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Brian O'Connor

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Task Force Slow Ahead

Ttebob jumping at NavanTtebob jumping at Navan
© Photo Healy Racing

On the back of last year’s steroids controversy, a Drugs Task Force was set up to examine and report on the extent of any potential doping problem within the racing and bloodstock industries. Some of the great and the good were appointed to represent the various sectors under the chairmanship of the soon to be installed Turf Club senior steward Meta Osborne. That was a year ago and yet we’ve heard little or nothing about it since.

It was originally envisaged a report would be available in early summer, just as a review by the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s expert, Dr Terence Wan, of drug testing systems here, including the Lab used by the Turf Club for testing substances, was supposed to be ready for release in the spring. There’s been no public release of either, and barely a peep about it.

This time a year ago both HRI and the Turf Club issued a joint statement which stressed that “absolute priority” was to be given to tackling the drugs issue and that any necessary measures would be taken to maintain Ireland’s worldwide reputation in the bloodstock industry.

The Task Force was the headline, apparently a root-and-branch examination of what happens on the ground in order to try and restore credibility which had been badly knocked due to what occurred with the banned trainer Philip Fenton and the ‘warned off’ retired department of agriculture veterinary inspector, John Hughes, in particular.

The joint-statement took place in the context of tension between HRI and the Turf Club over various issues, including arguments over the financial arrangements involved in upgrading the BHP Lab in Limerick, and was signed off both by HRI chairman Joe Keeling and the Turf Club senior steward Neville O’Byrne.

It was correct to give it absolute priority. Racing’s reputation had taken a hammering, especially given the Turf Club’s apparent failure to properly police a problem which many suspected had had only its surface skimmed given the inability of racing’s regulators to even enter unlicensed premises, never mind any perception of a lack of will to meaningfully address an issue which goes to the heart of the industry’s credibility.

So it can be reasonably asked where this priority is now? Why the delay? Racing has been clapping itself on the back in terms of increased funding, new offshore betting revenue and the Curragh’s redevelopment. HRI’s chairman, Joe Keeling, has even announced the end of the recession which felt like news to a lot of people. But despite everything there’s still no sign of perhaps the most important document of all in 2015 even though it was supposed to have been completed months ago.

We don’t know if the problems which existed before still exist, or if things have improved. Are Irish racing’s drug-testing systems fit for purpose? Is the Lab properly resourced and up to speed on detecting what has to be detected? Is the bloodstock game clean as a whistle or is there an environment where cheats reckon it’s still worthwhile to take a chance and dope?

You would imagine in a €1 billion industry that the priority should be on restoring credibility as quickly and as convincingly as possible. Self-interest alone would dictate that a game particularly vulnerable to reputational damage from doping adopts a certain urgency in addressing the issue.

A valid counter-argument might be that it’s better to get things done right than quickly. However this is going on twice as long as it was supposed to, a delay which only provokes racecourse rumour, but more importantly holds an industry open to accusations that all those fine words of a year ago may have been little more than cosmetic.

Onto, thankfully, more frivolous matters: Leighton Aspell is the racing figure nominated for RTE’s Sports Person of the Year awards to be shown later in the week. It’s no reflection on Aspell — the first jockey to win the Aintree Grand National back-to-back for 41 years — to point out this is a bit ‘left-field.’ His feat is well worth recognition but it’s a stretch to believe it makes him Irish racing’s headline act from 2015.

There’s little debate about Willie Mullins being the actual dominant personality this year. He’s up for the Manager of the Year award, something that reflects the difficulty people unfamiliar with racing have in categorising what racehorse trainers actually do. In reality they must do bits of everything, but if this entire awards bit categorises anything, it’s maybe the sense of separation many sports fans feel towards the horse game.

There are few things the faithful relish more however than a flamboyant young chaser attacking fences with the obvious relish that Jessica Harrington’s Ttebbob did when making it two from two over fences at Navan on Sunday. He only beat a couple of opponents but the style was unmistakably impressive. So much so that if Douvan casually brushes him aside at Christmas then it will be a major boost to an already colossal reputation.

Kitten Rock and Sizing John are other possible ingredients in a potentially enthralling St Stephens Day Grade 1 feature at Leopardstown, and all of them were better than Ttebbob over flights. But there’s no mistaking the regard his excellent trainer holds him in. What could test any other novice, maybe even Douvan, is Ttebbob’s ability to stretch the opposition on heavy ground with his jumping. And for a horse able to win over three miles last year no one will presume on him coming back to the field.

Bellshill was undeniably impressive too in the Navan Novice Hurdle and Willie Mullins was visibly impressed by the way his Grade 1 bumper winner quickened away from Tycoon Prince two out. But there’s a suspicion two miles will ultimately be ideal for the runner up. So was Bellshill quickening up or just staying on better from a horse with dubious stamina?

And finally, Aidan O’Brien added Hong Kong to his global Group 1 CV with Highland Reel, and Ryan Moore further added to his global reputation with two winners and a second, at the weekend. What Sha Tin really advertised though is the power of Japanese racing, a power which is surely going to be felt even more around the world in the coming years.