Business

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Probe threatens €1bn horse industry

As the dust settles on the Galway Races for another year, many in the bloodstock sector worry whether the horse-racing industry can get to grips with the threat that doping poses to the billion-euro sport of kings.

Simon Rowe

Published 03/08/2014 | 02:30

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Horses For Courses: ‘The 1821 Epsom Derby’ by Theodore Gericault in The Louvre.

The spectre of doping in Irish horse racing is casting a massive cloud over the €1bn industry as it celebrates one of its busiest weekends of the year at the Galway Races.

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As details slowly emerge of the ongoing investigation into the activities of former state veterinary inspector John Hughes, who was found to have imported huge quantities of anabolic steroids - which are used to improve the performance of racehorses and greyhounds - officials are busy bolting the stable doors and assessing the reputational damage.

The scale of the importation shocked insiders. While Hughes was employed by the Department of Agriculture from 2002 to 2012, the former inspector illegally imported 250kg of steroids - enough for 62,000 doses. With such volumes of steroids involved and a senior department figure implicated, suspicions of industrial-scale doping by a small cadre of rogue trainers can no longer be brushed aside. Hughes pleaded guilty to possessing banned substances, including the anabolic steroid Nitrotrain, and made a €10,000 donation to an animal charity.

The Department of Agriculture's eight-person special investigations unit and a team of inspectors from the Turf Club - the body that polices horse racing in Ireland - are carrying out industry wide investigations following Hughes' guilty plea. As the net widens, there is an awful lot at stake, and the repercussions will extend far beyond the winners' enclosure.

Anything that might threaten Ireland's global reputation in the thoroughbred racing and breeding sector is potentially devastating. The €1bn industry directly employs 16,000 people and thousands more indirectly, including 8,000 breeders and 700 licensed trainers. Approximately 5,000 Irish-bred horses, valued at about €175m, are exported annually to 34 countries. And our unrivalled natural environment and enviable skills base makes Ireland the largest producer of thoroughbred foals in Europe.

Just like any other billion-euro industry, horse racing attracts the powerful and the mega-rich, where egos collide and fortunes are won and lost on the track. It's a sport where reputation is everything. So, in the immediate aftermath of the Hughes case, the industry circled the wagons and announced a raft of new anti-doping measures.

For a long time the horse racing fraternity was happy to trot out the line that if there was doping in the sport, then it was being done by a very small group of rogue operators "low down the food chain". But the Hughes case and events last year across the water in Newmarket, the Mecca of British flat racing, suggest this defence may no longer be credible.

Shockwaves rippled through the industry when 15 horses owned by one of the sport's wealthiest and most powerful benefactors, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum - who owns the 1,500-acre Kildangan stud in Kildare and the 800-acre Woodpark Stud in Co Meath - were found to have been injected with illegal steroids last year at the stables of his powerful Godolphin racing team.

A rogue trainer admitted a "catastrophic mistake" in giving the steroids to the horses, and was given an eight-year ban by the British Horse Racing Authority.

Sheikh Maktoum, the trainer's boss, was exonerated in a subsequent investigation which found that he "had no knowledge of the doping".

These controversies serve as a wake-up call to the industry.

In the aftermath of the Godolphin scandal and the Hughes case, anti-doping teams launched a series of swoops on Irish yards. In the past four months alone, a total of 30 raids have been conducted on trainers' yards by Turf Club officials and Department of Agriculture investigators.

But despite the mounting concern over doping, Turf Club boss Denis Egan insists horse racing in Ireland is clean and says "there is too much money involved" in the sport for regulatory bodies to grow complacent.

"The sport in Ireland has to be kept as drug free as possible and whatever that takes we can leave no stone unturned to make sure that that occurs," he said. Egan concedes, however, that "recent developments have pointed to the need to extend the drug testing regime particularly into the area where horses are out of training".

In its battle to catch would-be dopers, the Turf Club is rolling out a tough new anti-doping regime. It is seeking enhanced 'search and seize' powers for its inspectors when they raid premises - powers that currently rest solely with the Department of Agriculture and gardai. It also wants a formal information sharing arrangement with the Department of Agriculture, the Garda and Customs. Horse Racing Ireland has given an extra €150,000 to the Turf Club to specifically combat horse doping, and more money is pledged in 2015.

But the sporting watchdog's efforts to combat illegality in racing have been made against a background of funding cuts over recent years, from €7.8m in 2008 to under €6m today. Meanwhile, the Kildare-based Irish Equine Centre - which plays a key role in horse testing in Ireland - has joined scientists at Queen's University, Belfast in a €1m EU-funded project to develop a new way to test horses. Researchers say it has the potential to revolutionise animal drug testing.

Dr Mark Mooney, who leads the scientific team, said current testing methods were expensive, time-consuming and failed to keep up with black market methods as the authorities try to catch the dopers.

However, despite renewed efforts to stamp out doping, champion National Hunt trainer Willie Mullins says the issue has "put a cloud over our game". He describes the last 12 months as "the year of the cloud".

"There are so many other sports and things people can put their money into. So we have to mind our game," he said.

Turf Club boss Denis Egan agrees. "When Willie Mullins makes an observation like that you've got to sit up and take notice," he said. "But we've no evidence of anything to that effect".

Egan insists that no horse has tested positive for steroid use either at the racecourse or on random stable inspections. A major doping scare in horse racing would have drastic consequences for the industry.

Indeed, after the Godolphin probe there were fears that Sheikh Maktoum, a big employer and backer of racing, might withdraw from the sport, with the resulting loss of hundreds of jobs, both in the UK and in Ireland. Fortunately, this fear proved unfounded.

But in the wake of the scandal, the British Horseracing Authority has begun to flex its muscles in this jurisdiction. In an unprecedented move, BHA officials raided a trainer's yard in Ireland - ahead of this year's Cheltenham festival - and removed samples for testing.

Under racing rules, the BHA is entitled to visit any Irish yard to test horses running at UK race- courses. However, until this year it had never invoked this right.

The move ruffled feathers and raised questions about the Irish racing industry's ability to police itself. Turf Club boss Egan plays down the significance of the BHA raid, however, saying that it is a sign of greater co-operation between the two horse racing bodies in their joint efforts to crack down on doping.

But doping is not the only hurdle facing the industry.

Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), the body tasked with developing and promoting horse racing, says the industry is "struggling". HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh says continued investment from owners is what will secure its long-term success - but the number of "active owners" is down nearly 7pc, from 3,223 to 3,035 in the last year.

"The number of active owners remains a concern," he said. "While the Irish horseracing industry statistics for the first half of 2014 showed improvement across many areas with year-on-year increases in bloodstock sales, racecourse attendances, Tote turnover and prize money, the reality remains that the industry is still struggling."

But there is good news in the shape of a fresh wave of investment. Qatari oil money has started to flow into the industry and owners such as the Qatar royal family are injecting new life - and millions of euro - into Irish racing.

Qatar Racing, an emerging force in the global bloodstock industry, has been snapping up land in Croom, Co Limerick to nurture young horses. Its purchase last year of a 100-acre property was the first Irish acquisition by the Gulf state's royal family.

Another Qatari national is believed to have purchased Kilfrush Stud at Knocklong, Co Limerick, last summer. This nursery stud was bought in trust by David Ryan of Aran Bloodstock, who manages the racing and breeding interests of Mubarak al-Naemi, chairman of the Qatar Owners' and Breeders' Association.

With such wealthy backers jockeying for position to take a massive punt on horse racing in Ireland, clearly there is a lot riding on whether or not the industry can get to grips with the doping threat.

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