According to one report on Monday morning, it could be “a matter of months” before any detail emerges about what, exactly, officials from Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine found when they raided Ballintogher Stud in County Kildare last Tuesday. Even the results of blood and hair tests by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB), on samples from thoroughbreds that were on site when the DAFM investigators arrived, are still working their way through the system.
But that has not stopped battle lines being drawn as Ireland’s closely knit racing and breeding industries face up to a potentially devastating threat to their public image and integrity. A private investigator – hired reportedly by a group of British trainers – photographed 56 horseboxes arriving at John Warwick’s clinic at Ballintogher between 15 June and 31 August this year. Yet with the main exception of Jessica Harrington, who has said that she has been sending horses to Warwick, a renowned specialist in tendon injuries, for a number of years, a number of leading Irish trainers and breeders have been keen to distance themselves from the clinic at Ballintogher.
Coolmore Stud, the biggest beast of all in Irish racing, firmly rejected a claim by Warwick, in a recorded telephone conversation seven months ago reported in the Sunday Independent, that he had worked with their yearlings in the past. Aidan O’Brien, who has trained so many of their champions and future stallions at Ballydoyle, also denied any links with the therapist, with the minor caveat that a former owner might have asked Warwick to look at one of his horses “a long time ago”.
Veteran trainer and TV pundit Ted Walsh, who happened to be dropping off a horse for treatment when the raid was under way, told RTE Sport: “It’s a bad old thing for racing. I’m sorry that someone as high profile as me in racing was even there. To cast a shadow on the game. I can’t do anything about that now. I drove in, I was there.”
And we also know that three trainers whose boxes were pictured entering Ballintogher when Warwick was holding one of his clinics denied having sent horses to be treated there when asked by a reporter from the Sunday Independent – though the denials seemed less assured when they were told there was photographic evidence which linked their stables to the stud.
A second front, meanwhile, also appeared to be opening up as Noel Meade, one of Ireland most successful and respected trainers and the current chair of the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association, turned his ire on fellow trainer Jim Bolger in an interview with Racing TV on Sunday.
Bolger, of course, is widely seen as having initiated the current focus on the possible use of performance-enhancing drugs in Irish racing when he told an interviewer in October 2020 that it is “the No 1 problem” facing the sport in Ireland.
Meade told RTV that Bolger “doesn’t appear to have anything”, adding: “If he has, he hasn’t told anyone. So everybody as far as I can see, and any trainer I have met, is very annoyed with Jim over that.”
With so much still unclear about what was going on at Ballintogher on the days when Warwick was in residence, this wagon-circling approach feels premature. It could be more useful instead to see the intense interest surrounding events at the stud as a reminder that the potential use of illegal medications and drugs is now, and will remain, the most serious of all threats to racing’s integrity and image.
When so much of what goes on away from the track is hidden from view, there will always be speculation about what might, or might not, be going on to give an individual stable an edge. And even if a racing industry is completely clean from head to toe, proving that negative is extremely difficult.
As a result, everyone in the sport should be shoulder-to-shoulder against the illegal use of drugs and medication. And yet, the ultra-competitive nature of racing – its lifeblood – is also what can allow the poison to find its way in. When your business thrives or dies on results, and owners – quite rightly – want to see their horses run, the pressure just to get them onto the course, never mind into the winner’s enclosure, is huge.
If Vet X has a track record, say, of getting horses back into training in four months when others recommend box rest for eight, the temptation to give them a try must be very hard to resist, not least because if you do, the owner can easily move the horse to another trainer down the road who will not.
As things stand, we know – thanks to Warwick’s interview with Sunday’s edition of the Racing Post – that drugs that should not have been in the country in the first place were seized in last Tuesday’s raid. Warwick claimed that these substances were en route to Kuwait, and that “no dope … nothing that would fail a dope test” – – was involved.
While the IHRB recently acquired the right to access stud farms to test horses on site, the premises are not directly licensed by the regulator. Had these drugs been seized at a licensed racing stable, however, the licence holder could potentially have been looking at a significant ban. Warwick’s client list, meanwhile, is thought to have included trainers in both Ireland and Britain, and they are now in the unfortunate position of being linked to an unlicensed premises where banned drugs were clearly present.
That, and the potential damage to racing’s image and reputation, should be the immediate concern for trainers as the case continues to unfold, not a “Jim doesn’t have anything” claim that could yet prove to be a hostage to fortune.