly, and just been cleared of race-fixing allegations. He says in his recent autobiography, Form, “he didn’t really have the strength for another legal battle”.

Actually he saw the lighter side it.

“Myboycharlie – you couldn’t make that up, could you?”

Not unless it was Christmas and snowing as well, no.

Besides, alcohol was his vice, not cocaine. What was a line of Charlie when after every race meeting he’d a bottle of vodka, a cartoon of orange juice, and a bucket of ice waiting for him in the car?

Fallon doesn’t detail how or why he was using cocaine in Form; it is known to be popular in the jockey trade as an appetite suppressant, but it’s as if he’s trying not to break some sort of omertà. Plus this was 2007, boom times. Cocaine was everywhere.

“I actually think you could do a measure of cocaine popularity as an index for the national economy,” John Power, senior scientist at the State’s laboratory at Garda Headquarters, told this newspaper back in July.

“When the economy collapsed in 2009 we reverted to traditional drugs, alcohol and cannabis, which was grown locally. No one had money any more for cocaine.

“Now Ireland has one the highest rates of cocaine use among young people in Europe. We’re on the up. The boom is back.”

And cocaine it seems is everywhere – partly because An Post don’t realise they’re now its biggest distributors. Actually horse racing may be a good index of its popularity, or if not then maybe greyhound racing. And even if it’s mostly recreational use rather than performance-enhancing this might be a warning to the wider sporting world.

Standard ban

Confirmation last week that three Irish jockeys had tested positive for cocaine at the October Bank Holiday meeting in Galway was certainly seen as a warning sign for the Turf Club.

Ger Fox, who rode Rogue Angel to win 2016 Irish Grand National, along with amateurs Danny Benson and Roger Quinlan, were among eight jockeys to undergo a routine pre-race test in Galway, and all three samples revealed traces of Benzoylecgonine, the main metabolite of cocaine.

They were each given a two-year ban, most of which has been suspended provided they submit to various conditions, including a programme of education. Those three positives, out of the eight riders randomly tested, represented 10 per cent of the number of jockeys who rode in Galway that day.

“There’s a problem there, and it needs to be addressed,” said Denis Egan, chief executive of the Turf Club, who are now considering increasing to four years the standard ban for a positive test.

The Irish Greyhound Bound have a problem too. Two more owners were fined this week after their dogs tested positive for cocaine, and the case of champion greyhound Clonbrien Hero, who in September was reported to have tested positive for cocaine three times this summer, still hasn’t gone to a hearing. Trainer Graham Holland secured a temporary injection preventing it on the grounds he hasn’t been told what exactly the case against him is.

Clonbrien Hero, meanwhile, continues to race, completing a classic hat-trick last month with victory in the Irish St Leger at Limerick. And Holland remains adamant his dog is innocent, blaming the likely contamination of legal tender with traces of cocaine, which could have been passed on to the dog, or else on the hands on people patting his dog on the head after winning races. Unless of course the dog himself managed to roll up a €20 note.

You definitely couldn’t make that up, and those light-hearted excuses mightn’t sit so well in non-canine cases. Like all banned substances, the principle of strict liability is applied, the athlete being responsible for a positive test no matter how the cocaine actually gets into their system.

It doesn’t matter either that some people question why cocaine is on the banned list in the first place, given it may well be performance-inhibiting, or else only give the ‘perception’ of being faster, higher, stronger.

At home

According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), a substance is banned if it fulfils two of three counts; it’s performance-enhancing, dangerous to the athlete’s health, or against the spirit of fair play.

Depending on who you believe (Tyson Fury, Diego Maradona, etc) cocaine qualifies on none or all those counts, but it remains on the Wada list, along with four other recreational drugs (amphetamine, cannabis, ecstasy and heroin).

With a difference, however: they’re only banned in-competition, Wada claiming they’re not in the business of policing Class A drugs at home or on the streets.

No wonder the three most searched items on the Wada list are 1) anabolic steroids, then 2) marijuana, and 3) cocaine – as if most athletes can hardly believe it’s still okay to take cocaine as long as it’s out-of-competition.

This also sends out a worrying if not slightly conflicting message: of the four positive cases found in the 1,003 anti-doping tests carried out by Sport Ireland last year, one was for cocaine (amateur motocross rider Ross Fanning); boxer Michael O’Reilly and Kerry footballer Brendan O’Sullivan both blamed their positive out-of-competition tests on a contaminated supplement, while Paralympics cyclist James Brown was banned for refusing a test.

Cocaine, in other words, was the only direct hit. For in-competition testing only that probably counts as boom times.

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