Kevin Blake

Kevin looks at Jim Bolger's recent comments about drug testing, and the bigger picture surrounding future punishment.

  • Monday 02 November
  • Blog
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BOLGER COMMENTS SHINE LIGHT ON DRUG TESTING IN IRISH RACING

Jim Bolger has never been shy of calling out the Irish racing authorities when he sees fit and his comments in interviews in both the Irish Field and  Racing Post over the weekend have served to shine a renewed light on the issue of drug testing in Irish racing.

Bolger’s comments in the Irish Field included: “All I will say is it is not a level playing pitch at the moment” and “There’s a rule book there, certain things are forbidden and they are being used and it needs to be dealt with”. Bolger expanded on those comments in a later interview in the Racing Post by saying: "I have knowledge of problems and would like to see the IHRB stepping up to the plate. There needs to be more rigorous testing, but action has to happen after that testing has taken place. I'm inclined to think we have had instances in the past where action wasn't taken when it should have been.” Bolger went on to call for an increase in the testing of hair to catch wrongdoers.

It should be said that this isn’t the first time Bolger has made public comment on this issue. Back in 2016 he was very critical of the Turf Club’s continued failure to test for cobalt and elevated levels of TCO2 (aka milkshaking). This criticism seemed to hit the intended mark, as later that year the Turf Club announced their belated intention to begin testing for those substances which had been tested for in other major racing nations for many years.

This is also far from the first time that the effectiveness of drug testing in Irish racing has come under scrutiny. It very much came to a head back in 2018 when the IHRB ended their association with the Limerick-based BHP Laboratories who had tested equine samples for the Turf Club/IHRB during the previous 22 years. This split followed an extremely concerning case of a false positive for an anabolic steroid. Had the trainer of the horse in question not asked for the B sample to be tested in another laboratory, he would have been facing his license being suspended for three-to-five years.

SWITCH TO BHA'S LAB SEES INCREASE IN POSITIVE TESTS

Since February 2018 the IHRB have been using the Newmarket-based LGC, the same lab used by the British Horseracing Authority, to test their samples. That change coincided with a massive increase in horses failing drug tests in Ireland, as is illustrated by these statistics from the IHRB.

While the IHRB attempted to pour cold water on the very obvious connections that many drew between the change in lab coinciding with a vast increase in positive tests, it remains unlikely to be completely coincidental. If such a theory was correct, it would cast serious doubt on just how effective drug testing in Irish racing had been for the 22 years that BHP Laboratories oversaw it.

In terms of what those numbers tell us about where we stand on the issue right now, cross referencing them against the total number of runners shows that 9.5% of all runners on Irish racecourses in 2019 were drug tested. This compares to 11% of all runners being tested in British racing in 2019. With regard to out-of-competition testing, in Ireland 17.7% of all tests (including point-to-points) were taken out of competition in 2019, whereas in British racing 22.4% of all tests were taken out of competition during the same period.

What the above stats also show is an increase in out-of-competition testing in Ireland in the last few years. The most prominent trainers in the country now tend to get an unannounced visit from the IHRB testers at least once a year. Regular followers of drug-related referral hearings will know that they often make unannounced targeted visits to trainers whose horses have failed a test before notifying them of the failure.

On a related note, the IHRB received a notable boost back in August when finally given the authority to search non-licensed premises such as pre-training yards and stud farms. It should also be noted that the IHRB started integrating hair testing into their raceday testing regimes a few months ago.

The question that Jim Bolger raises is whether all of this represents an appropriate quantity and quality of drug testing in Irish racing.

MORE QUANTITY AND QUALITY OF TESTING NEEDED

Whatever about the quantity of testing, more recent developments have seen questions asked about the quality of the testing in the LGC laboratory that the IHRB and BHA use to test their samples. The GAIN contaminated feed case shone a light on the apparent reality that drug testing in France is more sensitive than in British and Irish racing. It was the French lab that first highlighted the issue with GAIN feed, having found multiple positive tests from horses that had run in France. Yet, despite GAIN feed being very widely used in British and Irish racing, there has of yet been no positives found by LGC. Whether this demonstrates that French testing standards are too strict or that British/Irish testing standards are not strict enough, is best left to the experts in this field, but that there are such differences between neighbouring racing nations is concerning.

One aspect of this issue that we all most certainly can discuss is the punishments dished out when horses fail drug tests in Ireland.

It is very important to begin this aspect of the conversation with the disclaimer that the vast majority of cases of positive tests that are picked up in horses are not a major cause for concern. The substances in question are often legitimate therapeutic medications that had failed to exit the horse’s system as quickly as suggested by their withdrawal periods or can be readily explained by innocent misuse of supplements. Other cases are a consequence of poor management or minor carelessness rather than an attempt to cheat.

For this reason, in the interests of fairness one should always read the transcripts of these cases before jumping to conclusions based on the headlines generated by test failures. These transcripts can be read on the BHA site here (https://www.britishhorseracing.com/regulation/disciplinary/) and on the IHRB site here (http://www.ihrb.ie/table/press-releases/referrals-appeals/).

When one looks back through the transcripts relating to the vastly-increased numbers of positive tests in Irish racing during the last two-and-a-half years, in the majority of cases the trainers involved were exonerated of wrongdoing or intent to break the rules to gain an edge.

However, there were a handful of cases where no reasonable explanations could be found, and details read poorly enough to warrant valid questioning of whether punishments of fines and, in one case a suspended ban, matched the severity of the rule breaches.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always possible for the reader to make a full assessment of these cases, as very important details such as the exact levels a horse tested positive for and other crucial information are not published in every case. In some cases the exact readings are published, whilst in other cases these details aren’t given. This is unsatisfactory both in terms of fairness to the individuals involved and transparency to the public, and should be rectified going forward.

PUNISHMENT NOT STIFF ENOUGH FOR TRAINERS?

However, given the strength of the published evidence and the lack of reasonable explanations revealed in some of these cases, one can’t help but wonder just what the IHRB referral committees would need to see if imposing a meaningful suspension on a trainer in cases such as these. The only case in that two-and-a-half year period resulting in a trainer being suspended from having runners,saw a point-to-point handler being given a ban of around four-and-a-half months.

It is worth bearing in mind that these are the same IHRB referral committees that have been routinely handing down the most draconian punishments amongst any major racing nations to jockeys that test positive for metabolites of cocaine. Indeed, only last week an amateur jockey was given a four-year ban (to be reviewed after one year) for a first-time cocaine positive, while another was given a six-year ban (to be reviewed in 14 months) for a second cocaine positive.

A jockey taking cocaine is very much a personal failing, and they themselves are by far the biggest sufferers if failing a test. In contrast, horses failing drug tests have far wider ramifications for the reputation of the integrity of Irish racing. Given Ireland’s status as a major exporter of tried horses, it is of the utmost importance that international buyers have confidence that performances of Irish horses are not being influenced by illegitimate drug use.

Considering this bigger picture, it seems very reasonable to want the best possible drug testing regime in Irish racing, but also to question whether the current punishments dished out to trainers whose horses fail drug tests without a reasonable explanation are a sufficient deterrent to dissuade potential wrongdoers from breaking the rules in search of an edge.

Kevin Blake
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