Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake comments on one of last week’s big stories, where two Irish-based jockeys tested positive for cocaine metabolites and have since been handed suspensions.

  • Monday 14 January
  • Blog
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Last week news emerged that two more Irish-based jockeys had tested positive for cocaine metabolites. With another similar case set to be heard in the near future, that means there were a total of five positive tests for those substances amongst jockeys in Ireland in 2018. This, combined with another batch of three jockeys having tested positive for cocaine metabolites in Ireland at the backend of 2017 has combined to create significant controversy and open a discussion about whether there is a cocaine problem in Irish racing.

With the IHRB being well known for their reactionary tendencies, the first batch of cocaine cases in 2017 resulted in the entry-point ban for such offences going from two years to four years. Following the cases last week, it has been increased to five years.

That said, it should be clarified that in practice such bans have tended to have a significant proportion suspended pending cooperation with a rehabilitation programme. To give the example of the two cases that were heard last week, Damian Melia was suspended for four years, but will be allowed to reapply for a license in nine months, while Conor Murphy was banned for five years, but can reapply for a licence in 18 months. Going forward, Denis Egan has suggested that anyone that fails a test for cocaine or a similar substance can expect to serve a minimum suspension of 18 months barring exceptional circumstances.

The question that has been raised in response to all of this is whether a minimum suspension of 18 months is a punishment that fits this particular crime. By international standards, such a punishment is certainly out of line with other racing nations. For example, jockeys riding in Britain or France that test positive for cocaine can expect a ban of six months for a first offence and 18 months for a second offence.

To further the assessment of the punishment level, it can be compared to penalties given out for other offences in racing. A relevant example are the punishments that have been dealt out to jockeys for failing a breath test for alcohol at the races. It could be argued that this is an even greater offence than testing positive for cocaine as failing a breath test is indicative of still being impaired due to alcohol consumption, thus creating an obvious serious risk of related consequences on the track.

In contrast, cocaine is a short-acting drug that, barring the level of metabolites detected suggests the unlikely scenario that it was ingested close to the time of the race, will presumably have been taken in the days before the test and the effects will have long worn off before they are due to ride.

The current alcohol limit for jockeys is 22 micrograms per 100ml of breath. This is the same as the limit for fully-qualified members of the driving public in Ireland, but it should be noted that the limit for newly-qualified drivers and professionals such as bus drivers and lorry drivers is just 9mg per 100ml of breath.

The most recent case of a failed breath test for alcohol on an Irish racecourse was in 2010 where the rider in question received just a 12-day ban for what was his first such offence. Looking further back, Paul Carberry received a 30-day ban for what was his second failed breath test back in 2009.

To briefly move the conversation away from drug and alcohol testing in an effort to further contextualise how an 18-month minimum ban compares to other very serious offences in Irish racing, it should be remembered that when high-profile trainer Philip Fenton was found in possession of significant amounts of products containing anabolic steroids, he only received a three-year suspension.

Justice is in the eye of the beholder, but to this pair of eyes, a jockey receiving a 12-day ban for failing a breathalyser test just before he goes out to ride in a race and a trainer receiving a three-year ban for offences that led to arguably the most serious drug-related scandal in the history of Irish racing just doesn’t seem to match up fairly to taking away a jockey’s livelihood for at least 18 months if they test positive for a recreational drug.

It should be stated at this point that this argument does not intend to trivialise cocaine use. Cocaine is an ever-growing scourge on society that serves to enrich criminals at the cost of public health and wellbeing. It goes without saying that the use of cocaine and indeed any performance inhibiting or performance enhancing drugs by any professional athlete, particularly those involved in a sport as dangerous as horse racing, must be discouraged in the strongest terms.

Jockeys should have the common sense to know that using them is a stupid idea, but whether such draconian punishments are the way to go about it policing it is what is being debated here.

To this observer, what would appeal as being a more appropriate deterrent would be increased testing. Especially when one examines the current levels of drug testing in Irish racing, which are as follows:

Samples Taken165179168178244254*
Race Meetings Covered2021212131N/A*
Positive Tests4 (2.4%)3 (1.7%)3 (1.8%)4 (2.2%)4 (1.6%)5 (2%)*

*The full figures for 2018 have yet to be released, with the given numbers for 2018 sourced from quotes from Denis Egan.

To contextualise these figures, 357 race meetings took place in Ireland in 2017, which means drug testing took place at just 8.7% of them. The IHRB protocol for drug testing is that on a selected drug testing day, up to 10 riders are randomly selected for urine testing. As the above figures show, an average of less than eight jockeys were selected for testing on each test day in 2017. Given that sparse level of drug testing, is it any wonder that so many jockeys are not sufficiently deterred?

If drug testing days were more frequent and/or all jockeys with rides on the day were obliged to submit to them, that would almost certainly act as a greater deterrent than heavier punishments. Indeed, it is worth noting that on days when jockeys are breathalysed for alcohol, every single rider that is riding that day is tested.

While the breath tests are only conducted at an average of 20 race meetings per year in Ireland, there hasn’t been a failure of one since 2010. That appeals as being a reflection of the riders knowing that if the testers do turn up, there is no escaping, which acts as a sufficient deterrent.

With that in mind, an increased threat of being tested is far more likely to make jockeys think twice about making reckless social decisions than the threat of a heavy punishment if caught given the current low levels of testing.

Stopping a potential problem before it happens is far better than dealing with the consequences after it has happened. 

Kevin Blake
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