By: Richard Forristal

The board of Horse Racing Ireland has felt compelled to reconvene the anti-doping task force that was disbanded a year ago in an effort to finally break the impasse in the quest to get breeders and sales companies to agree to Turf Club drug testing procedures.

However, Meta Osborne, the Turf Club’s senior steward who chaired the initial task force, will not do so on this occasion. She has recommended that an independent individual be appointed to move the process forward. That was agreed to by the HRI board at a meeting on Monday.

Speaking on Tuesday, HRI CEO Brian Kavanagh revealed the decision to reassemble the task-force. “It was disbanded on the basis that its purpose was to establish a report on the future direction for anti-doping in Irish racing,” Kavanagh said on Tuesday.

“It was felt because of the impasse that has been reached we should reconvene it. We will do that in the next couple of weeks and look at those outstanding issues and their implementation.”

Following the high-profile steroid controversies involving former trainers Philip Fenton and John Hughes, the 16-member industry-wide task force was established to proactively improve anti-doping measures.

Among the recommendations published in a February 2016 report was that announced and unannounced testing would be extended to stud farms, and that sales companies would also sign up to the Turf Club’s out-of-competition testing.

Accusations of dragged heels

Owing to a lack of progress in negotiations between the Turf Club, the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the sales houses, HRI was drafted in to mediate in recent months.

In August, HRI circulated a document that it was hoped all parties would sign up to. That failed to transpire, leading to accusations of heels being dragged at the expense of Irish racing’s reputation.

The issue of jurisdiction remains the primary obstacle that needs to be overcome. Breeders and sales companies are not licensed by the Turf Club.

While the laws of the land mean they are subject to the sort of Department of Agriculture raids that brought the Fenton and Hughes scandals to the Turf Club’s attention, they are not compelled to recognise the racing regulator’s authority.

Kavanagh admitted there was some frustration at the time it is taking stakeholders to agree to drug testing policies that would reinforce the integrity of Irish racing, but he remains optimistic an agreement can be reached.

“It’s been frustrating, but the same issues are being debated in England and Australia – it’s not a straightforward challenge,” he said.

“It’s very straightforward if A licenses B and they want to impose C. It’s more difficult when you have groups that are not licensed, and the Turf Club doesn’t have jurisdiction.

“Everyone would like to see it resolved but I think more than anything everyone wants to see it resolved properly and correctly. There is certainly goodwill on all sides and everyone who was at the board meeting on Monday wants to put a high priority on this.”

Kavanagh, his Turf Club counterpart Denis Egan and the regulator’s head of anti-doping Dr Lynn Hillyer were among those who sat on the task force, which also included trainers Mick Halford and John Oxx, as well as Eimear Mulhern, chairperson at Goffs. Osborne, who is also vice-chairperson of HRI, was one of six vets on the panel.

“Meta felt it might be better to have an independent chair this time,” Kavanagh explained.

“She’ll still sit on the committee. Myself and [HRI chairman] Joe Keeling and Meta will come up with a few names as to who might chair it this time and go from there.

“We’ll be looking for someone who is not involved with HRI, or the breeders, or the trainers and so on. It will need to be someone with veterinary expertise and some knowledge of the area, so we’ll try to get moving on it.”

‘I feel a little conflicted’

Explaining her suggestion, Osborne said: “I felt it would be best if it were chaired by an independent external expert, to give it one last push, because I feel a little conflicted in my role as senior steward.”

“I was the first person to support the suggestion,” Osborne added of the move to reassemble the task force, “and I’m very confident we’ll find a resolution.

“It’s taking time, but it’s like putting bread in the oven – you give it a bit of time and it rises up and you have a nice loaf. Sometimes it just takes time for the realisation to come to people that this is what needs to happen.

“The whole industy should embrace this. We’re talking about substances that are prohibited at all times – there’s no place for them – and I’m confident we’ll get there. The feeling around the table on Monday was that one task force meeting might do it.”

The ITBA CEO Shane O’Dwyer yesterday welcomed the development, but didn’t want to be drawn on the specifics of the impasse.