Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake covers drugs in the Irish race horse industry this week; the rise of positive tests and trainer Shark Hanlon’s recent case.

  • Monday 24 September
  • Blog
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The recent upsurge in positive drug tests has raised eyebrows and generated some sensationalist headlines in recent weeks. However, when one delves into the circumstances and details of the situation, those that wish for clean horse racing are likely to take encouragement from what is playing out in front of us.

On the surface, the fact that there have been at least 21 failed drug tests in Ireland thus far in 2018 compared to five such failures in each of the previous three years is likely to set alarm bells ringing and raise fears of a doping problem in Irish racing. However, this year’s results must be considered within the context of what was a significant change to the relevant processes earlier this year.

Last February, Irish racing ended a 22-year association with the Limerick-based BHP Laboratories who tested equine samples for the Turf Club/IHRB. This change was made following a shocking case of a false positive for anabolic steroids. 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 a three-to-five year suspension of his license.

Since then, the IHRB have been using the Newmarket-based LGC, the lab used by the British Horseracing Authority, to test their samples. That the spike in positive tests has coincided with the change in lab is highly unlikely to be coincidental.

At this stage, it should be stated that in the vast majority of cases of positive tests that have been picked up by LGC, the substances in question have been legitimate therapeutic medications that had failed to exit the horses system as quickly as suggested by their withdrawal periods or could be readily explained by innocent overuse of certain feeds and/or supplements rather than an attempt to cheat.

To bring the conversation back to the bigger picture, questions must be raised as to how the IHRB were happy to continue using BHP Laboratories in such a crucial role for over 20 years given that the quality of their testing must be doubted in light of the sudden upsurge in positives upon the change of lab.

Was the quality of the testing at BHP ever independently scrutinised? Were other options ever considered? For anyone that wants the best for Irish racing, the thought that a potentially below-standard lab was used by the sport in Ireland for over 20 years is an uncomfortable one.

For all those concerns, the only way from here is forward. One can only hope that the IHRB have learned from this mess and only accept the best in testing standards going forward. While the upsurge in positive tests is concerning on the surface, closer inspection suggests that the situation will soon be remedied if trainers are more aware and careful of how they feed, supplement and medicate their horses.

Much like the increase in fines and withdrawals relating to harsher policing of vaccinations being in order, an increase in positive tests being picked up may be an annoyance for trainers, but if they help lift standards to greater heights across the industry, it is a price worth paying.


As detailed above, the vast majority of the positive tests found by the new testing procedures of LGC have been readily explainable and the trainers in questions have been exonerated of any serious wrongdoing. The exception to that was the case of the Shark Hanlon-trained Camlann testing positive for elevated levels of cobalt after he won at the Galway Festival last month. The full details of the case can be read here.

What makes this case so remarkable is that the Referrals Committee seemingly ignored the evidence of the expert witness, Associate Professor Stuart Paine of the University of Nottingham. Paine stated that in his expert opinion, the elevated reading was brought about due to the horse having been “either been injected with a vitamin B12 product containing cobalt or been given an extremely large amount of such a product by mouth within the 12-hour period prior to the sample being taken on the evening of 2nd August.” If his opinion is correct, Camlann was highly likely to have been treated with a substance containing cobalt on the day of the race, given that the race in question took place at 5:15pm.

Hanlon claimed that Camlann was given an oral supplement containing cobalt and vitamin B12, but that it was not administered on the day of the race. Considering that the expert had stated that oral supplementation of such a substance would need to be given in an “extremely large amount” within 12 hours of the race to cause such an elevated reading of cobalt in a post-race sample, it isn’t clear from the text of the hearing whether Hanlon was asked just how much oral supplement he gave Camlann the day before the race to lead to an elevated reading.

Based on the expert’s opinion, the answer to this would presumably have had to have been far greater than an “extremely large amount”. Whether such an undertaking was practical or realistic was surely a path of questioning worth exploring.

While the expert opinion seems to cast serious doubt on Hanlon’s evidence, it isn’t clear from the text of the hearing whether or not Hanlon was found guilty of Rule 87(vii)(d) which relates to not giving a horse anything other than normal feed and water on the day of the race. The reading of the text suggests he wasn’t, but efforts to establish the facts of the finding since that text was published have produced mixed responses to this question, with some suggesting that he wasn’t and other suggesting he was. Thus, this is yet another in a long line of examples of the IHRB failing to provide crucial detail in their communications.

Hanlon is reportedly planning on appealing, but when one reads all the evidence and considers the factors at play, including that this was not the first occasion of apparently unexplained race day exposure to a prohibited substance in respect of Hanlon, many observers are likely to think that he was very fortunate to walk out of the hearing with his license intact.

Kevin Blake
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