Brian O’Connor: Racing’s glaring failure on doping a huge own goal

In 2021 we’re still awaiting implementation of an industry-wide policy on doping control

An industry-wide policy on doping control was unanimously approved by the board of Horse Racing Ireland in 2018 but it is yet to be implemented. Photograph: Inpho

An industry-wide policy on doping control was unanimously approved by the board of Horse Racing Ireland in 2018 but it is yet to be implemented. Photograph: Inpho

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On August 12th, 2019 Druim Samhraidh won the last race at Ballinrobe for little-known trainer David Dunne. The horse subsequently tested positive for the anabolic steroid boldenone, prompting Irish racing’s regulatory processes to crank into gear.

A ‘without notice’ inspection of Dunne’s yard took place 18 days after the race. In conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Food & Marine, blood and hair samples were taken from nine horses there.

Boldenone was found in blood, urine and hair samples taken from Druim Samhraidh. The samples from the other eight horses were negative.

A disciplinary hearing the following December heard evidence from the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s (IHRB) head of anti-doping, Dr Lynn Hillyer, Dunne himself, and Prof Stuart Paine, associate professor of veterinary pharmacology at the University of Nottingham.

Anabolic steroids are prohibited at all times. Their use is a fundamental threat to the sport’s credibility

Paine said analysis of the samples taken from Druim Samhraidh were consistent with the horse being exposed to the drug within 16 days of running at Balllinrobe. Crucially, he also said hair analysis indicated a longer time window of exposure of up to six months.

Dunne could offer no explanation as to how the horse was exposed to boldenone other than to suggest it had occurred prior to him getting the horse to train in May.

The disciplinary panel seemed to agree. Still, they were satisfied the trainer had breached the rules. Eventually, and after an appeal, Dunne wound up fined €1,000 and his licence was suspended for four months. Druim Samhraidh was disqualified and banned from racing for 14 months.

The panel made a point though of expressing the view that the hair sample taken from the horse suggested the “probability” that the drug was administered prior to the animal coming into Dunne’s care.

It begged the obvious question as to how boldenone did end up in Druim Samhraidh.

Prohibited

Anabolic steroids are prohibited at all times. Their use is a fundamental threat to the sport’s credibility. So that should have been the cue for racing’s regulatory authority to get busy investigating.

However , since the IHRB can only inspect premises it licences, such a sinister matter appears to have wound up simply tailing off. Nothing’s been heard of it since. It highlights, once again, the glaring gap in out of competition testing and the fundamental threat to the reputation of a multi-billion euro industry that represents.

The gap was obvious long before Druim Samhraidh. It is five years since an anti-doping task force set up on the back of various previous steroid scandals urgently said lifetime traceability of all thoroughbreds is vital.

The nature of any sport generating so much money means there will always be some prepared to bend the rules

Central to achieving that, it argued, is a system that allows the IHRB jurisdiction into unlicensed premises such as stud farms and pre-training yards. Clean drug tests of horses in training is no guarantee they haven’t been given medication out of training. And the Department of Agriculture has enough on its plate already.

The task-force recommendations received stakeholder support throughout racing and breeding. An industry-wide policy on doping control was unanimously approved by the board of Horse Racing Ireland in 2018.

Yet at the start of 2021 we’re still awaiting the implementation of such a system. Focusing on individual breaches of the medication always grab headlines. But racing’s inability to institute a system of lifetime out of competition testing vital to its future is an inexplicable systemic failure.

The obvious question is why? This is something within the sector’s own power to help protect its own reputation. It’s not about some positive test for non-raceday medication, or a rogue cheat chancing their arm. This is a structural lack fixable by racing itself.

Yet, rather than rushing to preserve its reputation, there continues to be internecine squabbling. The most noteworthy aspect to interminable negotiations between the parties to date is a ludicrous requirement by the breeders’ association for 24-hour notice before inspections.

If it reeks of foot-dragging then underlining everything is a suspicion that all this could be quickly smoothed out by a handful of strategic phone calls from figures at the top of racing and breeding.

Irish racing smacks of the old Lenin line about everything being connected to everything else. Breeders sell to buyers who employ trainers and so on down the food chain. But ultimately the intertwined commercial needs of all parts of the sector lead to a tiny elite of owners and breeders.

Credibility

The IHRB has been fighting a battle for its own credibility over the last decade. Its reputation has been battered over a series of scandals and blunders that has left it open to accusations about the role of regulation in this country being little more than a fig-leaf.

But the IHRB – which includes the Turf Club – and Horse Racing Ireland are not isolated institutions. They are reflections of racing itself. Both are largely made up of, and represent, the sport and industry’s constituent parts, including the major players. They reflect what racing wants for itself.

So you would think those with the most to gain from ensuring that racing is demonstrably clean and properly regulated would move to make sure it happens. They have after all the most to lose from suspicions of a less than level playing field.

However, the most transparent element throughout the proposed introduction of a lifetime traceability programme has been a chronic lack of urgency. Even improvements in other elements of racing’s anti-doping strategy have appeared grudging at times.

The nature of any sport generating so much money means there will always be some prepared to bend the rules. Credibility that everything is being done to combat those cheats is rooted in a systemic response to them. And the system right now isn’t up to scratch.

At best it leaves racing wide open to accusations of complacency. But it also begs the question as to why racing doesn’t appear moved to help itself and match talk with action. Because if it doesn’t, a case like Druim Samhraidh won’t be the last unsatisfactory outcome.

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