Horse Racing Ireland announces plans to tighten up anti-doping measures
Plans for improved out-of-competition testing and lifetime traceability bring promise of fundamental change
Too often in the past racing has left itself open to claims that its regulatory instincts are light-touch and amount to little more than a figleaf. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA
It’s a case of better late than never about Irish racing’s plans to fundamentally shake up its anti-doping practises.
It is five years since an industry-wide anti-doping task force outlined how out-of-competition and lifetime traceability of horses was key to restoring the sport’s tarnished reputation.
That was due to a series of controversies involving anabolic steroids, including how a former Department of Agriculture veterinary inspector, John Hughes, was banned for five years in 2014 after being found with “commercial” quantities of the prohibited substance, Nitrotain.
Smug assumptions about Irish racing being some unlikely oasis of virtue when it came to drugs were blown to smithereens. The sport was caught horribly unawares by discoveries made by State officials and has been playing catch-up ever since.
Quite why the pace of change has been so glacial however remains a mystery.
No one has a bigger stake in maintaining confidence in a €2 billion industry providing thousands of rural-based jobs than its own stakeholders.
With the Department of Agriculture having quite enough on its plate, the key to providing a meaningful deterrent was a system that allowed racing’s regulator carry out tests on horses wherever and whenever they deemed it necessary.
Yet the process of putting in place a system that allows Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board officials onto premises it doesn’t licence – and therefore didn’t have jurisdiction over – has been tortuous.
The most glaring example was the insistence by the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association that notice would have to be given before testing could be carried out on any stud farm. At first the ITBA was looking for a week’s notice. Over time that was reduced to 24 hours.
That the concept of giving notice before drug testing is ludicrous appeared to be irrelevant. That a sector anxious for change, and truly confident in its practices, might pull out all the stops to act quickly rather than drag its feet so conspicuously was a quandary sure to invite scepticism.
Finally though, good sense seems to have prevailed.
Central to the extensive plans revealed by Horse Racing Ireland on Friday is the authorised officer status granted to IHRB officials that allows them test any horse at any time.
That status was granted by the Government last summer. However the shift from theory to practice is only happening now and in reality it’s likely to be this summer before the relevant IHRB boots are on the ground.
Nevertheless, if properly implemented, Friday’s announcement appears to facilitate an anti-doping regime to rank with any other major racing jurisdiction in the world. That no other jurisdiction has more riding on racing than Ireland makes it apt.
In recent weeks the spotlight has been on the case of how the Charles Byrnes -trained Viking Hoard was ‘nobbled’ with a sedative at Tramore in 2018.
A near €500,000 investment in putting CCTV into every racecourse stable-yard was outlined on Friday and is a topical move.
However it is the substantial ambitions for out-of-competition testing and lifetime traceability that hold the promise of fundamental and long-term change.
It suggests a framework that can finally enable racing’s actions to live up to its words on integrity and the fight against doping.
Now that the framework appears to be in place what the sector will be judged on is its readiness to take that fight to those tempted to cheat. Too often in the past racing has left itself open to claims that its regulatory instincts are light-touch and amount to little more than a figleaf.
It has finally given itself an opportunity to knock such scepticism on the head.