It was thanks to the late Bing Crosby that my mother had a great weekend a fortnight ago, when ITV Racing went to California and brought live late-night TV coverage of the Breeders Cup to its Irish and British audiences. Crosby led the way when the Thoroughbred Club built Del Mar Racetrack in 1936. He welcomed the first punters at the gates in 1937 and recorded ‘Where The Turf Meets the Surf’ to promote the venue.
My mother’s passion for horse racing has been a lifelong affair, but with my father’s death earlier this year and the constraints on older people of living with Covid, racing on the television has been a special consolation. I sometimes arrive in from Dublin, expecting a welcome, only to be shushed because there’s racing on the kitchen television. I have seen her shuttling, rolling pin in one hand, remote control in the other, from that TV to an older television in another room, where a different channel is showing other races at the same time.
She doesn’t place bets or go to the tracks. It is the horses and the horse racing fraternity, their joys and sorrows, their ups and downs, that captivates her. She has a strong interest in the Irish but she has her English favourites too. She has been watching them all for years.
It will not break her heart to discover that all is not innocent and pure in this world that she loves. She is too long in the tooth, as she would say herself, to think there aren’t cheats in the sport. But there are names coming up in our conversation now, names of people whom we have enjoyed and admired for years, of whom we now say, over tea at our table where there is no political correctness or libel laws, that they might have been cheating.
The pity for Irish racing is that we are beyond the point where there is the danger of a reputational hit. The blow has fallen. The raid by Department of Agriculture officials on a yard near Monasterevin last Tuesday week, and the running for cover by some big names when contacted by Paul Kimmage, has started a process of questioning that will not stop.
There has been, and will be, resistance to the hard questions. Renowned trainer and breeder Jim Bolger said with moral certainty that drug cheats were the number one problem in Irish racing. He was not thanked.
Perhaps his most prominent critic was Aidan O’Brien, who said: “It has all been very damaging and unnecessary. People’s lives can be destroyed once things are put out there. That could happen in racing. People shouldn’t be talking out the side of their mouths. My thing would always be that nothing is ever hidden, but you can’t be listening to pub talk.”
Though no reasonable person could treat lightly claims made by someone of the stature of Bolger, a former mentor to O’Brien himself and other heavy hitters in horse racing, it seemed that some were willing to give it a go. There was something of a disconnect, for example, between the presentation of the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee Report that followed Bolger’s allegations and the contents of the report itself.
The committee, in the words of its chairperson, Jackie Cahill, was anxious “to restore public confidence”.
He added: “We’re happy that the testing standards in Irish racing are of the highest possible international standards.” But his report called for an independent review of the horse racing industry to “ensure that Ireland’s [drug-testing and prevention] procedures match international best practices”.
The Oireachtas Committee showed too much deference, on the whole, to the stakeholders who came before it. I take a small bit of credit for insisting that the complimentary adjective ‘robust’ be removed from its description of the “testing system currently in place” to which the committee gave its support. A mere six or seven hours of hearings with various stakeholders does not qualify a group of TDs and senators to give a clean bill of health to anything.
What politicians can and should do is make recommendations in the light of what we learn. I pushed for one, that a majority of board members on the body responsible for anti-doping, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB), be independently appointed. But the committee fell short. It failed to call on the Government to make this change if the IHRB, a private company established by the Turf Club, fails to do so. The report should also have made clear that ‘independent’ means not having any involvement in the breeding, training, buying or selling of horses.
The committee’s report did not credit Jim Bolger for raising the thorny issue of drug use. Bolger did not come before it, the lack of legal privilege for what he might say probably the reason. But if he was looking for poetic justice, or even flair, it might have been the timing of that Monasterevin raid. Following within hours of the publication of the Oireachtas Report, the Gardaí and department officials resurfaced the very fears that the committee sought, in some ways, to assuage.
So how does Irish racing deal with the drip-drip of bad news that has now started? The first thing is to accept that, if there is cheating, it must be rooted out: for the sake of the honest operators, for animal welfare, and for the people like my mother looking in. The probability that there is also cheating going on in other countries is no excuse for looking away.
We have to ask hard questions of people we know and like. TV pundit Ted Walsh arrived at the Monasterevin yard, owned in part by TJ Comerford, a senior employee of Aidan O’Brien, while the department inspectors and Gardaí were still there. Ted continued to earn his crust as part of RTÉ’s racing coverage the following weekend and there is nothing wrong with that per se. But there was nobody on hand to challenge him about why he turned up at a yard to have a horse’s tendon lasered by someone who wasn’t even a vet. Instead, he had free rein to repeat his remarks of the previous day, given (only) to the RTÉ website. Was the horse’s tendon scanned and examined for injury before the officials allowed Ted to go home? Nobody asked.
What does it tell us that of the 56 horseboxes recorded as visiting the Monasterevin ‘clinic’ during the summer, 51 were unmarked? Were they mostly small-timers or was there something else going on? The numberplates might tell us more.
The IHRB needs to establish independent governance and has not yet done so. They must act soon or expect legislation to be drafted.
Do we have the officials with the powers necessary to really go at all this and find out what has been going on? To follow the money trail, employment records and all the rest of it? And is it time for an independent statutory inquiry paid from the budget of Horse Racing Ireland, itself funded from the 2pc betting tax?
There will be pain. But only when we’ve crashed that barrier can we again fully enjoy the achievements of Irish horse racing.
As Bing Crosby himself put it in ‘Pennies from Heaven’, “If you want the things you love, you must have showers.”
Rónán Mullen is an independent Senator for the National University of Ireland constituency.