Drug tests, contaminated feed and questions they pose
The last week has been one of the most dramatic seen in terms of news stories covering racing for quite some time.
The revelation that Oisin Murphy had failed a drug test for metabolites of cocaine when riding in France during July came as a huge shock on Thursday. That story may not have been matched in the shock stakes by the emergence of the GAIN contaminated feed story on Friday, but the latter story has the potential to have consequences and ramifications that run very deep in the sport over a long period of time.
Both stories are just days old and are set to have many more chapters added to them in the weeks and months ahead as more detailed information emerges, but we know enough to discuss some of the broader issues that will be raised by them.
Oisin Murphy testing positive for metabolites of cocaine in France is the latest in a number of high-profile cases involving the likes of Robbie Downey, Rab Havlin, Frankie Dettori and others who failed a test for the same substance whilst riding in France. While there have been a worryingly large number of positive tests for metabolites of cocaine amongst jockeys in both Britain and Ireland in recent years, the lower threshold of 50 ng/ml that is in place in France compared to 150 ng/ml in Britain has become a focus point of plenty of commentary.
The most common accusation in this part of the world seems to be that the threshold in France is too low and that it raises the possibility of “innocent” positives due to environmental contamination. However, one can’t help but wonder if such comments miss the mark. The French thresholds are presumably guided by science and are set at a level that intends to catch jockeys who deliberately ingested cocaine. It wouldn’t be in their interests to set it so low as to risk innocent jockeys failing tests.
Thus, while this is clearly a subject for relevant experts to expand on, one can’t help but ask the question whether British and Irish regulators are the ones who have it wrong in setting their thresholds at levels that are too lenient.
For now, we await the result of Oisin Murphy’s B sample test and the hearing that is likely to follow.
The second giant story of the week is related to the contaminated feed sent out by GAIN. In the short term it had a massive impact on one of the biggest days in the racing calendar at Longchamp on Sunday, with runners trained by Aidan, Joseph and Donnacha O’Brien being withdrawn for fear they might test positive for the contaminant in question after their races. As well as that, multiple British-based trainers withdrew horses from less high-profile races on Saturday as a precautionary measure.
One can only hope the worst of this story is behind us, but given the popularity of GAIN feed in Irish and British racing, it would be a surprise if we don’t see positive tests from horses that won in the days leading up to this story breaking. As well as that, it is hard not to believe some trainers choose to chance running their horses in the days after the news broke, despite the risk of them having consumed contaminated feed.
Every case is different, but the last time we saw a comparable situation to this was back in 2002/3 when a batch of Red Mills feed was contaminated with morphine and led to 37 horses being disqualified, most infamously the winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup, Be My Royal. The legal cases that emerged from this situation carried on for years after the events themselves. Given the costs already incurred by those trainers and owners that were already caught up in the current case, and the threat of more positive test results to come, there will be a great amount of fear that we might only be at the start of this situation.
While there is sure to be sighs of relief all over Britain and Ireland if positive tests don’t emerge during the coming weeks - given that positives were detected quickly, efficiently and in a cluster by the French as soon as this situation emerged - attentions will then inevitably turn to the reasons why there weren’t positives found in Britain and Ireland. The question that would have to be asked in that scenario is whether such a failure to detect this substance remains indicative of a standard of testing that lags behind the French in terms of sensitivity and efficiency? It should be noted that the IHRB and the BHA use the same British-based laboratory to analyse drug tests and it would be interesting to hear their thoughts on this once the dust settles.
Both stories have already made a big splash, but we are only likely to have seen the opening chapters of them thus far.
Lack of pace makes for unsatisfactory Arc
Every so often, the debate about the role of pace makers in top-class Flat racing in Europe comes up. Inevitably, there is always someone at the back of the room moaning and groaning they shouldn’t be allowed, and that they give those who deploy them an unfair advantage.
Well, the late withdrawal of Ballydoyle’s likely pace setters from the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe yet again illustrated the consequences of not having such horses in the field for the most important races. Slowly-run races regularly lead to messy, rough and unsatisfactory contests, and that is what we got in the Arc on Sunday.
Pace makers may not be to everyone’s taste, but they perform a very important function in ensuring circumstances that lead to cleaner races and increase the likelihood of the best horse on the day coming out on top.
It is worth remembering races such as this year’s Arc when this debate inevitably comes up again.