Viking Hoard case highlights lack of trust in regulation of Irish racing

Report leaves a lot of questions unanswered and shows need for a major shake-up

The Charles Byrnes-trained Viking Hoard was shown to have 100 times the screening limit of a sedative in his system. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

The Charles Byrnes-trained Viking Hoard was shown to have 100 times the screening limit of a sedative in his system. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

 

It’s an irony for Irish racing’s integrity body that its most accomplished piece of work in a long time underlines the need for root and branch reform of the sport’s regulation.

So much public reaction to how the Charles Byrnes-trained Viking Hoard got ‘nobbled’ at Tramore has highlighted a critical absence of trust in the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s capacity to properly police the sport.

In many ways such a credibility gap is a case of racing’s regulator reaping what it has sown.

Much of the 4,000-word report itself, outlining what happened to Viking Hoard – how he ran with 100 times the screening limit of a sedative in his system, as well as the betting patterns that accompanied it – is commendable.

That doesn’t mean it’s perfect. It raises plenty of questions and supplies no answers to who or how the sedative was administered. Nor does it name names of murky figures cynically defrauding the betting public. There was also a two-year period between what happened and the report emerging.

However, there is at least a readiness to not duck putting two and two together when it comes to doping and betting, as well as a rare level of detail that is to be welcomed from those who are charged with leading the fight against cheating.

Expecting perfection in such circumstances presumes way too much. But leadership relies on credibility and the reverberations from this case illustrate how too many appear to have too little faith in Irish racing’s integrity for it not to urgently require a radical shake-up.

Long histories

In 2018 the IHRB was created as a limited company by the Turf Club and the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee. Both bodies have long histories. The name change was to protect their members from liability. A lot more substantial change is required than just a title.

A venerable structure has become archaic. A modern industry worth billions is still being overseen by self-elected and essentially unaccountable private clubs of mostly owners and breeders effectively policing themselves.

Such a scenario was ripe for public scepticism in 1921: in 2021 it presents an unconvincing regulatory edifice for a sector that is, by definition, wide open to suspicion whether valid or otherwise.

Almost €10million of state money went into regulation last year. Annual budgets go through the industry’s ruling body, Horse Racing Ireland. But to all intents and purposes this is public money in private hands. That puts a premium on credibility and racing’s regulation keeps coming up short.

Too much has occurred over the last decade for it to be viewed otherwise. Maybe it was inevitable a body that’s ultimately a reflection of the sector it is charged with regulating might not be very aggressive in rooting out skulduggery in its own backyard.

However, any smug assumption that a country disposed to praising itself as a world leader in bloodstock might somehow also be at the back of the class when it comes to performance enhancing drugs was blown out of the water by a series of anabolic steroid controversies.

That delusion was shattered by Department of Agriculture officials. Racing’s regulator had always argued no positive tests meant no problem. Such a convenient stance deepened a perception of regulation being more about style than substance. It has been fighting that image ever since.

It would be unfair to say that fight hasn’t yielded results. The introduction of hair-testing is a potential game-changer. In 2018, six months before Viking Hoard ran at Tramore, the IHRB, at a cost of €500,000, switched its drug testing lab. It saw positive drug tests rocket by 440 per cent that year.

Most of those were for relatively benign infringements. But questions inevitably arose about how effective testing was before. Couple that with the regulator’s traditional administrative instinct for not using one word when none will do and cynicism is all but inevitable.

Countering that requires sweeping changes to restore public confidence.

A straightforward first step is the introduction of professional stewarding. The idea that a full-time stipendiary official has to bow to the will of well-meaning amateurs in the stewards’ room is a relic. Such a Corinthian spirit is redundant and sends out a woefully insular signal.

There has to be an honest debate too about whether racing can afford to keep integrity and promotion separate. Concentrating both in one body doesn’t undermine the sport in other jurisdictions. Everything in Britain is under the British Horseracing Authority umbrella.

There is theoretical merit in keeping the two apart that can’t be discounted, especially in a country as small as Ireland. Its practical implications though need to be justified, especially in terms of accountability.

Public money

That requires a sea-change in transparency. The detail released in the Viking Hoard report is conspicuous by how unusual it is. That has to be the tone in future. Public money demands public answerability.

Now is the time for racing overall to have a meaningful conversation about its regulation. For too long it has appeared little more than a fig-leaf. The latest doping scandal only emphasises how those with the most to gain from a meaningful integrity service should be its participants.

The manner in which Viking Hoard was doped is an alarming threat. Naturally people want to know such fraudulent and dangerous acts can’t be repeated, as much from a welfare angle as a betting perspective.

But the urgency of providing that reassurance makes the sport’s failure to implement a system of out of competition tracing of horses in combating the much more insidious threat of performance enhancing drugs all the more stark. It serves to suggest old parochial habits are alive and well.

Dragging its heels on something it is able to fix by itself makes Irish racing’s anti-doping rhetoric sound hollow.

Fixing that requires a much more fundamental shake-up than just a name change. At the very least it means acknowledging that there is a credibility gap and taking purposeful steps to fill it.

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