Norton gets four month ban for failed drugs test

THE long-running drugs test saga involving jockey Francis Norton was brought to an end in London yesterday when the rider was handed a four-month suspension.

Norton, 33, gave a positive sample for the cocaine metabolite benzoylecgonine on September 26 last year. But months of legal wrangling followed between the Jockey Club and Norton's legal team, and the date for his disciplinary hearing had been repeatedly deferred until yesterday. However, after a hearing which lasted over four hours, and which saw both Norton and the Jockey Club use independent medical experts as witnesses, the rider was finally told of his punishment.

Norton's defence revolved around two possible suggestions as to the source of the substance. Firstly, that an exotic herbal tea could have been responsible for the positive sample. Second, that it could have arisen from environmental contamination from handling banknotes.

But neither explanation was accepted by the disciplinary panel, which consisted of Alistair MacDonald-Buchanan, William Bethell and Nicholas Wrigley.

Norton told the panel he could unknowingly have been given the drink containing the sample by a friend. But the committee found that the "account about how the illegal substance was in his friend's possession, and how it may have been ingested by Norton, and his friend's inability to explain satisfactorily how it was that he alighted on this substance as a possible source, left the panel not satisfied with the explanation".

They found that the possibility of contamination through banknotes was "overwhelmingly unlikely".

However, in an unusual twist, the Jockey Club's case that the source arose from a "misuse of Class A drugs" was also rejected, leaving the disciplinary panel to draw the conclusion that "there could be another cause for which no explanation follows".

Jockey Club public relations director John Maxse explained how it came about that Norton was suspended for only four months rather than the recommended maximum of six.

"The length of the suspension is at the discretion of the disciplinary panel and depends upon how culpable the rider was for the sample," he said.

Norton is the third jockey to have failed a test for elements of cocaine since testing was introduced in 1994. The previous two were Dean Gallagher, who was banned for 18 months, having already served a punishment for the same offence in France, and apprentice Philip Shea, who was given six months in July 2000.

Norton was represented by a legal team which included barrister Angus Piper, solicitor Christopher Stewart-Moore and an independent medical expert as witness.

As he left, Norton declined to make a comment, but Stewart-Moore told reporters: "The sentence reflects the third of the Jockey Club's findings - which will appear in the Racing Calendar to the effect that there was no proof of deliberate ingestion of cocaine, given the extremely low reading of the urine test, as agreed by the experts giving evidence at the hearing."

Norton's worldwide ban starts on December 19, and he will have to be passed fit by the Jockey Club's chief medical adviser Dr Michael Turner to resume riding from April 19, four weeks into the next turf Flat season.

Commenting on the length of time it had taken for the inquiry to be staged, Maxse said: "It is obviously very regrettable that it has taken such a long time for proceedings to take place. We will be having a look at the case to see what lessons can be learned, if any, which would enable us to speed things up in the future.

"However, as I have said before, the current system is vulnerable when a legal team is determined to explore every single avenue that is open to them."

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