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Lack of positive tests not a positive sign for anti-doping regime

Hillyer now left holding the baby no-one wanted in the first place

Meta Osborne: chaired the Turf Club's anti-doping task force
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This week it was confirmed that the Turf Club’s anti-doping taskforce has been dissolved. To recap, the taskforce was born of a desperate situation, an unwanted child of a shotgun marriage.

The Turf Club was left holding the baby, its veneer of respectability and competency in tatters as a result of the anabolic steroid scandals involving Philip Fenton and brothers John and Pat Hughes, each of whom was found in possession of copious quantities of illegal performance enhancing substances.

All three exposures came to light as a result of Department of Agriculture raids, leaving the Turf Club’s integrity department floundering for credibility as the scale of the finds emerged.

For simplicity, and at the risk of overextending and confusing the metaphor a little, let’s label those with steroid convictions as the reckless, irresponsible paternal figure, spreading wild oats with abandon, untroubled by the potential consequences.

Necessity is the mother of invention, so we ended up with the anti-doping taskforce, a new-born bundle of forced motivation, swaddled in a cosy blanket of good intentions.

It was chaired by the Turf Club’s current senior steward Meta Osborne and comprised other industry leaders such as the HRI and Turf Club chief executives Brian Kavanagh and Denis Egan, along with the esteemed figure of John Oxx.

For those supplying and administering Nitrotain and stanozolol – the steroids in question – the birth of the anti-doping taskforce should have been a frightening prospect. The calm, untroubled vista of their lives ought to have been changed irreparably, as the opening salvo in the taskforce's February report declared: “Illegal performance enhancing drugs have no place in the Irish racing and breeding industries.”

Sadly, though, the old gem that a camel is a horse designed by committee springs to mind. The appointment of Lynn Hillyer was a bright move, but, as we have observed here before, she faces a daunting task. She is now charged with rearing the bastard child.

In February, the taskforce’s report recommended access to a laboratory that meets international testing standards and the development of equine biological passports.

It also proposed an increase in out of competition testing (OOCT), the establishment of a protocol for testing on unlicensed premises, and that sales companies would sign up to the Turf Club’s OOCT programme.

Regrettably, notwithstanding the best intentions of all involved, nine months later the concept is marooned at the proposal stage. We are still talking about recommendations in an abstract sense.

Hillyer to tackle testing shortcomings

We know the Turf Club does not have the facility to test for cobalt or 'milkshaking', but even more worrying is the absence of a solitary positive test for anabolic steroids. Commercial quantities of the sort of substances that have destroyed the reputation of so many professional sports were unearthed by the department.

A product containing stanozolol, Ben Johnson’s juice of choice, was located on two trainers’ premises, and Fenton was also in possession of Nitrotain. The equivalent of around 1,500 doses of Nitrotain were confiscated from the retired department vet John Hughes, along with the infamous document that listed trainers’ names and contact details.

Nitrotain has an anabolic index of 19, in comparison to the likes of stanozolol, testosterone and nandralone, which range between one and four on the index. It improves stamina and builds muscle mass, and – inexplicably – clears the system in 48 hours. It is potent stuff, the blue-chip performance enhancer.

And yet, despite all these established facts, and a wealth of anecdotal evidence that reinforces the theory that things are not nearly as clean as such a pristine testing record suggests, no horse has ever tested positive for an anabolic steroid.

In the context of what we now know, and in light of the many positive tests in Britain, that is a damning statistic and a shocking indictment of the Turf Club’s testing regime.

Copious amounts of these toxic substances have been located by the department, but, even now, nearly five years after the raids on Fenton and John Hughes and nearly two years after the Turf Club’s initial pledge to wage war on the scourge of performance enhancing drugs, can we have any faith in its capacity to implement robust anti-doping policies, especially, but not limited to, the realm of anabolic steroids?

No remotely credible or intelligent interpretation of the absence of a positive test can be read as a positive reflection on the regulator’s testing capabilities. 

The most pertinent question remains, then, just how well armed is the Turf Club to defend Irish racing's good name? Or, put it this way: is it shorter odds a positive test will emerge via the Turf Club or that the next steroid scandal will also have its roots in a Department of Agriculture-led raid? Exactly. It might soon be time to throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Nitrotain has an anabolic index of 19, in comparison to the likes of stanozolol, testosterone and nandralone, which range between one and four on the index
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