The inside track

A dog doping case exposed a range of irregularities in the system before the investigator said case closed, writes investigative correspondent Conor Ryan

On the surface, there was little about one race in Cork in 2009 to suggest it would trouble the Irish Greyhound Board for the next four years after the winner tested positive for a banned substance.

THERE was €7,500 up for grabs for the winner of the Kudos Sprint final at Curraheen Park, Cork, on Mar 15, 2009.

A three-year-old black dog, Low Handicap, was in trap two. And less than 18 seconds later he remained ahead of the pack and had won his 11th race.

It was a straightforward sprint won well by a dog who was owned by one of the most recognised names in greyhound racing, Noreen McManus — wife of JP McManus.

On the surface, there was little about the race to suggest it would trouble the Irish Greyhound Board for the next four years. But after the race Low Handicap tested positive for a banned substance. The prize money was initially withheld.

Positive tests are not unusual events in racing and there is no suggestion that Ms McManus had any prior knowledge of it.

But in most cases those responsible are fined, their offences are published and any prize money is withheld.

Where Low Handicap was concerned the prize money was paid out and the result was allowed to stand.

An old label had been stuck to the side of the sample and, on the basis of that technical error, the IGB and the Independent Control Committee dropped the case. The B sample was not tested.

The whole affair provoked great unease within the organisation and, two years later, it caused the company to hire an English consultant to investigate how the test was handled and why it had to be quashed.

Of particular concern, was the perceived lack of fairness in the regulatory system. This was because up to 14 other drug tests fell under to the same labelling technicality. However, the other owners did not get a similar reprieve.

Recently, the IGB said it decided it could not intervene and cancel the punishments for the other owners.

This decision was in direct conflict with the main recommendation made by the English consultant who had been appointed to investigate the case of Low Handicap.

The officer had said all other positive samples in the same testing batch should be returned to and struck out.

The independent inquiry officer, Frank Melville, said: “The trainers/owners of greyhounds found to have given a positive result in that batch of samples [should] be informed of the result of the analysis but told that due to a technical error no further action will be taken. If a sample in that batch of samples has been found to be positive and has been acted on with penalties imposed, the owner/trainer be informed that due to a technical error the sample has been invalid and the penalty revoked.”

In a statement, the IGB explained the reason why only Ms McManus’s case had been quashed.

“Bord na gCon [IGB] took receipt of legal advices on the recommendation of Mr Melville,” it said.

“They broadly indicated that (a) Bord na gCon had no authority to revoke any penalty made by the independent control and independent appeal committee and (b) each affected person had the right of appeal against any decision of the independent control committee to the independent appeal committee.”

LINGERING CONFLICT

The existence of additional positive tests, and the board’s treatment of them, had already been the source of considerable dispute.

At one point, in Aug 2011, the reluctance of the IGB chairman Phil Meaney to hand over an audit of these samples, to Mr Melville, provoked a call for him to step down.

This was made by the then director, Danny Reilly, who had been liaising with Mr Melville on behalf of the company. Mr Reilly’s memo to the board said an audit of other samples was in the possession of Mr Meaney and should be handed over to Mr Melville or circulated among the board for consideration.

“The chairman stated that on legal advice he was not prepared to circulate the document to the board, allow the board members to read it, or even read it aloud to the assembled meeting... In view of the above, I feel the chairman should consider his position,” Mr Reilly’s statement said.

The memo was presented following fraught board meetings about Mr Melville’s inquiry in Jul 2011. At these, it was alleged his work had suffered from a lack of co-operation by the IGB.

According the board minutes, where the memo was presented, Mr Meaney said he was not going to hand over the audit. It was a problem he inherited and one which he wanted to close.

“[The chairman said] time is being wasted on it and there is nothing in it for the board, the Department [of Agriculture] or the industry,” the board minutes said.

THE ORIGINAL INQUIRIES

Long before it came to a head, the Low Handicap incident had created problems.

This was the subject of an internal inquiry and in Apr 2010, the head of regulation, Pat Herbert, reported back to the board that the result could not be amended. Legal advice, received on a separate case in Aug 2008, was relied on.

This prompted calls for a more thorough inquiry into why the IGB’s new structures had failed.

Frank Melville, former head of the English greyhound body, was contracted and began work in Aug 2010.

He was briefed by company chief executive, Adrian Neilan, Mr Herbert and the secretary for the control committee Christy McCarthy.

He travelled to Ireland and, in time, his work was drawn into a second incident in Dundalk. This related to the running of a completely different dog under a false name.

This was a complex inquiry and ultimately, Mr Melville decided that he could arrive at no conclusion on it.

His own work stalled in late 2010.

PROGRESS OF THE INQUIRY

For most of Mr Melville’s work, one IGB director, Danny Reilly reported back to the board on his progress. Mr Reilly’s reports revealed an enormous level of frustration. It was felt that the inquiry officer had not got cooperation.

According to board minutes, legal advice he requested from the CEO, Adrian Neilan, was not supplied to him until it was brought to the attention of the board and subsequently released.

In a statement, Mr Neilan rejected this and said there was no formal written request from Mr Melville, for copies of legal advice.

Earlier, Mr Melville had suggested an audit should be released. This concerned the samples of other dogs that were tested around the same time as Ms McManus’s greyhound.

When the board opted to keep the audit private its chairman, Mr Meaney, said he would meet Mr Melville instead.

CLOSING THE INQUIRY

IGB chairman Phil Meaney and Mr Melville met at Gatwick Airport on Sept 15, 2011.

At the meeting, Mr Melville agreed to sign a copy of a letter he supplied to the board a year earlier. He allowed this to be taken as his final report on the issue.

This two-page document did not comment on whether the decision to cancel the Low Handicap’s test was correct. But it did recommend that the other affected dogs should be notified.

A report on the meeting between the two men was brought to the IGB directors in Dec 2011 by Mr Meaney.

He said the result of Mr Melville’s inquiry, which had cost more than €25,000, did not have much detail but it was solid.

Mr Meaney said he met with Mr Melville for two hours and discussed the issues and the comments Mr Reilly had made at the July and August meetings.

The report said Mr Melville felt he had got co-operation from the racing manager and control steward in Cork. Mr Meaney said the inquiry officer had not sought a copy of the audit of other dogs.

In a statement, the IGB said it would have been improper to hand over the audit.

“Following separate legal advice, it was advised to the chairman that he should not share the details of the samples which could not be processed as this would have put the IGB in a difficult legal position as well as been wholly unfair to the people involved if this information was shared publicly without the proper due process procedures been followed,” it said.

“Given the unequivocal legal advice given to the chairman, his adopted position proved wise and sound.”

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney was made aware of the case by the IGB. And when Mr Reilly left the board earlier this year he wrote to Mr Coveney. This letter was released under the Freedom of Information Act. It included an offer to meet to discuss “integrity issues”. The men did not meet.

The IGB has refused to release all other documents related to the case following a separate request under the Freedom of Information Act.

Last April it released a statement on the outcome of Mr Melville’s work.

“The board have accepted that some samples were taken under the incorrect racing regulations in 2008 and hence could not be processed… This matter is now fully closed”.

Foundation has given critical support to greyhound board

Financial deals with JP McManus, his wife Noreen, and his charitable foundation have provided critical support to the cash-strapped Irish Greyhound Board in recent years.

JP and Noreen have been, and remain, two of the most prominent and respected figures in the racing and coursing sectors.

Ms McManus was appointed a director of Limerick Greyhound Racing Track Ltd in 2006 and remains on its board. It is a subsidiary company of the IGB.

The new stadium has been struggling financially since it moved to Dock Rd in 2010.

But its prospects for 2013 have received a major fillip due to the direct support of Ms McManus.

Last July, it was announced the McManus family would sponsor the second richest race on the calendar and bring its final to Limerick.

The inaugural Con and Anne Kirby Puppy Stake carries a prize fund of €150,000. It is sponsored by the McManus family and is named after Ms McManus’s parents.

The Limerick track has been losing money. It has fallen well short of the profit projections.

The lucrative final will help attract crowds and bring positive attention to the controversial facility.

Ms McManus is also a director of the JP McManus Charitable Foundation.

In late 2010 the Foundation agreed to pay €1.5m for the IGB’s old race track in Limerick, the Market’s Field.

The proceeds from the sale were used to pay down debts associated with its maligned new Limerick stadium.

On top of a failed gentleman’s agreement, the budget for Limerick had been scuppered by the wider property crash.

The crash denied the company the opportunity to raise up to €10m from the sale of three associated sites around Limerick which were no longer required; its Henry St head office, its abandoned alternative site in Meelick and the Market’s Field.

So far only one of the three has been sold. This happened after the JP McManus Charitable Foundation stepped in to buy the property on behalf of Limerick Football Club.

The potential value of the Market’s Field had fallen. In Apr 2009 the board resolved that it would only be willing to accept €3m for the ground. If a deal was staggered the asking price would rise to €4.5m.

A year later, in May 2010, the IGB board voted that the site should not be sold for less than €2m.

This happened during negotiations with the Limerick Regeneration Agency. But its bargaining power was diminishing all the time.

At the same May meeting IGB directors were briefed on the difficult finances of the company.

These had seen group borrowings grow to €24.79m with an absolute limit of €25m.

In the latter half of 2010 the IGB was in negotiations with the JP McManus Charitable Foundation.

The foundation was the preferred buyer.

The plan was for it to become the new home for the city’s league of Ireland soccer team.

The property deal was closed by the end of that year. The foundation paid €1.5m in a deal which allowed the IGB to stay under its debt limit, but required it to write off €1m from its assets.

Ms McManus’s involvement in Limerick Greyhound Racing Track Ltd, which officially held the Market’s Field property on its books, and the foundation was not listed among the related party transactions in the accounts for the track.

However, the IGB said it would be inappropriate and incorrect to suggest this should have been detailed. It also said the Limerick track was an advisory board and it was the IGB group board that made decisions on the sale of property.

“All financial statements are prepared under standard accepted accounting policies to ensure they give a true and fair view of the statement of the company’s affairs, of its profit and loss and ensuring the regularity of transactions.

“These financial statements are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General who have expressed their opinion that these accounts give a true and fair view in accordance with accepted accounting practices of the state of the company’s affairs.”

Noreen McManus was contacted by letter but had not commented at the time of going to press.


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