John Duggan writes that the troubling case involving Limerick trainer Charles Byrnes should be seen as a watershed moment for horse racing...
I love racing. I love the bravery of the jockeys, the majesty of a horse - I think steeplechasing is an art. We invented it! The first steeplechase was from Buttevant to Doneraile in Cork in 1752.
I love seeing a syndicate win and watching their childish joy. We know that there is great integrity in the people we have spoken to on Friday Night Racing on OTB Sports. Beyond betting, there are rich human interest stories from a horse racing industry that is government-supported, has a worth in the billions, employs 16,000 people and is important for the rural Irish economy. Our breeding industry is second to none and the success of Ballydoyle worldwide is something Ireland should be proud of. Aidan O'Brien's son Joseph has saddled the winner of the Melbourne Cup, the race that stops Australia, twice in the last four years. The Cheltenham Festival has always been a significant part of Irish identity back to the days when we didn't have a pot to piss in when it came to sporting achievements beyond our shores. The triumphs of Arkle, Dawn Run, and Istabraq were genuine front-page stories as Ireland beat the auld enemy on English soil. There is pride in that.
The 'gamble' or 'the touch' has always been part of the fun of horse racing; a stable or owners might have a go at a particular race at a particular meeting if they feel their horse is in form and conditions are right - and I have never had an issue with that - the intrigue behind it is exciting. I don't find it questionable because there is no cast-iron certainty that your horse will win. He or she could fall, might not run to par, or another horse could be better on the day. I know of a horse that was well prepared for a race at Dundalk before Christmas. I backed it as did many of my racing friends. The horse was beaten by a neck and we lost money - or 'did our brains' in betting parlance. All's fair in love and war.
The story which emerged on Tuesday though is on a different scale altogether.
Limerick trainer Charles Byrnes lost his training license for six months and was fined one thousand euro by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board over the running of the horse 'Viking Hoard' at Tramore in October 2018.
The horse was given a sedative - ACP - to a level of 100 times over the limit, doping the animal into submission.
Byrnes and his son made their journey to the racecourse with the horse, then left the horse unattended for two spells, for approximately 25 minutes - so the administration of the sedative could have been applied by a third party.
There was no CCTV at Tramore at the time to shine a clear light on what happened.
The horse drifted in the betting from 4/1 to 8/1. Jockey Kevin Brouder pulled up the horse after the sixth flight.
In terms of betting activity for this race - someone took a bet of €3,200 so that the horse would lose. This is called a lay. They exposed themselves for liability on a betting exchange for almost €35,000. There is no evidence Charles Byrnes was involved in that action.
Lay bets were placed by a limited liability company, believed to be based in Asia, which placed them on betting exchange Betfair.
In theory, as racing journalist Kevin Blake explained in his analysis of the case, a commission agent would act via a white label outlet linked to Betfair on behalf of an individual or individuals who wanted to lay the horse - a practice that has been outlawed by Betfair since 2019.
The same company had previously laid the same horse - 'Viking Hoard' - to lose at Sedgefield in October of 2018 in order to win €12,000 with a liability of €30,000 - and at Galway in July of 2018 for the purpose of winning €12,000 with a liability of €55,000. The horse lost on each occasion. Presumably, the money was banked.
While it was not found that Charles Byrnes administered the sedative, he was found by the IHRB to be negligent for his actions on the day in Tramore and will be appealing his sanction.
Think about all of this for a moment.
A sedative was used to stop a horse from running any kind of race, and on the same day, bets were placed for the horse to lose on an exchange. That smells like a major problem for the integrity of the sport. The same horse had been opposed to lose twice before, at Sedgefield and Galway.
Imagine the skulduggery involved in laying a horse or taking bets on it knowing the outcome was fixed in advance.
This is very serious territory, and if proven that it was deliberate and orchestrated, one could ask the question if the criminal justice system should be taking a look at who was behind profiting at the expense of innocent punters.
If you backed 'Viking Hoard' at Tramore, you didn’t get a fair run for your money. You were cheated out of an honest run by the administration of a doping instrument to the horse, whoever administered the sedative. The betting patterns on the day would make a reasonable person conclude that the doping didn’t appear to have been an accident.
What we do know is that the horse was brought to Tramore by Charles Byrnes and even if he was absent at the time and not involved in nobbling the horse or involved in any nefarious betting activity - according to the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board - he was negligent. That is subject to an appeal, but on a wider level - what about the punters across the country making an honest bet in a shop? What about the poor horse’s welfare in all of this? And the jockey? He could have suffered a life-threatening injury if a punch drunk horse had fallen.
In October of last year, flat trainer Jim Bolger, one of the most successful and esteemed figures in the sport, said that the number one problem in Irish racing is drugs and that there wasn't a 'level playing field'.
The detailed IHRB dossier on the Charles Byrnes case is a welcome step in the right direction, but only that. Reputation is everything. This why the Irish racing authorities need to ramp up communication and enforcement around the integrity of their sport in a zealous way to give people confidence that there won’t be more stories to emerge similar to what happened at Tramore. This will, in turn, protect the thousands involved directly in horse racing who love what they do, make an honest living for a decent day's work and give racing's supporters such enjoyment all year round.