Irish racing has itself to blame for negative stereotypes

Reform was urgently required but Irish racing more plodder than sprinter

The insidiousness of doping also means that, in the absence of specific names, all names come under suspicion and that is unfair. Photograph: Dan Sheridan

The insidiousness of doping also means that, in the absence of specific names, all names come under suspicion and that is unfair. Photograph: Dan Sheridan

 

In the 2014 movie Muppets Most Wanted the troupe is on a European tour that reaches Dublin where their shady manager, played by Ricky Gervais, tries to ensure a full house by bribing a critic.

“I need this review to go into Friday’s paper, super positive, five stars,” he demands.

“I won’t be paid off for a review. I’m a journalist,” replies the reporter, played by Hugh Bonneville. “I’m joking of course – cash or credit.”

It gets a laugh every time, despite Bonneville going full ‘begorrah’ with the accent. That’s because everyone gets the stereotype about bent hacks.

And like anything else, it’s naive to think such a cliché has come out of thin air. Over the years the old game has been made to look very grimy indeed.

But wedged between extremes of the unscrupulous and the paragon is a mundane reality of how the vast majority in the journalism line try to operate properly within the constraints that apply. In other words, just about like everyone else in every other job.

Part of the power of any stereotype, though, is in how it encourages us to believe what we want to believe.

Racing has its own collection of stereotypes but none more enduring than the one about no horse ever being more than half a length away from some bandy-legged shyster toting a loaded syringe.

And there’s no way that one has come out of thin air either.

Turf history around the world has a long formbook when it comes to drug cheats and in the circumstances that applied only the most gullible – or the most cynical – could believe Paddy the Irishman was somehow uniquely pure.

In an environment of feather-light touch regulation, and where the balance between risk and reward was so skewed when it came to cheats getting caught, any smug assumption of everything being squeaky clean beggared belief.

It is almost a decade now since six kilograms of Nitrotain was intercepted at Dublin Airport on its way to the retired Department of Agriculture veterinary inspector John Hughes.

That’s a ‘commercial quantity’ of an anabolic steroid. A commercial quantity presumes market demand. Any delusions about Irish racing being some oasis of propriety were immediately shattered.

Wake-up call

Other raids by State agencies in 2012 uncovered anabolic steroids on the premises of Hughes’s brother, Pat, and another trainer, Philip Fenton; crucially, on every occasion, racing’s regulator had no clue what was going on.

It was an urgent wake-up call for a State-backed industry with its reputation on the line. Reform was urgently required. However, in the urgency stakes Irish racing proved more plodder than sprinter.

Rather than quickly introducing proper systems of testing, traceability and jurisdictional power, various sectional elements dragged their feet to such an extent it was hard not to suspect that not rocking the boat was more of a priority than plugging any credibility leaks. That has come back to bite.

When Jim Bolger spoke up and claimed doping is Irish racing’s number one problem, later doubling down with his belief that there’s a Lance Armstrong figure waiting to be uncovered, his comments tapped into a widespread public mood of suspicion.

With so many ready to believe the worst anyway, having a grandee of the game like Bolger prepared to go public reinforced the stereotype.

Reaction to last month’s Department of Agriculture raid on the Co Kildare yard from which equine therapist John Warwick operated has further renewed suspicions of those working on racing’s coalface and those regulating them.

If Bolger’s intention was to give the racing tree a good shake then he has succeeded big time. What’s interesting is what has fallen out.

It has certainly been noisy with accusations and defensive counter-claims liberally tossed around. Questionable behaviour has been pointed to, accompanied by implicit invitations to join the dots. But amid all the noise there’s still a notable lack of firm information.

We still don’t know who Bolger was referring to when declaring that there isn’t a level playing field? Who is his Lance Armstrong? Where is the evidence of widespread use of sinister drugs such as steroids?

Maybe some ‘Mr Big’ will get caught holding a smoking syringe. History has taught us to be sceptical when it comes to assurances of there being nothing to see here.

But there is a growing sense of grievance within racing that in the absence of firm information, the majority trying to operate properly within the restraints that apply are simply being tarnished by stereotype.

The nature of the game means it’s never going to be pristine. There’s too much to be gained by cheating and the nature of the beast means there will always be those tempted to bend the rules past breaking point.

The insidiousness of doping also means that, in the absence of specific names, all names come under suspicion and that is unfair.

Public suspicion

But as a sector Irish racing can’t pretend it doesn’t have itself to blame when it comes to public suspicion.

The time to implement proper and meaningful structures for taking the fight to the cheats came after that startling wake-up call almost 10 years ago.

Instead, as an industry, it dithered and delayed, squabbling over notice periods for drug testing and generally giving the appearance that talk of change was little more than jargon rather than any clear ambition. It is now reaping the dividend of that failure to act promptly.

It is only this year, and on the back of dire reputational damage, that reform which at least provides for lifelong access to thoroughbreds no matter where they are has been put in place. But even that has had a sense of a sector fire-fighting rather than proactively taking the initiative.

So it’s ironic that perhaps the most important thing to fall out of the tree so far is a structure that with the right political intent behind it at least gives racing a shot at persuading people it isn’t living down to the stereotype.

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