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McConvilles banned for three years in Cheltenham cobalt case

Stephen McConville (left) with son Michael after Anseanachai Cliste had triumphed at the Mid-Antrim Hunt point-to-point last year
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The owner and trainer of the hunter chaser withdrawn on Cheltenham Gold Cup day after bloody syringes were found in a bag being taken into the course have been disqualified from racing for three years.

The horse's trainer Stephen McConville and his son Michael, the owner and intended rider of Anseanachai Cliste, the Irish champion point-to-pointer, had their bans reduced from four and five years respectively as both admitted having given their runner two injections on raceday, one of which was of a tonic containing cobalt, a prohibited substance.

The hearing was the first involving cobalt in Britain following similar cases around the world, but both men claimed they were unaware the injections were potentially performance-enhancing.

When tested, the sample taken from the horse revealed cobalt levels more than seven times above the permitted level – 719 nanograms per millilitre against the 100 nanograms allowed.

In their verdict, the panel found the pair had not purposely administered the injection because it contained cobalt.

Tim Charlton QC, the panel chairman, said: "We approached our decisions on the basis that neither had any real understanding of the components of the substances.

"But they had a general belief that they would help their horse in the race due to be run just seven hours after they gave it injections. 

"In respect of the Haemo-15 injection [containing cobalt], the panel did not accept that they used this for the specific purpose of introducing cobalt into the horse’s system, and in any event this type of product would not be used by a cheat intending to use cobalt for blood-improving purposes."

The panel took the view that the other injection, of adrenal cortex, may have had no effect. 

Charlton continued: "The real vice of what they did here was the deliberate breach of raceday administration rules, combined with the welfare risks they took.

"There was an element of premeditation. They brought with them from Northern Ireland the two substances [which had been prescribed for another horse 3 months before], intending to use them or at least giving themselves the option of using them."

The McConvilles apologised in a statement following the hearing.

"We fully accept the finding of the British Horseracing Authority and regret that they had to invest time and resources to investigate and address the incident," the statement read.

"We apologise for what has happened, which was of our own doing due to lack of knowledge. However, this is no excuse for what happened at Cheltenham.  

"The horse was administered the tonic – Haemo-15 – which is a widely used nutritional supplement which unknown to us contained cobalt. We now just wish to put this unfortunate matter behind us as it has caused a lot of stress to all members of our family, as the horses and point-to-pointing is purely a hobby for the family.

"Again, we wish to apologise to the BHA for this unfortunate incident and thank them for the fair hearing."

The ban does not apply to Irish racing until it is reciprocated by the Turf Club, a process which is not automatic but is rarely contested. 

Denis Egan, chief executive of the Turf Club, said: "What usually happens is that we receive a request from the BHA to reciprocate and when that happens the matter will go before our referrals committee to be dealt with."

Anseanachai Cliste: a mystery withdrawal from the Cheltenham festival and reappears at Kelso

'They panicked and concocted a story'

The McConvilles were found to have lied at the stewards' inquiry at Cheltenham on the day, denying they had injected the horse and saying the drugs and syringes had been mistakenly left in the bag by another son, who had used them after hunting the weekend before.

Conor Dufficy, representing the McConvilles, said: "They panicked and concocted a story and thoroughly regret that behaviour and are truly apologetic of any undermining of the integrity of the sport."

The pair held up their hands when BHA investigators visited them nearly a month later as part of the inquiry, leading them to plead guilty to breaking raceday rules that stipulate horses are only allowed food and water.

However, they maintained the drugs had been used to calm and relax the horse, who had suffered a delayed ferry journey to Cheltenham, arriving at 2am.

They believed the adrenal cortex would calm the horse while the Haemo-15 was thought to replace nutrients lost as the chaser sweated up badly during the journey. The injections were given at 9am, some seven hours ahead of the race at 4.10pm.

Syringes dripping with blood

The inquiry earlier heard about the events that led to Anseanachai Cliste – a 33-1 outsider for the Foxhunter, the race after the Gold Cup – being withdrawn by the Cheltenham stewards.

Syringes dripping with fresh blood on Cheltenham Gold Cup day was the picture painted by the BHA at the inquiry.

The hearing heard the drama started to unfold at 11.30am after a random bag search at the entrance to the racecourse stables found two bloody syringes in the stable bag being brought into the racecourse.

Tim Naylor, acting for the BHA, told the inquiry there were glass bottles marked Haemo-15 and adrenaline – which turned out to be adrenal cortex – both prescribed for another of their horses Hollybank King.

"There was fresh wet blood on the tips of the needles and there is no dispute about fresh blood," added Naylor. 

BHA remains on its guard against use of cobalt

The BHA remains on its guard against the use of cobalt as a potentially performance-enhancing substance, with strict rules in place over permitted levels.

The BHA is signed up to the international threshold which allows for 0.1 micrograms (100 nanograms) per millilitre in urine samples and 0.025 micrograms per millilitre in plasma.

Robin Mounsey, BHA head of media, said: "While cobalt is an essential trace element and is naturally present in the horse, it may also have the potential to enhance performance when present at concentrations that exceed normal physiological parameters. It is also possible that exposure to significantly increased levels of cobalt may have welfare implications for the horse.

“While research surveys and regulatory analysis carried out in recent years were reassuring that there was no endemic issue with the use of cobalt at the time, it is an integrity and welfare threat that we are taking seriously and which is forming an important part of our anti-doping strategy.”

Mounsey said the BHA had "ramped up" testing this year both on racedays and in training visits.

Raceday samples this year are set to hit 9,000 while another 1,500 have been taken on stable inspections.

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The real vice of what they did here was the deliberate breach of raceday administration rules
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