Somewhere in the country today someone probably ‘juiced’ a racehorse. To think otherwise is naive. Just as it is ingenious to believe that a rugby player somewhere will not use drugs to cheat and gain more volume. Or a GAA paragon isn’t tempted to take a medicinal shortcut. If the reward outweighs the risk, the outcome is almost inevitable.
One obvious difference from racing is an innocent animal in the middle: another is low public expectation. If doping scandals in other sports get a so-called shock, the popular stereotype around racing is that it’s full of syringe-wielding cynics anyway. Often eager to believe the worst, the public’s reaction to doping stories can be largely ‘I told you so’.
It’s not like the stereotype came out of nowhere, either. There is ample and depressing evidence from across the racing world of how cynicism abounds if enough money is at stake. Ideas that Ireland, a world leader in so many other aspects of the game, is an ethical oasis have always been delusional. The official failure to recognize that reality has left sport hostage to fortune.
It has been almost 18 months since Jim Bolger said he was not operating on a level playing field and that doping is the number one problem in Irish racing. Such comments from such a remarkable individual proved impossible to ignore, given how rare it is for high-profile racing figures to break ranks on most issues, never mind one so incendiary.
The consequences have been seismic, including the Oireachtas hearings, the ministerial finger wagging on the future of state funding, the intense examination of the role and functioning of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB), and perhaps above all, a normally paranoid sport about washing their dirty laundry in public left them bitterly divided.
If Bolger’s plan was to open the curtains on an instinctively insular sector, he has more than succeeded. He has also paid off in terms of structures that allow Thoroughbred lifetime traceability to finally be accelerated by an industry that seemed content to put such a move on a very long finger. However, relative to the scale of any real doping problem, the jury is out.
Having initially said that his argument was based on what his staff told him, according to the Sunday Independent, it appears that Bolger’s claims about a Lance Armstrong figure operating in Irish racing are based on what the suspended former manager told him. Stephen Mahon. Apparently, Mahon, in turn, was informed of doping and collusion practices by a ‘John Doe’ figure who worked for a ‘Coach X’.
Those codes didn’t hold up for long within racing. It took even less time for many in the sport to write the whole thing off entirely given Mahon’s central role. Unfairly or not, a list of past indiscretions accompanies Mahón’s credibility. Claims that he has been constantly maligned, vilified or just down on his luck may have some validity, but he also smells like Mario Balotelli and his ‘Why Always Me’ shirt.
However, whistleblowing is not limited to the pillars of probity.
Mahon has claimed that he informed the IHRB about a horse that he had been told would test positive if sampled at races. No such positive emerged. A little later, the IHRB raided his Co Galway yard, found breaches of animal welfare rules and handed him the longest suspension ever given to a trainer.
The invitation to connect the dots in a conspiracy to silence him and prevent a high-profile figure from being discovered as a drug dealer is obvious. Joining those dots implies that the IHRB is corrupt. That threatens to undermine the credibility of the entire sport. So the stakes are huge and it comes down to whether or not you believe the game is inherently lopsided.
Like the sport it oversees, the IHRB is equally open to public skepticism and you don’t have to be a conniving extremist to ponder the need to reform racing’s regulatory structures.
The IHRB is a private body backed by public money and made up largely of powerful racing figures who essentially police themselves. It seems anachronistic that such an arrangement controls a €2bn industry that employs thousands of people and draws more than €70m a year in state funding. It leaves the IHRB perpetually struggling with a credibility gap.
Bolger has been a fierce critic of the regulator for decades. Mahon has had repeated clashes with them. Apparently this ‘John Doe’ isn’t a fan either. But there is a gulf between perceptions of ineptitude and accusations of cover-up, just as there is a difference between a few bad apples going rogue and the chronic deception implicit in Bolger’s claims.
Recent consultations with a couple of credible coaches, who had initially been open to persuasion about Bolger’s claims, privately produced withering rejections of the idea that such a systemic problem existed. Both insisted that they would not be able to compete if that were the case. To which the inevitable response from some will be, well, that’s what they’d say, right?
Such suspicion is pervasive in racing and is easily fueled by doping accusations. But a year and a half up the racing tree getting shaken as hard as ever before, what has fallen off?
Basically, Bolger’s claims are third-hand information based on second-hand claims from a trainer suspended with a grinding axe, who is vague about the details he received from an unidentified source allegedly working for an unidentified trainer, who by all reports is furious. in reputational damage.
Something much more substantial can yet emerge from all this. But you don’t have to be any kind of apologist to consider how relatively flimsy information has generated so much excitement.
The public needs little encouragement to believe the worst of racing when it comes to drugs, sometimes for good reason. As a result, the points will always be joined. But after a year and a half of intense speculation and bitter recrimination, is there any point at which it’s appropriate to throw out that age-old editorial question about what’s the line here?