Anti-doping chief says Turf Club testing for cobalt since last year
Stephen and Michael McConville banned for three years by British authorities
The Turf Club’s senior vet said testing cobalt is just one element of an overall anti-doping strategy. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images.
The Turf Club’s chief veterinary officer and head of anti-doping said testing for cobalt has been taking place in Irish racing since last year and that proper structures are in place to detect any improper use of the substance here.
Dr Lynn Hillyer was speaking on Monday following the British Horseracing Authority decision to impose three-year bans on both the Co Armagh-based restricted trainer, Stephen McConville, and his son, Michael, after their horse, Anseanachai Cliste, tested positive for cobalt at the Cheltenham festival in March.
Anseanachai Cliste was a late withdrawal from the Foxhunters Chase after blood-covered syringes were discovered in a bag taken onto the racecourse and authorities “could not be satisfied the horse had been administered only normal feed and water on raceday”.
In London on Monday, the McConvilles, who are based near Portadown, accepted the findings of a BHA investigation and thanked the body for a fair hearing.
“We apologise for what has happened which was of our own doing due to a lack of knowledge. However this is no excuse for what happened at Cheltenham,” they said in a statement.
“The horse was administered the tonic – Hemo 15 – which is a widely used nutritional supplement which, unknown to us, contained cobalt.
“We now wish to put this unfortunate matter behind us as it has caused a lot of stress to all members of our family as the horses and point-to-pointing is purely a hobby for the family,” they added.
Just nine days after being taken out of the Cheltenham race, Anseanachai Cliste, a champion point-to-point runner, won the Ulster National in Downpatrick. He passed a subsequent dope test.
The Turf Club has confirmed the McConville’s BHA ban has no implications for that result and indicated the suspensions from racing will be reciprocated here as is standard.
Cobalt is naturally occurring mineral in horses but excessive levels are believed to help boost an animal’s red blood cell count and aid endurance. Anseanachai Cliste is the first horse to test positive for excessive levels in Britain and Ireland.
Scandals involving cobalt have rocked Australian racing in recent years with disciplinary cases involving a number of well known figures including Peter Moody, trainer of the champion sprinter, Black Caviar. Moody was banned for six months last year.
Testing for excessive levels of cobalt began in Ireland towards the end of 2016 following Lynn Hillyer’s appointment last September.
That came on the back of an Anti-Doping Task Force report at the start of last year which made widespread recommendations about the steps Irish racing should take in tackling the drugs threat.
Shortly afterwards over €1.8 million was approved for new and updated testing equipment for a Limerick laboratory used by the Turf Club. Hillyer has confirmed that testing for cobalt on substances taken in Ireland is still being done overseas. But she stressed suitable testing is being carried out.
“It’s part of the transition we’re in towards where we want to go. Cobalt is a relatively new doping threat so we need to make sure we have the coverage. But the important bit is that we are covered and we have been testing for cobalt since last year,” she said.
Hillyer pointed out how guidelines for threshold levels of cobalt were rolled out for Irish trainers in April.
“We needed clear definitions of how trainers can avoid getting into trouble because cobalt is a natural element,” she said. “The difference between normal supplementation with normal products and cobalt doping is quite clear.”
The Turf Club’s senior vet said testing cobalt is just one element of an overall anti-doping strategy recommended on the back of a series of controversies involving steroids during 2014. She also emphasised how out of competition testing should be carried out alongside on-course testing.
A protocol to allow testing on stud farms has yet to be agreed between the Turf Club and breeders here despite it being a key recommendation of last year’s Task Force report.
The BHA said on Monday that early admission by both Stephen and Michael McConville meant the trainer’s disqualification from racing was reduced from four years while the ban for his son, the registered owner of Ansesanachai Cliste, was reduced from five years.
The Turf Club’s chief executive Denis Egan said the incident with Anseanacahi Cliste was very regrettable but stressed: “We are testing for cobalt and other Irish horses have been tested abroad. All have been negative.”