Irish racing’s anti-doping system to be shaken up

Oversight body signals lifetime traceability and out-of-competition testing for thoroughbreds

A radical shake-up of Irish racing’s anti-doping regime has been outlined by Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), including lifetime traceability and out-of-competition testing for all thoroughbreds as well as provision for testing to be carried out by the sport’s own regulatory authority.

Five years after such steps were recommended by an industry wide anti-doping task force, set up on the back of several controversies involving anabolic steroids, Irish racing’s plans for major reform were revealed by HRI on Friday.

They include new powers of access to unlicensed premises such as stud farms conferred under authorised officer status given to officials of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB).

Up to now IHRB personnel had no jurisdiction on premises it didn’t license. They had to be accompanied by Department of Agriculture officials if they wanted to inspect a property.

It was department officials who discovered anabolic steroids in the possession of trainers Philip Fenton and Pat Hughes almost a decade ago. That prompted the launch of a taskforce which examined how to restore confidence in anti-doping procedures in Irish racing. It published its report in early 2016. Key to its ambitions for lifetime and out-of-competition testing was securing a method to allow the IHRB carry out testing.

No notice of testing

However, progress on achieving that stalled with disagreement among stakeholders on issues such as the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association’s demand for its members get prior notice before any inspections of premises. Initial demands for up to seven days warning of any visit reduced until there was provisional agreement on 24-hour notice. That has been criticised heavily and on Friday it was confirmed that inspections will be made without prior notice.

IHRB officials who will carry out testing are being trained and it could be the summer before personnel begin work on the ground. Until then department personnel will continue to accompany them in any inspections.

On the back of the Viking Hoard case – in which the Charles Byrnes-trained horse was “nobbled” with a sedative at Tramore in 2018 – HRI has also announced a tender will be published shortly for the installation of close circuit television (CCTV) in all racecourse stable yards.

The absence of CCTV in the yard at Tramore, and how Leopardstown is the only course in the country with CCTV for integrity purposes, came to the fore on the back of Viking Hoard case. As a consequence of this incident Byrnes was banned for six month for serious negligence in leaving the horse unattended for periods. He has appealed the penalty.

It is understood the cost of installing CCTV at a track can cost up to €20,000 each which could mean a budget of more than €500,000 for Ireland’s 26 racecourses.

On Friday HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh would not comment on the overall cost of the changes, but said: “The budget will be found, that isn’t in question. This isn’t a budgetary issue.”

He pointed to the securing of authorised officer status for the IHRB last summer as a key element and said the new steps will underline the €2 billion industry’s global reputation when it comes to producing thoroughbreds.

“Integrity around anti-doping is a top priority for the Irish racing and breeding industry. People who set out to intentionally break the rules and use prohibited substances will be identified and prosecuted. They have no place in Ireland’s world renowned racing industry and all industry bodies are committed to zero tolerance in this area,” said Kavanagh.

Horse Racing Ireland confirmed it plans for more than 4,000 horses to be sample-tested by the IHRB this year with 600 samples to be taken at public auctions. About 25 per cent of tests will be taken before horses come under the care of a licensed trainer.

Tests will involve blood, urine and hair samples. The IHRB was the first regulatory body in the world to start taking hair samples at race meetings last year. Lifetime bans can be given for horses deliberately administered a substance prohibited at all times, such as anabolic steroids.

Increased transparency

HRI described as a “key priority” a whole-of-life traceability system for horses that will include 30-day foal notification. This year’s foal crop will be the first to be issued with e-passports, which will allow for greater oversight of the horse population.

There will also be increased transparency and consistency of disclosure around reports into testing. The first of a twice-yearly activity report from the IHRB will be issued at the end of June. A lack of consistent information given by the regulator in medication hearings has been regularly criticised.

“The appointment of IHRB officials as authorised officers will give the IHRB powers to access any thoroughbred which is bred to race, at any time. No racing authority has greater powers when it comes to inspections and sampling, and this will further enhance our ability to deliver an equine anti-doping programme that is one of the best in the world,” said IHRB chief executive Denis Egan on Friday.

“Anti-doping never stands still. Our strategy has always been to take the right sample from the right horse at the right time,” he added.