Oisin Keniry/INPHO 'Just like a jockey under the influence of cocaine is a greater danger to both himself or herself and other riders in the race, the same applies to a rider over the limit from alcohol.'
positive signs

Johnny Ward: Irish racing can lead the way in drug testing jockeys

‘There needs to be a greater deterrent and, if we increase the number of tests when we visit a racecourse, it could act as a deterrent,’ says Dr Jennifer Pugh.

A CAVEAT TO commence: the war on drugs, or whatever it is, has been a colossal failure at least to these eyes.

The world allows people to indulge in alcoholism legally, indeed it is promoted in Irish society; however, you cannot get medicinal marijuana to ease the suffering of your child. Weed should be legalised and in my view so should Class A drugs, as the state can then benefit in terms of tax intake and addiction management rather than waste money taking on criminal gangs who would go out of business post-prohibition.

Drugs are bad for you but so is alcohol: the one, true gateway. In any event, true to a liberal ethos, adults should have the right to choose what they want to do to their own body. Educate people about drugs, tackle inequality and pursue imaginative methods to deal with narcotics beyond trying to place poor people behind bars.

Cocaine is illegal yet it is striking how rampant it is in society right now. I was really struck after talking with a League of Ireland footballer recently about how prevalent it is in the game; another, who is nearing retirement, told me that he has been tested once in his entire career in this country.

A friend recently was on a night out in Newmarket and could not but notice how unpopular the urinals were in a crowded men’s room.

Cocaine is an insidious drug and highly addictive. Its prevalence in racing is far, far greater than what is inferred by the statistics of the positive tests recorded by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Body (IHRB) in recent years. The last 13 positive drug tests in Ireland were for cocaine.

The IHRB carried out 254 drug tests in 2018, covering 31 race meetings, with five positive samples. All of those were for cocaine.

All of this is more topical than ever, with this week’s revelation in the Racing Post that drug testing of jockeys at Irish meetings will increase significantly in the coming months as the authorities bid to kick cocaine abuse out of racing.

A maximum of 10 riders are currently tested when the IHRB drug-testing procedures are in place at a meeting. This is clearly a deterrent but Dr Jennifer Pugh, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board chief medical officer, deserves credit for believing it is not enough.

Pugh told the Racing Post: “There needs to be a greater deterrent and, if we increase the number of tests when we visit a racecourse, it could act as a deterrent. My role is to try and pick up the pieces in the aftermath of a positive test result and, believe me, it is an absolute nightmare for those who are caught.”

“We already do a lot of testing in comparison to other sports, but I feel there is a need to shake things up a bit. As well as increasing the number of tests we carry out there will also be a greater focus on higher risk days.

“That way, if the temptation is there for jockeys to take drugs at the weekend, they will know they will be caught as cocaine stays in the systems for four days. We need to have more tests and it needs to be more unpredictable.

“There is a culture of partying and binge drinking in racing and we need to try and shift that culture.

“Drinking affects the ability to make the right decisions. If jockeys are not out on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night it will decrease the temptation to take drugs.”

The British Horseracing Authority is perhaps a step ahead of its Irish counterpart in that it recently mooted hair-testing to replace what seems a pretty inadequate current MO. This seems a no-brainer and would go a long way towards stamping out drug-taking by jockeys.

How long cocaine stays in one’s system depends on many variables, including someone’s metabolism, body mass, age and hydration level. The various kinds of screening tests used (blood, saliva, urine, or hair) have different windows of time in which they can detect coke.

These can range from 24 hours to up to three months, three months in the case of hair.

Imagine the fear that would put in any jockey on a night out.

Pugh told The42: “Right now the sample is 50ml of urine divided into two jars, one kept as a ‘b’ sample in case of a positive result and then the rider has right to ask for the ‘b’ sample analysis to confirm.

“Cocaine after a single use is up to four days in the system but it is very unpredictable; it depends on the amount consumed and an individuals metabolism. Also with frequent and regular use it can stay in the system for up to 30 days.”

The authorities in Britain have come a long way from what was an unusually lax attitude to testing for drugs in the weighing room. In 2016, I interviewed Shane Kelly, the young jockey who turned his life around after developing a cocaine addiction.

In England, he used to cheat the tests at the races — “getting other people to piss into bottles for me” — but he soon realised that you can’t get away with that in Ireland.

Just like a jockey under the influence of cocaine is a greater danger to both himself or herself and other riders in the race, the same applies to a rider over the limit from alcohol. Pugh is not so long in the job, having replaced Dr Adrian McGoldrick, but her response when asked by The42 about the potential for hair testing was, pardon the pun, a positive one.

“With regard to hair testing I would say the IHRB are open to exploring all options that might benefit both the IHRB and the rider concerned,” she said.

“I also wish to express that my views on increased or more varied testing is in the hope of increasing the deterrent and to make it more difficult for riders to take the chance that they won’t get caught.

“Behind it all is the need for education and support to avoid them turning to drugs and alcohol in the first place, in what is an exceptionally high pressured job. Also to note that the cocaine epidemic is widespread in society and not just specific to racing.”

Imagine the contemplation of the ruination of your career, no matter how off your head you were, if you knew it would be potentially detected in the next three months, with tests many multiples of the previous norm.

We can lead the way.

At Dundalk this evening, Donnacha O’Brien attempts to haul back Colin Keane in the jockeys’ championship, the rider presumably closing in on retirement before training next year. He is a remarkable athlete and Eminence looks long at 9/2 with Betway in the Irish Stallion Farms EBF “Red God” Handicap (7.45): he was 2/1 last time and seems to have everything in his favour.

Kudos to the Curragh for reaching out to the locals Sunday, free admission to an excellent card. Make it a profitable visit by backing Tresorier, who has plenty going for him in the Curragh Community Race Day Handicap (5.35), presuming they go quicker than they did at Cork when he cantered through the race.

Do restrain the celebrations to a couple of pints.

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