Ruby Walsh: Jim Bolger sends up distress flare for horse racing

Jim Bolger said he had chosen now to raise the most significant problems horse racing faces because he is back in the limelight. He sure got that part right, but it’s some of the other views I am not sure about
Ruby Walsh: Jim Bolger sends up distress flare for horse racing

Jim Bolger pictured at home at his Coolcullen Stables in Co Carlow. Picture: Healy Racing

Poetic Flare rattled off the quick Ascot turf on Tuesday in the St James’s Palace Stakes, winning his second Group 1 this season with a spectacular performance.

It was his fifth run of the season, leaving me wondering if Jim Bolger was going back to war too soon with this son of Dawn Approach. He had won the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, got caught out in a tactical affair at Longchamp 15 days later and, six days after that, got chinned by stablemate Mac Swiney in a titanic battle at the Curragh.

I had done my homework. Jim had tried this with Finsceal Beo in 2007. Like Poetic Flare, Finsceal Beo ran in all three Guineas and lined up at Royal Ascot in the Coronation Stakes. I know she’s a filly, and they were the female versions, but the pattern is the same. Unfortunately, Royal Ascot was a step too far as she only finished eighth, so questioning Poetic Flare seemed reasonable.

What we saw was a supremely talented horse being campaigned bravely to achieve what he was bred to do. A lot of credit has to go to Jim Bolger but when Poetic Flare flashed past the post it was the trainer’s comments in a Sunday Independent interview that was all the rage in the company I was in.

Jim said in that article he had chosen now to raise what he believes to be the most significant problems horse racing faces because he is back in the limelight with a captive audience. He sure got that part right, but it’s some of the other views I am not sure about, though they worry me sufficiently to address them here.

Back in 2012, when the Carlow veterinarian John Hughes was found in possession of substantial doses of the steroid Nitrotain, it sent shockwaves through the sport. What were they for and who was using it became the two most frequently asked questions as all sorts of rumours circulated within racing. Only Philip Fenton was found and banned for using Nitrotain, though no one is so naive enough to believe it was the only batch and the rest disappeared into a bin.

It went somewhere, and it’s reasonable to assume it found its way into animals. I thought when the source was cut off, it would coincide with a tell-tale drop in form and results for someone, and by that process the culprits would soon become apparent.

However, the graphs of success for the leading trainers stayed pretty constant. Reflecting on who is successful now compared to 2012, of course some well-known figures have disappeared though not at the rate I expected.

No sensation disappeared overnight, and none of the steroids turned up in routine testing carried out by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB). It’s equally as safe to assume that drugs imported eight or nine years ago are gone, so what is the new stuff, and where is it coming from?

Jim Bolger seems to know, with the intelligence to back it up but says legal restraints prevent him from naming and shaming. If Jim knows, he surely has the proof - there is a substantial difference between knowing and believing. The problem with Jim’s implications is that it tars us all, everyone in the racing industry, though that is clearly not his intention.

The IHRB detected a case of anabolic steroids in 2019 when a horse of David Dunne’s, Druim Samhraidh, failed a urine test taken at Ballinrobe that August. The IHRB’s lab uncovered that one but Trevor Graham, the former coach of athlete Marion Jones had to give the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) a vial of the ‘clear’ steroid for them to see it in samples taken from athletes in the early 2000s because it was undetectable to that point.

Jim Bolger’s issue with the IHRB’s ability to police the sport is pretty evident, but I take issue with him questioning why the IHRB requires extra anti-doping staff if there is (as they say) no problem with doping? The additional staff are required because new regulations introduced this year permits authorities to randomly sample any and every thoroughbred on this island, and not just those on the premises of a licensed trainer.

This opens the door to a whole new category of horse which were previously off limits. It includes those on stud farms and pre-training yards in the country, unlicensed by the IHRB but still housing thoroughbreds. Basically, the IHRB now has the powers to test thousands of more horses and, therefore, will require more staff to do so.

I can’t comment on the efficiency of the labs used by the IHRB because I don’t know how that testing works other than how samples are collected. However, I know any Irish-trained winner, anywhere in the world, is tested by that country’s authorities. To the best of my knowledge, and I have checked this as best I could, all those findings in jurisdictions, noted for rigorous testing, have been negative.

They are urine samples, not hair, which Jim believes have not been tested correctly here. Yet they are high-profile, top-end races where horses would need to be at their best to win.

Jim Bolger could be correct here though this sort of nefarious activity is usually evident to those on the inside before it becomes the subject of investigative proceedings. I don’t think the revelations in cycling or athletics surprised too many on the inside.

However, unlike sports where the top tier trickles the income stream back down to the grassroots, it’s the grassroots that provides the financial engine for racing as the vast majority of horses devalue when they race.

Maybe the extended reach of the IHRB now will turn up some of the evidence that Jim Bolger is alluding to but remember, vets are equine GP’s: They don’t just treat racehorses, they treat every horse. So uncovering the Nitrotain and other such performance-enhancing drugs might be a job that’s even beyond the scope of the IHRB’s extended arm.

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