The Irish Jockeys Association has said it understands why four-year bans for positive drug tests have been recommended in future and it stressed that safety is its primary concern.
Moves to introduce starting point penalties of four year suspensions for positive drug tests began after a Turf Club Referrals Committee panel chaired by Justice Tony Hunt imposed two-year bans on three jockeys who tested positive for cocaine at Galway in October.
On Thursday night the trio of Ger Fox, Roger Quinlan and Danny Benson all had significant parts of their bans suspended on various conditions. But the committee asked the Turf Club to inform all representative bodies in the sport that a new hard-line approach to drugs will be taken in future.
"When you have about 30 riders at a race meeting and eight are randomly chosen and three come up positive it indicates there's a problem," the Turf Club's chief executive Denis Egan said on Friday. "The Committee felt the message isn't getting out. Individuals are damaging themselves but also the good name of racing."
Egan said testing rates will increase in 2018 but added that racing’s testing levels are already “streets ahead” of most other sports in Ireland.
In 2016 racing’s integrity body reported 178 samples taken at 21 meetings with four positive results. Egan estimates up to 200 tests will be taken in 2017. In 2016, for the fifth year in a row, no jockey provided a positive return for alcohol.
On the back of former champion conditional jockey Kevin Sexton testing positive for cocaine last year, and spending six months on the sidelines having had three-quarters of his two-year ban suspended, the Turf Club acknowledged an issue with recreational drugs in racing.
Proposed new four-year bans would be a dramatic increase in penalty. In 2008, former champion Kieren Fallon was banned for 18 months for a second failed cocaine test. In 2012 Frankie Dettori was suspended for six months after testing positive for cocaine.
However the Irish Jockeys Association secretary, Andrew Coonan, said on Friday he can understand why stiffer penalties are proposed.
“In light of what we’ve seen on prohibited substances it doesn’t surprise me they’re taking a very strong stance on this. It’s a strong statement and I can’t disagree with it.
“Jockeys have to know and understand they are professional athletes who have a liability not only to themselves but to their colleagues, and owners and trainers,” he said.
Coonan added that increased testing levels are essential and said: “More testing should be encouraged. I know there are various issues, and a cost element. But no price is too high in keeping the sport clean and keeping riders safe. Safety is the most important aspect of this.”
The IJA spokesman also said the singular demands placed on jockeys “is certainly a factor” in recreational drug use in racing.
“Us mere mortals probably can’t fully understand how sportspeople live on such a adrenalin high, whether it’s racing, motor racing, soccer, rugby whatever,” Coonan said.
“But for jockeys you have to add in factors such as significant weight reduction, weight restrictions and the associated problems with that. So you can understand why they could be more susceptible to what they might see as a replacement.
“It’s understandable but it’s unacceptable. In fairness to the referrals panel they are very experienced people able to understand the vagaries jockeys go through. My understanding is Mr Justice Hunt indicated it [four years] would be an entry point. Every case has its own circumstances and that may change, either be increased or lessened. But this is a strong stance and I can’t disagree with it,” he added.