Breeders’ Cup preview: Doping rears its ugly head again after Jim Bolger comments

Colin Keane and Tarnawa the favourites to crown a record-breaking season in style

It’s ironic how the 38th Breeders’ Cup is the first where the race-day medication ‘Lasix’ isn’t permitted and yet the subject of drugs refuses to go away.

Jim Bolger’s incendiary claims about Irish racing having a Lance Armstrong figure makes any home-grown sanctimony about doping in America particularly ill-advised ahead of Saturday night’s action at Del Mar.

After all, the Oireachtas joint-committee on agriculture food & the marine will release a report on Irish racing this Tuesday on the back of its hearings into Bolger’s assertions during the summer.

In fact, depending on your point of view, the fact that some names and faces are being pinned to the problem in America arguably puts US racing a stride ahead in taking steps towards tackling the scourge.


More than two dozen trainers and vets from Florida to New York have been indicted this year on charges of doping.

But, fairly or not, it is around US racing’s most recognizable face that the drugs issue will converge as the sport’s $31 million shop window event culminates in the $5 million Classic due off at 12.40am (all times are Irish time).

Bob Baffert, the sport’s most successful trainer, saddles Medina Spirit, his record-breaking seventh Kentucky Derby winner who afterwards tested positive for a medication not permitted on race-day.

Churchill Downs, where the Derby is run, has already barred Baffert for two years and the New York Racing Association wants to ban him for “conduct detrimental to racing.”

All of it, along with whether or not Medina Spirit gets to keep the Derby or ultimately loses it, is likely to be tied up in the courts for some time.

But Baffert, who vehemently denies wrongdoing, can compete at Del Mar after accepting extra testing and security for his entries.

Considering an abysmal record of failed drug tests - Medina Spirit was one of five in just over a year - critics of the instantly recognisable figure insist his presence besmirches these ‘World Championships.’

Baffert’s backers argue that, bar the Derby, his drugs record this year is clean and that while a sorry catalogue of positives are regrettable they’re mostly for medications far removed from steroids or other particularly sinister substances.

Either way, the most toe-curling outcome for those in charge of an event designed to showcase the sport in its best bib and tucker is likely to be a Classic win for Medina Spirit.

That’s ironic too since the story of an unremarkable looking colt that cost just $1,000 as a yearling and grew into a champion would ordinarily be flogged for every ounce of emotion.

Medina Spirit is one of a trio from the classic generation taking on the trail-blazing older horse Knicks Go in a nine runner field without European interest.

An hour earlier though it will be a very different story as Dermot Weld’s Tarnawa bids to become just the third horse to win the $4 million Turf back to back.

The absence of the top local turf runner Domestic Spending makes this something of a Euro ‘banker’ event.

Aidan O’Brien has three shots at extending his record in the mile and a half contest to seven victories with Ryan Moore opting for the three year old Bolshoi Ballet.

The Godolphin pair Yibir and Walton Street are joined by the Vermeille winner Teona as well as the German hope Sisfahan who, rather like the Arc winner Torquator Tasso, comes in under the radar but has been impressing track work-watchers in Del Mar.

Tarnawa is something of a European ‘poster-horse’ this year although connections will hope for a change of luck after getting a wide draw.

Even over a mile and a half that is no small thing around the tight Del Mar circuit and it comes on the back of the ground turning against Tarnawa in the Arc and St Mark’s Basilica almost running her off the track in the Irish Champion Stakes.

Colin Keane has the tricky task negotiating a wide draw with a target on his back but is still favourite to crown a record-breaking season in style.

Love skips the Turf and lines up instead in the $2 million Filly & Mare off at 8.59 where Acanella runs for Ger Lyons. The local star War Like Goddess looks the one to beat.

Lusk trainer Ado McGuinness has swapped the chilly Dublin coast for southern Californian surf and his Abbaye hero A Case Of You tackles the Turf Sprint (7.40).

Another Breeder’s Cup first-timer, Corkman, Paddy Twomey, pitches Pearls Galore alongside Ballydoyle’s Mother Earth in the Mile due off at 10.20.

Live coverage of Saturday’s action is on ITV for the first time. The Classic and the Turf are on the main channel while coverage of the previous races is on ITV4. Sky Sports Racing is also broadcasting the card.

On the home front, a handful of Cheltenham festival winners will be in action this weekend including the Triumph Hurdle winner Quilixios.

He sticks to his own age-group in the Grade 3 Bet Victor Fishery Lane Hurdle at Naas on Saturday where a return to jumping could make another festival winner, Jeff Kidder, a threat given he has race fitness on his side.

The Stayers champion Flooring Porter returns in Sunday’s Lismullen Hurdle at Navan and is reunited with Danny Mullins who rode him to victory at Cheltenham. Sire Du Berlais chased him home on that occasion and is back to defend the Lismullen crown he landed a year ago.

Flooring Porter blew his lines at Punchestown when boiling over before the start but could complete a Grade 3 double potentially initiated by his stable companion My Mate Mozzie in the earlier For Auction Hurdle.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

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