Irish horse doping case leaves questions stuck in the stalls

There are still plenty of unanswered questions following Tuesday’s news from Ireland that Charles Byrnes’s gelding Viking Hoard was doped with acepromazine (ACP) before a race at Tramore in October 2018. These include whether Byrnes’s imminent appeal to the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board is against its Referrals Committee’s finding in the case, or only its penalty: a six-month ban and €1,000 fine.

As a result, there will be no formal comment on the case from any interested parties – regulators, individuals or businesses – until the appeal has been heard. At that point, we may find out a little more about the individual “said to be associated with match-fixing in other sports” who was apparently behind big bets against Viking Hoard before he ran at Tramore, and also before two more of the gelding’s races, both abject defeats, a few weeks earlier.

Several facts in the case, however, are beyond dispute, as the detailed account of the committee’s hearing and the reasoning behind its decision make plain.

The first is that before Viking Hoard was pulled up when tailed off in a handicap hurdle at Tramore, someone administered such a significant dose of the fast-acting tranquiliser ACP to Byrnes’s runner that a subsequent positive dope test for one of its metabolites was 100 times over the screening limit.

Dr Lynn Hillyer, the IHRB’s head of anti-doping and chief veterinary officer, gave evidence that this was a dangerously high dose which “affected the performance of the gelding, the integrity of the race and the health, safety and welfare of the animal, the rider, stable staff and other riders and animals in the race.”

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We also know that at or around the same time, someone in “a distant part of the world” placed a big bet against Viking Hoard on the Betfair betting exchange. The bet – €34,889 [£30,200] to win €3,200 [£2,850] – accounted for 50% of the market, and signified, in the Committee’s words, “substantial confidence” that Viking Hoard, who was a 4-1 chance in early betting, was not going to win.

It was also established that the lay bet was placed via a “limited liability company”, which then fed the money into Betfair, prompting the Committee to express surprise that “such a mechanism is possible, as it could hinder identification of the possible beneficiaries of lay betting”.

On course, Viking Hoard drifted from 4-1 to 8-1 and duly ran just as the market suggested he would, losing touch from the start before being pulled up before the seventh flight. In the committee’s view, it was only good fortune that having been “rendered a danger to all nearby persons and animals”, no “actual consequences flowed from this danger”. However, significant damage had resulted from Byrnes’s negligence in twice leaving Viking Hoard unattended in the racecourse stable before his race. “The damage was financial in the case of affected punters, and reputational in the case of the racing industry”, and sufficient to merit, in the committee’s view, a six-month ban.

Whether that penalty is affected by Byrnes’s upcoming appeal remains to be seen, but the evidence presented to the hearing also raises questions about Viking Hoard’s two previous starts, at Galway and Sedgefield.

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The same overseas account – understood to be from a so-called “White Label” website betting into the Betfair pools – bet heavily against Viking Hoard on both occasions, including a stake of €30,279 [£27,000] to win €12,000 [£10,700] before the race at Sedgefield.

Viking Hoard drifted from 3-1 to 10-1 before the Sedgefield race, and though there is no mention of his disappointing performance, or a post-race dope test, in the stewards’ report on the day, the Guardian understands that a test was indeed taken.

Whether or not it was positive for ACP is another question that still awaits an answer, but it only adds to the sense that this is a story that will run for some time yet – and with a good deal more vigour than poor Viking Hoard could muster at Tramore two years ago.


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