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Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

Comer has licence to train withdrawn for 3 years

Luke Comer at Galway Races Luke Comer at Galway Races
© Photo Healy Racing

Luke Comer and his brother Brian are self-made men. From humble beginnings their Comer Group employs over 500 people worldwide and the pair have combined assets of a “conservative” £2.25 billion, according to Luke.

Their company website quotes the following from an article in the Galway Advertiser in regards to their involvement in horse racing:

“Luke is highly regarded as a racehorse trainer and owns 70 racehorses and a stud farm in Dunboyne, Co Meath. Brian owns 10 horses. They have five stud farms in all, two “huge” ones in England and a few in Ireland. Some are very successful.

“We haven’t time really to concentrate on it. If we had time we would make a success of it as well,” Brian says.”

I first remember Luke Comer dipping his toe into horse racing ownership about 25 years ago by buying mainly Ballydoyle castoffs with very limited success.

He went quiet on the racing front for a number of years before returning with a vengeance about ten years ago. He gained a reputation for mostly buying horses no one else wanted at the Sales and again had close to zero success.

Comer ran into lots of trouble with the Turf Club in 2017 over a series of issues regarding his training establishment in Kilternan, Co. Dublin - horses needing veterinary intervention, unregistered workers and poor documentation - and the word on the street was that he was going to lose his licence unless he brought in an assistant trainer approved by the governing body. It was at this stage that trainer Jim Gorman was appointed by Comer to act as his assistant.

This seemed like a nice workaround for all concerned. Comer was pumping a lot of money into the sport, which included his company’s sponsorship of the Irish St Leger, and it appeared that everything had settled down. He even began to have the odd winner, including a few at outrageously large odds.

In 2020 Comer announced an audacious plan to redevelop Palmerstown Estate on the edge of Naas in Co. Kildare into a €100 million all weather and turf race track. His intention was to lease the completed venue to Horse Racing Ireland, but this appeared to fall on deaf ears and was quickly shelved.

On the 16th October 2021 Comer’s burgeoning racing empire started to unravel when a horse he trained called He Knows No Fear finished fourth in a Listed race at Leopardstown. The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) officials decided to take a hair sample from He Knows No Fear and it came back positive for anabolic steroids.

This is the same horse that became the biggest priced winner in Irish racing history when landing a maiden at the same course 14 months earlier at odds of 300/1.

What is particularly unusual about the hair testing of He Knows No Fear at Leopardstown is that it is normally only the winners of races that are tested for drugs (he finished fourth) and in the vast majority of cases the tests carried out are urine samples.

Of the 3,021 races run in Ireland in 2021, 2,651 urine samples were taken compared to 704 blood samples and just 314 hair samples.

Whatever the reasons why a hair sample was taken from a non-winner on this occasion, once it came back positive it resulted in a follow up inspection of his training establishment on 10th November 2021. These out-of-competition inspections invariably include only blood and hair samples being taken and in the case of Comer’s yard visit it resulted in a further 11 horses testing positive for the same anabolic steroids detected in He Knows No Fear’s raceday sample. All the positive samples again came from hair tests.

Luke Comer immediately denied any wrongdoing and became convinced that the source of the anabolic steroids came from contaminated hay used to feed the horses. He spent what the IHRB described as “an enormous sum of money to try and establish how his horses came to test positive.”

Despite his best efforts, employing a range of experts and attempting to replicate the positive samples in other sets of horses, we still ended up in a situation where “the Committee finds itself in the position of being unable to say, on the balance of probability, how the horses came to test positive.”

The hearings themselves, which lasted an unprecedented nine days, had enough doctors and professors called as witnesses to staff a small hospital, but still got nowhere near the truth of what caused the 12 horses trained by Luke Comer to test positive for anabolic steroids.

In the end Comer will have his licence withdrawn for 3 years, pay fines of €80,000 and pay 80% of the IHRB’s costs which amounts to a staggering €755,754.

In making the decision to withdraw his licence the committee took into account: “If his licence was to be withdrawn for a period of time there is no reason why his racing enterprise could not continue pretty much as normal. He is only in the jurisdiction for three months of the year and he has an assistant trainer, Mr. Gorman, on site.” They also said in relation to his 9 months per year out of the country: “It would be quite impossible for him to adequately supervise the racing yard throughout the year.” That being the case, why give him nearly four months to sort out alternative arrangements? The withdrawal of Comer’s training licence doesn’t begin until 1st January 2024.

It also begs the question as to whether or not he should have ever been granted a licence to train if he only spends three months of the year in Ireland.

A component of the 3 year ban was that “At the time of the incidents giving rise to the charges there was poor security at the yard especially in terms of camera surveillance. It would have been all too easy for unauthorised persons to gain access to the horses undetected.”

It is a bit rich for the IHRB to be accusing someone else of having poor security, especially in the area of camera surveillance which resulted in their own failure to reach satisfactory outcomes in two previous high profile cases of horses being tampered with in racecourse stable yards. The pot calling the kettle black!

Altogether there were four charges against Comer at the hearing and the above sanctions refer to three of them. It seems odd that the other charge (charge 3) was ever brought to the referral.

This charge was in relation to a stud farm where many of Comer’s horses were brought to exercise. His registered training yard is Eagle Lodge, Kilternan. Each day his horses were brought from there to his “state-of-the-art gallop” at Ballinteskin Stud to work, but as this is an unlicensed premises the horses would not be permitted to board there.

According to Dr Lynn Hillyer of IHRB Ballinteskin Stud “had all the appearance of an active training yard, but without the horses.” At the Hearing: “She described how a number of the boxes had been bedded down with straw and there was fresh dung in a number of the boxes and there were bales of hay in another barn. There was some feed in one of the boxes but she conceded that she would have expected to see more feed if all the horses concerned were in training there.”

It is routine for horses to be brought from their own yard to work at other places. The Curragh gallops is an obvious example, but trainers often take their horses to work on beaches and at racecourses on non-race days. I’m sure if Dr Hillyer went to the likes of Thurles for a schooling morning she would also find boxes bedded down with straw and fresh dung and most likely the remnants of feed.

Considering the seriousness of the other charges, whereby 12 horses had tested positive for anabolic steroids, it seems frivolous to have pursued a charge with scant evidence of wrongdoing. Not surprisingly the Committee accepted “the evidence of Mr. Comer and Mr. Gorman as to the use of the gallop at Ballinteskin Stud and does not consider it to be a Training Establishment within the meaning of the Rules.”

One of the more bizarre revelations from the hearings was that “the better horses were fed better hay.” Considering Luke Comer is a self-confessed billionaire you would think he could afford the very best of hay for all his horses. It would make you wonder what the rest of the trainers are feeding their horses.