British officials drug-tested Irish horses before Cheltenham
Willie Mullins confirmed that BHA officials had travelled to Ireland before the festival
A view of racing at the Cheltenham Festival last week. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
British racing’s ruling body insists it has total faith in Ireland’s anti-doping system although British Horseracing Authority personnel carried out their own testing at two major Irish stables the week before Cheltenham.
Champion trainer Willie Mullins confirmed on Sunday that the BHA carried out testing at his yard. It is understood Gordon Elliott was the other trainer. Mullins and Elliott between them saddled 15 of the 17 Irish winners at last week’s festival. All samples taken were negative.
“Trainers regularly get out of competition testing. It’s never a surprise when they come in and we just let them get on with it. It’s part and parcel of racing. To me it’s just normal,” Mullins said.
Confirmation that the BHA visited Ireland on the run up to jump racing’s biggest meeting of the year comes on the back Irish dominance at Cheltenham but also a cross-channel media report which suggested there is unhappiness at the BHA about out of competition testing levels here.
That Guardian report also claimed that there could be an impact on Irish access to British racing in the months ahead if the BHA isn’t satisfied with the response of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board – formerly the Turf Club – in relation to their concerns.
News that British officials tested Irish trained horses comes in the context of 2017’s record haul of 19 festival winners for Ireland.
It appears to leave the British authorities open to a suspicion of sour grapes about Irish success at Cheltenham and claims of potential protectionism if access to cross-channel racing is curtailed in future.
Top flat trainer Ger Lyons tweeted: “Implies that Irish horses are cheating & that our authorities are turning a blind eye to it! Good to see they are as gracious in defeat as they are in victory.”
On Sunday the BHA said testing carried out by their officials in Ireland on the eve of Cheltenham was no reflection on the IHRB’s anti-doping system. It also rejected claims of sour grapes.
Asked if such testing in a different jurisdiction implied a lack of faith in the IHRB, the BHA spokesman, Robin Mounsey, was adamant it didn’t.
“I cannot strongly enough say that is not the intention. There is no lack of faith in the Irish anti-doping system. This is all about our own anti-doping strategy,” he said.
Mounsey outlined that new BHA strategy for out of competition testing on horses trained outside Britain on the run up to British racing’s major festivals, both on the flat and over jumps. He said this applied to all international runners.
“There is a new strategy focussing on the major festival here. This is about our festivals, about out of competition testing towards those festivals, and testing a spread of competitors at those festivals.
“With Cheltenham it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to encourage out of competition testing and not apply that strategy to half the population of horses at that festival,” he said.
The IHRB chief executive Denis Egan confirmed the BHA communicated with Irish racing’s regulatory body before visiting two yards in Ireland the week before Cheltenham.
“We went with them and there was no problem. This is bog-standard stuff. Under their rules the BHA have the power to come over here which is fine. We can go to the UK as well,” he said.
Egan said he wasn’t sure if Irish officials had ever themselves tested a horse in the UK ahead of it racing in Ireland. However he said that was a matter of logistics and that the BHA usually carry out testing in Britain for them.
“It’s not a problem if they want to come over here or if they want us to do it for them. There is no issue whatsoever,” he said.
Egan added that he had extensive communication with BHA officials at Cheltenham and said on Sunday: “They never inferred anything to us. There’s been no hint of unease at any stage . We’ve had nothing at all times but total cooperation with the BHA and vice versa.
“Irish horses run all over the world, in the US, France, Hong Kong, Australia and the UK, and they don’t come back positive.”
Willie Mullins said the BHA visited him under the auspicious of the IHRB and in his view such inspections are normal.
“If we have horses going to race in Melbourne or Hong Kong , blood and urine samples are taken before we go. And their Turf Club takes it. We think it’s routine,” he said. “It’s the way forward. Everyone should be tested.”
In 2014 the BHA carried out their own pre-festival testing on Cheltenham entries trained by Philip Fenton who was embroiled in a steroids scandal at that time.
Later that year Fenton was convicted of possessing banned animal medicines, including anabolic steroids, and fine E10,200. He was disqualified for three years by the Turf Club.
Mounsey said reports of potential barriers to Irish runners in Britain, and measures to try and boost home fortunes at Cheltenham in the face of recent Irish dominance, were misleading.
“Two issues were conflated. We’ve got to look at British racing and make sure it’s as competitive as possible. We will look at the race programme, investments in the sport, primzemoney and so on. That’s a problem for us.
“But the testing of Irish runners was conflated to that issue and that was not what was intended for that briefing. There is absolutely no suggestion of sour grapes at all. It’s about what we have to do in Britain to make ourselves more competitive,” he said.
Mounsey also said racing in Britain and Ireland faces the challenge of Brexit and that negotiations on the changing landscape are continual.