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Brian O'Connor

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Babysitting The Cottage

© Photo Healy Racing

There is nothing more vital to racing’s credibility, image, reputation and self-interest than the quick implementation of the Drugs Task Force recommendation for protocols to be put in place between breeders and the Turf Club regarding Out Of Competition Testing and how it is carried out. And yet nothing has happened. There hasn’t been a meeting yet between the regulatory body and the Breeders Association. Since there’s no greater priority if the Task Force report really is as significant as everyone insists it is the obvious question is why not?

A lull will be pounced upon by sceptics as evidence that the production of a report for cosmetic purposes was its purpose all along. That’s hardly an accurate picture since there is agreement apparently in the offing about a system for foal registration containing written assurances that anabolic steroids haven’t been given to animals. But that’s a comparative sideshow to the issue of OOCT and the access required by racing officials to make it worthwhile.

It’s a murky picture as to why Breeders groups, both here and in Britain, appear to be dragging their feet on allowing either Turf Club or BHA officials into their establishments. Here it seems they are happy to allow Department of Agriculture personnel in but not the Turf Club, presumably on the basis that they don’t want to be brought under the rules of racing since they are technically bloodstock operations rather than racing businesses, a neat distinction if hardly very convincing.

The evidence of how doping can impact on a sport’s credibility is unfortunately widespread and racing has suffered its share of damaging headlines in recent years. As an industry it is especially vulnerable to doping suspicion so the self-interest in being seen to do everything to keep it clean is self-evident. It is well established throughout sport that effective OOCT is a fundamental tool in fighting the cheats even if it can be a pain for those behaving legitimately. The big overall picture supersedes the sectional.

So if there doesn’t seem to be a priority put on implementing a thorough and meaningful OOCT system then the public isn’t likely to ask why, preferring instead to jump forward to assumptions that are difficult to dismiss given the circumstances. As always with doping the potential for getting caught has to outweigh the potential reward for cheating. That means boots on the ground being allowed to show up unannounced to make sure everything is being done appropriately, and especially if receiving information that it mightn’t be.

That it was Department of Agriculture officials who found unlicensed medicines in Philip Fenton’s yard was a stick used to beat the Turf Club, but also racing as a whole. The Department have enough to be doing anyway without babysitting the horse game which is always talked up as a Billion Euro business but often appears to behave like a cottage industry when it suits. Doping is something that affects everyone in the horse game. And it will be judged by how seriously it responds to these Task Force recommendations.

It goes against the grain to further add to the mass coverage of Victoria Pendleton’s ambition to ride at the Cheltenham festival. Both the former Olympic cycling champion, and her betting firm backer, have already succeeded spectacularly at attracting attention to the ‘switching saddles’ project which continues to dominate headlines on the run-in to National Hunt racing’s greatest show.

Whether Pendleton is technically up riding in the Foxhunters just a year after first getting on a horse is a subject others far more qualified can judge, although it’s hardly encouraging when John Francome, almost as eminent a pundit as he was great a jockey, describes her as an accident waiting to happen. Sometimes attention can be counter-productive and it will be a brave official who signs off on her lining up at the festival on the back of such a verdict.

But what this whole ‘will she-won’t she’ saga has already highlighted is racing’s chronic lack of self confidence in the Cheltenham festival’s ability to sell itself on its own merits. It has been noticeable through the winter how enthusiastically this PR yarn has been run with by the racing establishment in Britain, to the extent that Pendleton’s progress has been headlined through point to point outposts in preference to the real racing narrative.

The rationale, as always, is an attempt at attracting new fans to the sport by pinning a recognisable face to a project. In PR terms it’s hardly a new ploy and no doubt the pay-off will be judged on so much attention being paid to Pendleton’s first racecourse start over fences at Fakenham on Friday. Another outcome though is that the run-in to National Hunt racing’s shop-window event has increasingly become about a bored ex-cyclist rather than any of its own leading lights.

What other major mainstream sport would not only put up with that, but actually be grateful for such click-bait gimmickry? This has nothing to do with Pendleton herself. Her pluck is admirable. And her backers are no doubt very pleased with themselves. But what all this has really smacked of is yet another desperate attempt by racing to sell itself through celebrity rather than the product itself. And when it’s got the Cheltenham festival to offer, how depressing is that.

It was interesting to note comments made by the Aga Khan’s manager in Ireland, Pat Downes regarding racecourses and the discrepancy of efforts to provide casual racegoers with experiences that will bring them back again. SIS revenue, he suggests, has made some racecourses lazy. He would like that “addressed” for the benefit of racegoers and racing in general.

It’s hard to argue with any of that but “addressed” is one of those helpfully vague terms that rank alongside “something has to be done” in terms of specificity. Actually addressing the something with specifics is a quandary that has stumped plenty for a long time now.