Huge doping scandal hits Ireland as billionaire businessman Luke Comer banned for three years and hit with fines and costs of €840,754

Luke Comer: has had his training licence suspended for three years
Luke Comer: has had his training licence suspended for three yearsCredit: Patrick McCann

Irish racing has been rocked by one of the biggest doping scandals in the history of the sport after trainer, billionaire businessman and major sponsor Luke Comer had his licence suspended for three years and was ordered to pay €840,754 in fines and costs after a dozen of his horses tested positive for anabolic steroids.

Details of the shocking case, which was heard at a referral in May which lasted nine days, were released by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) on Thursday morning and among the 12 horses in which traces of methandienone (MD) and methyltestosterone (MT) were found was He Knows No Fear, the longest-priced winner in the history of the sport in Ireland or Britain at 300-1 at Leopardstown in 2020.

He Knows No Fear had a hair sample taken from him in the aftermath of the Listed Trigo Stakes at Leopardstown in October 2021, a race in which he finished fourth of 14, and it was found to contain MD and MT.

The remaining 11 horses who also returned positives for anabolic steroids were tested out of competition at Comer's yard in November 2021, as was He Knows No Fear.

The horses who tested positive were Old Tom Higgins, Boxing Hero, Grand D'Espagne, Aircraft Carrier, Powerful Don, Wee Jim, Great Moon, Our Man Flint, Questionare, Green Force and Blyton.

Comer denies that he or any of his staff were involved in doping the dozen horses and he was not charged with a breach of rule 273, which covers anybody who "administers, or attempts to administer, or connives at the administration, to a horse of any prohibited substance".

The Irish St Leger, won by Eldar Eldarov at the Curragh last Sunday, was sponsored by the trainer's Comer Group International, a major property development firm he has built up with his brother, Brian.

He Knows No Fear (near side, Chris Hayes) gets up on the line to become a record-breaking 300-1 winner at Leopardstown
He Knows No Fear (near side) is a record-breaking 300-1 winner at Leopardstown in 2020, but he since tested positive for anabolic steroidsCredit: Caroline Norris

In the hearing, Comer argued that the traces found were very small and Dr Lynn Hillyer, chief veterinary officer and head of anti-doping, agreed with that. He argued that he took all reasonable precautions to avoid such a breach and claimed that hair was not reliable as a standalone matrix.

According to Comer, environmental contamination was the most plausible reason for the analytical findings and he suggested hay consumed by his horses may have been contaminated with MD or MT or both through pig slurry. The IHRB maintained that the traces found in the hair samples were unlikely to have been caused by environmental contamination.

Jim Gorman, assistant trainer to Comer, told the hearing that the "better horses" in the yard were fed "better hay" but accepted that about 20 horses stabled in the barn who received "good hay" did not test positive for any anabolic steroids.

Comer said it was difficult to get the staff to comply with the instructions about feeding the good hay to the good horses and admitted he only spent about three months of the year in Ireland, arguing it would be very difficult for him to properly supervise the operation.

According to the report from the IHRB, Comer spent an "enormous sum of money" trying to establish how his horses came to test positive for anabolic steroids, but the committee was still unable to say how it happened.

It said the burden of proof rested on the trainer, who was unable to determine how the horses came to test positive and did not take reasonable precautions to avoid a breach.

He picked up fines for the positive tests totalling €60,000, at €5,000 for each horse.

According to the report from the IHRB, Comer spent an "enormous sum of money" trying to establish how his horses came to test positive
According to the report from the IHRB, Comer spent an "enormous sum of money" trying to establish how his horses came to test positiveCredit: Patrick McCann

The committee said so many horses testing positive in one yard was "unprecedented". It gave Comer credit for "eventually accepting liability for breach of the rule" but with the caveat that the issue of hair testing was doggedly pursued.

Comer was adamant environmental contamination was the most likely cause for the findings, but that was not accepted by the committee.

The trainer was found guilty of the rule that covers bringing racing into disrepute and was hit with a further fine of €20,000 for that breach.

He was also charged with giving misleading evidence to the hearing when he claimed that he had an "unblemished record as a trainer". Another fine of €5,000 was handed out for that.

It is not the first time Comer has been in hot water with the authorities. In 2017 he was fined €50,000 for a number of breaches of regulation including refusing IHRB officials access to the yard, failing to arrange adequate supervision of his horses, his medicine register not being in order, shortcomings in management structures and his representatives providing false and misleading information regarding the whereabouts of horses.

As well as the fines and three-year suspension, which will begin on January 1, Comer was also ordered to pay €755,754 in costs, bringing the total amount owed to €840,754.

In the last five years Comer has trained 31 winners from 953 runners on the Flat, only a three per cent strike-rate. The highest-rated horse he has had is Broad Street, who arrived from Dermot Weld with a mark of 104 and finished third in the Irish Lincoln at the Curragh in 2020 on his first start for Comer.

Luke Comer yearly stats (2013-2023)

2023: 8 winners-277 runners
2022: 11-254
2021: 10-215
2020: 2-147
2019: 0-60
2018: 0-60
2017: 0-36
2016: 0-9
2014: 0-23
2013: 0-23

Read these next:

Comer fined for refusing yard inspection by Turf Club officials 

300-1 winner at Leopardstown becomes biggest-price scorer in history 

Ronan McNally hit with massive 12-year disqualification from Irish racing

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David JenningsDeputy Ireland editor