Gold standard stamp of compliance an option in anti-doping negotiations
Over the past fortnight, we’ve seen the irreproachable national sporting and social institution that is the GAA indisputably reproached following the revelation that a third inter-county footballer has tested positive for a banned substance.
Not only did the news that Kerry’s Brendan O’Sullivan had tested positive for the stimulant methylhexanamine make the national press, it was also picked up internationally, both in Britain and the US. That’s the whole world in GAA terms.
The reason it generated such intrigue was the appalling manner in which O’Sullivan served an 11-week ban in secret before the story emerged.
As was the case in 2015 when Monaghan’s Thomas Connolly tested positive for stanozolol – an anabolic steroid sadly familiar in racing parlance these days – O’Sullivan was absolved of intent to dope or knowingly taking an illegal performance enhancing substance.
O’Sullivan and Connolly both sourced ‘contaminated’ products by their own volition, and much of the critical coverage has focused on the tone of a defence that turns on the GAA being an amateur game comprised of the purest form of sportspeople with little to gain from performance enhancing substances.
Still, this is competitive sport at the highest level, so let’s not kid ourselves that lines aren’t crossed in the quest for an edge.
Significantly, the O’Sullivan case is another reminder of how layers of veneer can be stripped away from a sport recognised internationally as a model of Irish excellence and virtuosity.
It only requires a handful of stakeholders to give into temptation and a regulator to fail to display meaningful authority for perceptions to be sullied. A void left by any perceptible transparency or recognisable authority is invariably filled by assumption and insinuation.
With that in mind, the ongoing impasse between the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association and the Turf Club is doing nothing to convince the watching world that our breeding and nursery sector is as clean as we’d like to believe it is.
The Turf Club is seeking the jurisdiction it requires to implement robust testing procedures for young stock, with the indefensible issue of notice undermining the path to credibility.
Of course, because it is logistically impossible to license all breeders, traders and pinhookers etc, the ITBA is not compelled to sign up to any anti-doping charter, so – unbelievably – an alternative strategy may yet be required.
There is a suggestion that the fall-back option might be an opt-in ‘Gold Standard’ of some description, which, in short, would put the onus on anyone consigning a horse at public auction to have registered in advance to be bound by the Turf Club’s testing regime.
Those who do would have a stamp to that effect on the page of their lots, a badge of honour whose absence would speak volumes.
The logo would imply that a vendor rejects the use of illegitimate substances such as anabolic steroids or growth hormones, and that they are happy to be regulated by the Turf Club anti-doping policies.
Purchasers could draw their own conclusions about any lot that isn’t accompanied by the testing compliant insignia.
That would be a scenario that should prove an especially expedient deterrent, one with the potential to protect the international reputation of our thoroughbred industry.
Ultimately, it isn't enough to state that everything is beyond reproach without being seen to demonstrate as much.
Aidan O’Brien’s exquisite Epsom exploits reaffirmed his genius and keeps a tilt at Bobby Frankel’s elusive record of 25 Group 1 wins in a year on the radar.
It is worth noting, though, that a fast start doesn’t necessarily equate to sustained supremacy. At this stage in 2012, the Ballydoyle phenomenon had won seven of the available nine Group 1s to this year’s six, yet he ended up with ‘just’ 15 in total. It is never simple.
Of course, the glorious redemption of Padraig Beggy was the most endearing element to Epsom this year.
O’Brien is known for looking to impose his own abstemious ideals on his work force, the same as his mentor Jim Bolger has always done, without ever forcing their standards on anyone.
Such clean living is not for everyone, but the Derby-winning Beggy, having been banned for 15 months after testing positive for cocaine in Australia in 2014, is one of many impressionable staff at Ballydoyle to have benefited from his boss’s influence in that regard over the years. Such pastoral impact is an often unseen strand of O’Brien’s legacy that will continue to endure.
Likewise, Karen Kenny’s victory aboard Hard Times at Listowel on Sunday, over a year after returning from the serious head injuries she suffered at Tramore in 2014, was a happy outcome.
Moments earlier on Sunday, Shane Prendergast sadly incurred similarly traumatic injuries at Ballingarry, at the end of a point-to-point season in which Stella McGrath began the long road to recovery after suffering head and neck injuries at Glenbane in April.
Race riding is an attritional vocation that will always carry an elevated element of risk, and we should never take for granted the courage that defines a jockey’s existence.
At this juncture, Prendergast’s nearest and dearest might not recognise the hope in Kenny’s victory at Listowel, but these guys and gals are a resilient bunch. Here's to the 19-year-old making a full and timely recovery.