By Brian O’Connor
Talks are due to take place between the Turf Club and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association to start implementing protocols for out of competition drug-testing recommended in the recently published Anti-Doping Task Force report, a step that racing’s integrity body describes as being “the last piece of the jigsaw” in terms of its testing programme.
On the back of the task force report, Horse Racing Ireland has approved funding of over €1.8 million to buy new laboratory equipment and ensure improved testing facilities, as well as supporting the cost of additional sampling, higher levels of out of competition testing and the creation of a new anti-doping unit.
It is expected an appointment to head that new anti-doping unit will be made within the next few weeks but talks about drawing up protocols for new out of competition testing have yet to take place between the ITBA and the Turf Club.
Restrictions on access for the regulatory body’s officials were highlighted during the high-profile steroids controversy when it was Department of Agriculture officials who raided the premises of trainer Philip Fenton. He was subsequently disqualified by the Turf Club for three years in late 2014 after being found to be in possession of unlicensed medicines, including an anabolic steroid.
“The Turf Club’s primary testing focus in the past has been on horses in training and on horses about to come into training. If we can come to agreement with the ITBA to test horses in breeders’ yards, then that will be the last piece of the jigsaw,” said the Turf Club’s chief executive Denis Egan.
“It will have to be sorted out, and we are working with the ITBA to achieve this, but there is no agreement at the moment with regard to out of competition testing,” he added.
Egan was speaking on the release of 2015’s Integrity Statistics which confirmed there were three positive drug tests for riders last year, two for cocaine and one for a beta-blocker. Two of the cases have yet to be heard but jockey Shane Kelly was suspended for a positive cocaine test in November. All 974 breathalyser tests carried out on jockeys were negative.
A total of 3,315 horses were tested for prohibited substances in 2015 and there were five positive results although Egan stressed: “They were for legitimate therapeutic purposes and for some reason they hadn’t cleared the horses systems. There was nothing sinister about them.”
Changes to the track layout at Dundalk were credited with contributing to a 25 per cent drop in careless riding enquiries but one noticeable increase came in 56 cases dealt with by the appeals body & referrals committee. A total of 61 per cent of appeals were successful or partially successful.
“It is a high percentage. Three or four years ago it was 25 or 25 per cent. But so much depends on what the appeal is, and a partially successful appeal can mean someone getting a four-day ban dropped to three. And what it does show is the appeals process is completely independent of what happens on the racecourse and everyone gets a fair hearing,” said Egan.
Asked for an overall view of the current integrity situation , the Turf Club chief executive said: “It is quite high and it will be even better when all the recommendations of the Task Force report are implemented. The proposed funding increase is great. It will allow us carry out those recommendations, particularly in the out of competition testing area.”
In the statistics, the Turf Club’s senior medical officer, Dr Adrian McGoldrick, pointed out how only 11 of the 35 falls in flat racing last year occurred during racing and that only one of those resulted in a concussion.
As for National Hunt racing, McGoldrick said: “There were 14 concussions on the racecourse with six of the 14 riders passing their concussion test after six days which is the minimum stand down period.”
He also stressed the importance of “riders and their families, trainers and owners, being aware of the symptoms of concussion so that riders who suffer a concussion while riding do not slip through the net”.
Egan added that perhaps the most noteworthy statistic in 2015 is that the decline in trainers’ licences appears to have bottomed out.
“It could indicate the worst is over. A further indication is that there were small increases in flat licenses and in dual-restricted licenses, though the number of National Hunt restricted licenses continues to fall. The horses in training figures however will have to increase if all ships are to rise.”