Two trainers in breach of the same rule have been treated in very different ways by IHRB
Pat Kelly has no appetite for the attention US president Donald Trump craves but the trainer whose team numbers only 15 horses proved he is the very model of a 'stable genius' when saddling a winner at the festival for the third year running. In 2015 and last year after producing Mall Dini and Presenting Percy to win the Pertemps Final, Kelly turned down interview requests, and with a sweep of the hand he declined all invitations to share his reaction to his latest feat.
Instead it was the performance of Presenting Percy, ridden with tremendous patience by Davy Russell that spoke volumes as he was brought to the fore at the second-last and then raced away from Monalee to steal the staying novice chasers' championship by seven lengths.
And it was left to an elated Philip Reynolds, owner of both Presenting Percy and Mall Dini, to champion Kelly. "Pat is incredible and he should be up here talking to you because he deserves all the credit," said Reynolds. "Pat is quiet. He's an incredible genius. I know that word is used very loosely, but where Pat Kelly is concerned it is fitting."
On the first Friday of April in 2018, a couple of weeks after his triumphant return from the Cheltenham Festival, Pat Kelly was back to work at his Mountain South Stables near Athenry when he received a surprise visit from the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board. Two officials had been sent to inform him that a winner he had trained a month before had tested positive.
It came in the form of a letter:
"Dear Mr Kelly . . . This is official confirmation that analysis of the regulatory 'A' sample taken from Warendorf (FR) at the North Galway (F) Point to Point meeting on 11th March 2018, has confirmed the presence of cobalt. In accordance with Rule 20 (xviii) of the Rules of Racing you are required to allow the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board's Racing Officials, Brendan J Daly, Security Officer, and Nicola O'Connor, Veterinary Officer, to enter and inspect your facilities and premises . . ."
The trainer was stunned.
He'd had some unannounced visits before - routine inspections from the Department of Agriculture - but it was the first time in 30 years that he had been served with a breach of the anti-doping rules. Ms O'Connor explained that he had four days to decide whether he wanted the B sample analysed. Then they crossed the road to the yard.
Kelly invited them to take samples from any horse, every horse, but they seemed more interested in the contents of the feed room and he watched as they made notes and took photos of the bags: Red Mills Sweetfeed Mix, Bluegrass Racehorse Cubes, and Bluegrass Competition Mix. They inspected the tack room, asked about his medicines register and left after about 40 minutes.
Three days later he took a call from Lynn Hillyer, the IHRB's Head of Anti-Doping. She was following up, she explained, to assist him in understanding what had happened, both for the case itself and the other horses in the yard being exposed to the same issue. Kelly told her he had no idea where the cobalt had come from, and that he wasn't into messing with needles and that in his yard.
A month later, there was an informal meeting with Hillyer at a solicitor's office in Naas, and four months after that - on September 25, 2018 - the case was heard by an IHRB Referrals Committee at their offices in the Curragh. They were furnished with a number of expert reports, heard evidence from Kelly and Hillyer and concluded that the trainer was in breach of Rule 96 (A). A decision was published in a short, and rather puzzling, press release.
"The Committee noted that two competing hypotheses had been presented by the parties but that they were satisfied that the IHRB evidence was sufficiently strong and scientifically based to be relied on. They accepted that the most probable explanation was that the horse was exposed to cobalt proximate to the race . . . but accepted Mr Kelly's assurance that he had not administered anything to the horse."
The penalty? A fine of €1,000 and costs of €3,000 in favour of the IHRB which - all things considered - was nothing really. A host of other trainers - there had been 21 positives already that year - had taken the medicine and gone quietly, but Kelly wasn't happy. The newspaper reports had been cutting. His reputation had been trashed. And the more he thought about it, the more it grated on him.
Joseph O'Brien has avoided sanction from the Irish Horse Racing Board (IHRB) despite having one of his horses disqualified after testing positive for a banned substance earlier this year. The O'Brien-trained Pedisnap won the Golf Membership Gowran Apprentice Handicap at Gowran Park on August 15 under champion apprentice Shane Crosse but was subsequently found to have exceeded the threshold for cobalt.
A Paris laboratory confirmed the findings when testing the B sample, as requested by O'Brien, and the Kilkenny handler outlined that the cobalt came from a "salt lick" that the horse had been exposed to on a daily basis and on the day of the race . . .
Analysis of a sample of a salt lick from the same manufacturer corroborated that it contained cobalt at a level sufficient to result in the adverse analytical finding. Pedisnap was disqualified and the stake forfeited, but the IHRB waived a €1,000 fine as they were satisfied that O'Brien had taken all reasonable precautions to avoid a breach of rules and that the substances had been administered unknowingly.
In the winter of 2018, William Jones spent a lot of time going through the IHRB rulings on prohibited substances and had become almost fluent in the language of their press releases. The 68-year-old former stable hand and author of The Black Horse Inside Coolmore was researching a new book and was intrigued by the way the regulatory body conducted its business.
To whom were they accountable?
The cobalt cases in particular were perplexing. Cobalt is a prohibited substance when present in concentrations above the international threshold for plasma of 25 nanograms per millilitre. The threshold for urine samples is 100 ng/ml. The levels for Warendorf - the horse trained by Pat Kelly - were 38.8 ng/ml for the 'A' sample and 38.3 ng/ml for the 'B' sample. But there were no levels given for Pedisnap, the horse trained by O'Brien.
It wasn't the only inconsistency.
Like Kelly, the committee were satisfied that O'Brien had breached Rule 96 (a); unlike Kelly, they waived the €1,000 fine as they "were satisfied that the trainer had taken all reasonable precautions to avoid a breach of the rules and that the substance had been administered unknowingly".
But that raised other questions.
Joseph O'Brien had trained 17 winners in August 2018. Two of those winners had come at Gowran Park on August 15. One of those winners, Pedisnap, had tested positive for a prohibited substance, cobalt, that experts had attributed to a supplement the horse had licked on the day of the race.
What about the other horses? Why did only one test positive? Was Pedisnap the only salt licker in the yard?
Jones had other questions. On December 29, a week after the referrals committee had ruled on the case, he sent a letter (his third that month) to the IHRB office at the Curragh: "Dear Sirs, I request the following information under the Freedom of Information Act. On 21 December 2018, the IHRB issued a press release regarding an inquiry held by the Referrals Committee to consider adverse findings of cobalt in a horse trained by Joseph Patrick O'Brien.
"The press release stated a sample taken from Pedisnap following her win at Gowran Park on 15 August 2018 was found to contain cobalt. Please supply me with details of the level of cobalt found in her post race test. The Committee also considered an expert report provided by Professor Stuart Paine of University of Nottingham. Please supply me with a copy of Professor Paine's report.
"Finally, please supply me with the name of the 'salt lick' which was deemed to be responsible for the cobalt positive or the name of its manufacturer. It is surprising the IHRB decided to withhold this information at the inquiry because surely it is of significant public interest that this is known so that no other trainer gets caught in this way with a positive for cobalt . . ."
A week later, he received a response from Cliodhna Guy, the IHRB's Head of Licencing, Legal and Compliance: "Dear Mister Jones, I refer to the three pieces of correspondence received by email and registered post. Please note that the IHRB is not a body subject to the Freedom of Information Act and your requests are therefore declined."
Pat Kelly was also writing letters. More than a year had passed since the hearing at the Curragh but the case was still upsetting him, and he addressed his concerns to Denis Egan, the CEO of the IHRB:
"Dear Mr Egan, I am formally writing this letter to afford you the opportunity to respond to a variety of questions that in my opinion still remain unanswered following the IHRBs handling of the Warendorf case following his win at Belclare on March 11, 2018.
"I am hereby giving you notice that if the following questions are not answered to my satisfaction within seven days of receipt of this letter sent by registered post, I am prepared to sit down with a well-known investigative journalist to discuss the case in its entirety and in particular to voice my serious concerns with how the entire case was investigated and concluded by the IHRB.
"The purpose of this interview would be to inform the public about many aspects of the case that went unreported leading to much unsatisfactory speculation and conjecture in the media and in the public domain . . ."
Among the 15 issues he wanted clarified was a question on transparency: "I wish to know why the exact levels of cobalt found in Warendorf's sample were published in the official IHRB press release ie 38ng/ml but subsequently in similar cobalt positive cases no specific levels were published eg Referrals Committee 21/12/2018." (This was the date of the Joseph O'Brien hearing).
A week later he received a response to the 15 issues from Cliodhna Guy. The most interesting was the question on transparency: "It is a matter for the IHRB to determine the content of any press release."
William Jones, The Black Horse trilogy and why 'you don't stand up to Coolmore' There is something strange about the way the IHRB dealt with these cases, so I contacted them requesting they provide this information. Their reply only heightened those suspicions. This should have been an entirely routine matter for any regulator and it was surprising the IHRB didn't include this information at the outset. After all, their motto is: Protecting the Integrity and Reputation of Irish Horseracing. They refused to provide the information I requested. Why do they keep withholding routine evidence from their reports of the inquiries they conduct? What are they hiding?
'The Black Horse is Dying'
Cliodhna Guy has always been a favoured contact. Her father, Al, and mother, Kay, took a urine sample once from Michelle Smith - a remarkable cocktail of whisky and steroid - and have always been heroes of mine . . . which is not to say Cliodhna is always glad to hear from me.
"Hi Cliodhna, I'm looking at something here."
She laughs: "Ahh jaysus! Okay, go on."
"Pat Kelly sent a letter to Denis Egan last year about the way the IHRB had handled the Warendorf case, I don't know if you remember that?"
"Yes, I do."
"He had some questions, and you replied to him."
"One of the questions was about the way his case had been treated, compared to the way Joseph O'Brien's case had been treated. There's some concern within the sport that they weren't handled evenly."
"Totally different cases."
"Okay, maybe you can explain it. Why was there no levels given for the O'Brien case?"
"To be honest, you're catching me on the hop. I don't have the file in front of me."
"Do you want to call me back?"
She calls 40 minutes later.
"I've just gone back through it," she says, "and there was no strict policy. We put the levels in in some cases and didn't in others. We just decided they weren't really relevant for the press releases, because unless you knew the dosages and the timings and everything else, it wouldn't make sense. Some of our samples are blood; some of our samples are urine, so if it was over the threshold it was just an adverse analytical finding."
"I've got some specific questions with regard to the O'Brien case."
"Lynn Hillyer went to the yard and after consulting with Joseph, she identified a possible source of the cobalt - the likely source - as a salt lick the horse had been exposed to. Right?"
"That wasn't the only horse in the yard - the only horse that Joseph trains - so why did only one test positive? And what was the name of the salt lick?"
"I thought that was published at the time?"
"No, it wasn't."
"Because there had been (she looks at the file) . . . No, we didn't publish the name. I'll write that down and go and check. What was the question?"
"He wasn't the only horse licking this thing."
"It was a 'she'."
"Sorry, so why was she the only horse that went positive? And what was the name of the salt lick?"
"And I would have imagined, having identified the salt lick as the source of the contamination, you would have immediately issued a warning to other trainers. But I don't see that warning anywhere. There's no mention of it in any press release."
"So that's it. If you could come back to me on that it would be great."
"I'll do my best."
"Or you could just send me the O'Brien report and make it easy for both of us."
"I don't think I'll be doing that," she laughs. "Well, I can't actually."
"Well, in terms of . . . there can be stuff contained in them that . . . it can be personal, and it's not something we're in a position to release."
"Okay, but even the science of it, I don't imagine that's too personal."
"Listen, I'll come back to you."
She sends an email.
"Hi Paul, Further to our conversation today:
1. In relation to the O'Brien case, if other horses were exposed to the salt lick why did they not also test positive.
IHRB response: A sample may return an AAF (adverse analytical finding) depending on the amount of a substance a horse has been exposed to and when the exposure or exposures occurred. The case horse may have been exposed to the substance closer to the race in question or consumed a larger amount than the other horses.
2 Why was the salt lick not named in the press release.
IHRB Response: At the time Dr Hillyer had been in contact with the manufacturers and expressed her concerns regarding the amount of cobalt salts in the lick concerned as it was not clearly labelled as containing cobalt. Due to a previous separate case the IHRB were aware that the salt lick may contain cobalt and that was confirmed by analysis.
We did not name the specific salt lick in the press release however when contacted by trainers they were informed of the specific brand - Baby Red Rockies."
An hour later, out of the blue, Joseph O'Brien phoned. It was the first time we had ever spoken:
"Sorry to bother you, Paul. Cliodhna Guy called me from the IHRB this evening to give me a heads up that there might be some kind of article out at the weekend. She said that they didn't want to release to you any of the details of my case. Is that right?"
"Yeah, so basically . . . I'm happy to go through whatever you want."
"Okay, so let me explain, Joseph. The root of all this is the way the IHRB have been dealing with these cases. The perception is that because you're Joseph O'Brien, you get treated differently.
"I have the file of the IHRB investigation into the Pat Kelly case, the cobalt case, he has given me the full report. I asked Cliodhna for the full report into your case, so that I can read how they dealt with it. That's it."
"Can you send it to me?"
"I'm sure I can. I'm sure she'll be able to send it to me, or I can get her to release it to you. That should be absolutely no problem"
"That would be really helpful."
"I'll come back to you as soon as I can."
He calls 12 minutes later.
"Is it a bad time?"
"No, I'm good, Joseph."
"So, she's very reluctant to do that. She says at this stage, when they didn't do it originally. I'm not sure I'll be able to get her to do it. It's really an annoyance for me."
"That's fine, Joseph. It (helps) that you've told me you want her to do it, and that she won't do it. That actually makes a difference."
The following morning, Cliodhna sent an email:
"Hi Paul. As discussed on the phone, investigation reports are only issued to the parties to the matter. As I understand it, Mr Kelly has chosen to provide you with the investigation reports, appendices and correspondence he has in relation to his case, and the subsequent 2019 correspondence between us, which is a matter for him. As you will see from our website, we have had a number of cobalt cases since 2018 . . . and the press releases are available, but we will not be issuing any other investigation report to you."
It was a disappointing end to an interesting exchange. But that's the game. We've been here before