PJA chief says there is a cocaine problem as Shoemark backs calls for more tests
Jockeys are able to take drugs and avoid detection too easily under the present testing programme in British racing, with a stronger regime required to stamp out cocaine use according to a rider who has successfully rebuilt his career after a positive test.
Kieran Shoemark, 24, backed calls from Professional Jockeys Association (PJA) chief executive Paul Struthers to ramp up testing and penalties for failed drugs tests after he acknowledged cocaine had become a pernicious problem in weighing rooms.
Struthers signalled a significant strengthening of the PJA's position on cocaine, saying it was now foolish to pretend the use of prohibited substances by jockeys is simply reflective of wider society.
"I would be completely disingenuous if I said there isn't a problem," he said. "This is something that needs addressing."
Shoemark, who was banned for six months in 2018 but has successfully returned to riding and spoken out against substance abuse for jockey educational programmes, is certain only more robust testing will turn the tide and is advocating the use of hair sampling.
He said: “It’s certainly a problem in society and it’s not just jockeys — it’s a common issue now. There’s only one solution to this and that’s hair sampling.
“People being caught taking drugs is not a good thing for the sport; it's giving it a bad name.”
He added: “If people know there’s zero tolerance, they’re going to take notice as they know they’re going to get caught. I don’t use ‘cheat the system’ lightly, but a lot of people are getting away with it — I got away with it for far too long. Hair sampling has to be the way forward.”
Struthers was speaking at the end of a week in which jockey Nathan Evans was banned for six months after becoming the latest member of his profession to test positive for metabolites of cocaine.
The PJA boss stressed his latest comments were in no way connected to Oisin Murphy this week receiving a three-month ban from France Galop following a positive urine test.
Britain's dual champion jockey would have been ruled out of action for double that length of time, but the French stewards were persuaded by hair test evidence and Murphy's testimony that he was contaminated following a sexual encounter with an individual he discovered to be a cocaine user.
Struthers said: "Cocaine is clearly an issue in society and I think it's quite obvious that, in pockets, our members are reflecting that wider issue.
"However, I think it would be naive of us not to accept there's an issue surrounding cocaine use among jockeys, whether that's recreationally or, as we've experienced once or twice, bigger personal problems with the drug. I'd be completely disingenuous if I said there isn't a problem. This is something that needs addressing."
Outlining how he would like to see the situation tackled, Struthers said: "We need to have significantly more testing. At the moment the chances of someone being caught are slim, yet we're still getting cocaine positives with alarming regularity.
"We've been calling for far more testing for more than three years. We've tried to work with the BHA on that, but it's been taking longer than ideal. I'm informed the testing budget has been close to halved."
Calling on Britain to more closely mirror the punishment levels used in Ireland, Struthers added: "I haven't changed my position in terms of not judging the individual – you can judge the behaviour without judging the individual – but I've almost certainly come around to the view that we need to look at the penalties.
"A six-month penalty is significant, and is damaging both financially and reputationally, but one thing we're looking at is doubling the penalty to a year. However, as in Ireland, if you take certain steps you could bring the penalty down to six months. Those steps might be submitting to hair testing or engaging in support if it was felt to be needed."
The BHA denied the testing budget had been almost halved, but echoed the riders' association's wider worries.
BHA head of media Robin Mounsey said: "We share the concerns of the PJA regarding recent increases in cocaine positives. We're aware a range of sports, including racing, are seeing such increases, as is wider society.
"Regulating the issue through testing and penalties is one route that can be taken to deter substance use. To this end we're working collaboratively with the PJA to evolve our jockey testing programme and develop a more flexible approach. We'd also consider closely any proposal from the PJA regarding our penalty structure.
"However, this is about so much more than pure regulation. To address an issue we must understand the extent of it, what might be causing it, and how we can better educate and protect our participants and rehabilitate those who do become involved. The BHA is already working with the PJA to take a wider look at the issue."
Mounsey added: "We prioritise the wellbeing and development of our people and racing must be a safe, fulfilling and sustainable place to work. We'll seek to support anyone who faces problems or has found themselves in difficulty and understand what has caused it. This will remain a focus in 2021."