Valid questions remain over Comer case but anti-doping systems worked on the ground

Hair testing promises to be a game-changer in fight against prohibited substances

If Irish racing’s regulator was a boxer the towel might reasonably have been thrown in long ago as it has been a reputational punchbag for much of the last decade. So, for a change, credit where it’s due to the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s (IHRB) prosecution of what ranks as the industry’s most extensive ever drugs scandal.

If the three-year licence withdrawal handed out to trainer and high-profile businessman Luke Comer has cast a shadow over racing — with the pall likely to linger until an appeal process is played out — one upside is that the mechanics of racing’s anti-doping systems measured up to what it says on the tin.

A random hair sample taken after the Comer-owned and trained He Knows No Fear finished fourth at Leopardstown in October of 2021 revealed the anabolic steroids methandienone and methyltestosterone.

The logical next move occurred when just over three weeks later IHRB officials arrived unannounced at Comer’s stables in Kilternan and extensive sampling took place. A dozen horses returned positive test results. It kicked off a disciplinary process that in May had Comer and the IHRB sitting for nine days before a referrals committee independently chaired by Mr Justice Brian McGovern.


The billionaire businessman insisted neither he nor his staff administered the substances and argued contaminated hay might have been the cause. The panel dismissed that as speculative but couldn’t make a definitive conclusion on how the drugs got in the horses. However, as the licence holder, Comer is ultimately responsible and so received a ban as well having to pay more than €840,000 in fines and costs.

Plenty of unsatisfactory elements remain in this sorry saga, none more so than the failure to establish how the drugs got into the horses. Comer’s declaration that he spends only three months of the year in Ireland should also provoke questions about the nature of licensing. A three-year ban appears nowhere near a sufficient deterrent, a point the IHRB will make in its own appeal against its leniency.

But what risks getting lost in all this is that the nuts-and-bolts procedures of uncovering prohibited substances held up. Hair sampling worked on one horse. IHRB officials then arrived unannounced to carry out a rational response to that. As part of their investigation, they used authorised officer status.

Whatever about what happened in the hearing, and any deficiencies therein, the system worked on the ground.

This is how an up-to-date doping policy is supposed to operate; effective random sampling with unannounced visits to premises — licensed or not — leading to testing at an internationally reputable laboratory. Begrudgery might be as ingrained as cynicism when it comes to Irish racing but it’s not necessary to be any kind of IHRB apologist to argue it might be a bit churlish in this case.

If that smacks of a low bar, and praising the postman for delivering letters, at least the regulator didn’t limbo underneath the bar this time. Because what all this has starkly underlined is how woefully inadequate the system was up until so recently, and how indifferent the sport was generally to implementing the sort of radical structural reform so plainly required.

It’s not long since one industry body was brazenly demanding a week’s notice of any inspection with regulatory officials effectively having to be babysat by Department of Agriculture personnel. Even that presumed the regulator knew where horses were. Most off-course testing reinforced the image of regulation as little more than a supervisory figleaf.

When illusions were shattered by how former Department of Agriculture veterinary inspector John Hughes was caught with commercial supplies of an anabolic steroid in 2012, and the subsequent discovery of steroids in trainer Philip Fenton’s yard, the then Turf Club was left looking embarrassingly impotent.

Irish racing has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century fight on doping but the Comer case suggests new regulatory teeth. Although Comer’s a comparative minnow in racing terms, the old saw about the IHRB only getting tough on the little guy doesn’t hold much water when it’s a billionaire legally armed to the teeth.

It has set a standard that would have been all but unrecognisable even just a few years ago and it must continue no matter who comes into their sights in future.

Hair-testing is living up to the promise of being a game-changer. Anabolic steroids and other substances go through an animal’s system in days. Hair can supply a medication profile over years. But now that a meaningful structure to take the fight to cheats finally appears to be in place, the real game-changer is going to be political will in utilising it properly.

One swallow has never made a summer and plenty mistrust of the IHRB’s capacity to properly police racing and breeding remains. The potential for “told you so” remains from some potentially embarrassing cases still to unfold. Taking credit for the good but attributing the bad to just fortune must become a regulatory non-runner.

Something for the weekend

Newmarket’s Cesarewitch Trial has been the plan for EXTENSIO (4.0) since winning impressively at Clonmel a fortnight ago. Sheishybrid chased him home on that occasion and also lines up in Saturday’s marathon contest. Provided ground conditions don’t become soft the pair could fight out the finish again, and in the same order.

Saturday’s Ayr Gold Cup is a notorious puzzle but 2021 winner BIELSA (3.35) is rated just 1lb higher than when he won it before and won’t mind it if ground conditions turn up testing.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column