You have to have a Killer Number. I once spent a chill Autumn day cosily ensconced in a more shabby than genteel terrace house in King’s Cross being instructed in the subtle alchemy of becoming a media luvvie, the better to fulfil my role as a British Veterinary Association Press Officer.

Michael Watts MRCVS

The title may sound a bit posh, but the job is one you re appointed to by dint of being the slowest to see it coming and last to leave the room. It is one of those jobs have to do for love, as there isn’t any money on the go, although I was on expenses so my day out in the Big Smoke didn’t cost me a penny.

By lunchtime I had learned the importance of keeping my derriere firmly at the back of the chair in the unlikely event of my being interviewed on national television.

I had also learned to be a bit boring, and wear a jacket and tie if I wanted my pontifications to be taken seriously, advice I have studiously ignored ever since.

Then there were the concepts of The Killer Fact and The Killer Number, essential if one is to drive one’s message home successfully even when kitted out like a second=hand car salesperson.

Today my Killer Number is four. Bear with me and all will soon become clear. Only four greyhounds tested positive for prohibited substances during the whole of the 2017-2018 coursing season in Ireland.

This is a result far greater than you or I getting the six numbers on a rollover Saturday. In times past four dogs might have tested positive on the same day at the same meeting, let alone in a five-month long campaign.

A reduction to just four is should be marked by the popping of champagne corks the length and breadth of the Ould Sod and beyond. Economic considerations currently limit the extent of testing at local meetings to just one of the finalists in just one of the major stakes.

It is quite possible that some dog somewhere was driven to win and was lucky enough to escape detection.

Human nature being what it is, I am sure some low life somewhere has been tempted to play the percentages and slip his dog something to speed him on his way, hoping his luck would hold and his dog would not be selected for sampling.

Statistically however either this does not happen very often or the perpetrators are mighty lucky. In contrast when it comes to the showcase meetings at Clonmel and Limerick testing is pretty much wall to wall and the chances of a spot of improper drug use escaping detection are effectively nil.

Perhaps at long last we are seeing a culture change in the Winter Game, with the knuckle draggers who persistently used stimulants to give their runners an edge being relegated to the dustbin of history where they rightly belong. Before we all start slapping one another on the backs and congratulating one another however, there are still some pretty big loose ends to tie up as far as drug and medication control goes.

Of the four positive tests last season one hearing is pending and the other three will be held shortly. These cases still have some way to go before they reach a conclusion, yet the conduct of these four cases to date has cost the Irish Coursing Club in excess of €100,000.

After many years of being deeply in the red, the Club has only recently managed to get its financial affairs in order and clear its debts. I am not privy to the internal affairs of the Club but it is common knowledge that it is far from wealthy. Its income derives largely from the collection of the various registration fees for greyhounds for inclusion in the Irish Greyhound Stud Book.

It also owns and manages the horse racecourse at Clonmel which stages twelve meetings a year between National Hunt and flat.

It is my understanding that the voice of the I.C.C., “The Sporting Press” has not turned a profit in recent times but that a commercial printing operation using the same presses is commercially more successful. Cutting to the chase, the Club can probably ill afford this sort of expenditure. On the other hand it cannot allow the Neanderthals to do as the please on the basis that it costs too much to bring them to book.

This is the background to a proposal to amend the Club’s Rule 88 which is likely to go before the A.G.M of the I.C.C. in the coming weeks. Now Rule 88, which is entitled “Use of Drugs Prohibited” has already been amended in 1990, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017 and currently runs to seventeen pages so it would be a brave man who suggests that the Club does not take the issue sufficiently seriously.

The latest proposed changes would introduce the listing of drug categories and the fines pertaining to each category of drug found on analysis. Clarifying these details would be a welcome step forward. Clearly there are a range of doping offences of varying seriousness.

At one end of the scale there is the deliberate use of stimulants such as amphetamine and ephedrine to enhance performance, a scourge which needs to be eradicated. Less serious is the presentation for racing of a greyhound which has been treated in the recent past with an antibiotic or an anti-inflammatory, residues of which can still be detected in its urine.

This is unacceptable because it is not possible to be sure that any residue, however small, does not affect performance in one way or another.

Furthermore you don’t ned me to remind you of the stink that the “antis” would kick up if any regulatory body in the greyhound game opted to allow dogs to race with drug residues still in their systems, with allegations of sick dogs being doctored up so that they could compete, lame dogs racing on painkillers or whatever way they choose to spin the story.

The tricky bit is that as the technology improves and the analysts can detect ever smaller residues of prohibited substances, somebody in authority somewhere is going to have to draw himself up to his full height and draw a line in the sand, saying that the detection of residues of a certain drug in a greyhound will now be acceptable as long as they do not exceed so many parts per billion.

I wish that guy luck, and would not particularly want to be in his shoes that day.

Finally there is the dog who tests positive for residues of prohibited substances accidently eaten in contaminated feed, classically meal containing traces of theobromine originating from cocoa waste used in the previous batch of feed manufactured in the same mill.

The consensus generally is that in the interests of natural justice such greyhounds have to be disqualified and any prize money forfeited but there may be a case to be made for not punishing their connections above and beyond that as they purchased the meal in good faith and the positive drug test was beyond their control.

Less innocent are those whose dogs tested positive for morphine from poppy seeds accidently fed with leftover bread or for anti-inflammatories present in the flesh of fallen animals purchased in knacker meat.

Positive drugs tests arising in this manner are well known and only arise when the rules are bent a little. Connections of such greyhounds should know better, and a suitable penalty should be imposed on the guilty parties.

You can never have too much transparency. It seems only fair that the Club should make public details of the range of penalties that can be imposed on those falling foul of Rule 88 so that they can weigh up the odds before they wield that syringe.

Presumably the scale of the punishment would take on board considerations like the circumstances of the positive test, the nature of the drug involved, the amount of the drug involved and the past form of the parties involved.

That way the prosecution of drug cheats is all open and above board and the suggestions of cronyism, which in the past were often muttered sotto voce if not aired publicly, can easily be countered and dismissed. If the system is to work, stakeholders have to believe it is basically honest and above board.

Drug testing is not cheap. In another life I once blood sampled a newly-purchased pony whose behaviour went from the picture of docility to psychotic within a day or two of changing hands.

As I guessed, the pony tested positive for a popular tranquiliser but before I started getting too many delusions of grandeur my bubble was burst by the arrival of a bill in excess of six hundred quid for testing for just two named drugs.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then and the costs are likely to have spiralled upwards.

To offset the possibility of the Club being unable to recover the costs it incurs when investigating positive drug tests, a further proposed change to Rile 88 would see those contesting the findings of the analysts being liable for the Club’s costs should they ultimately be found guilty of a breach of Rule 88.

On the face of it that looks fair to me. Every man is innocent until proven guilty and it is far better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man is wrongfully convicted.

On the other hand, the guilty should be discouraged from making vexatious appeals and dragging the proceedings out for ever and a day so as to defer a decision as long as possible or to force the Club to make an economic decision and not fight to the finish cases where the guilt may seem indisputable.

At their meeting on 29th May the Ulster Provincial Committee proposed that in contested cases the connections of the dog under investigation should be required to lodge a bond in advance of the hearing.

Clearly there are ongoing problems with the non-payment of fines, as the Ulster folk also put forward a proposal that protocols should be developed tor the expulsion from greyhound tracks or coursing field of persons whose names appear on the forfeit list.

That is a no brainer in my book. A penalty that is not enforced is no penalty. Allowing those found guilty to carry on unpunished brings the whole system into disrepute.

Truth to tell, the system was pretty disreputable in the past, but the current regime at Clonmel has done much to tidy up its act in recent years for which they deserve much praise and more support from all true sportsmen.

With the Club’s long-serving President Brian Divilly standing down at this year’s A.G.M., it will be interesting to see what direction the Club takes, although it would be a surprise if its new leader came from outside the ranks of The Usual Suspects.

Root and branch reform with the overthrow of the ruling elite by a socialist collective is possible, but that is not how the smart money calls it.

Whoever takes over the reins at Davis Road matters less than the Club continuing on its present trajectory, cleaning its act up and rooting out the cheats without fear or favour. Perhaps at long last the end of drug abuse in the Winter Game is almost within sight.

The number of greyhounds involved in that traditional rural pastime pales into insignificance when compared with the numbers competing on the track. If the postings on social media of our friends in Greyhound Racing Integrity Ireland, the closest approximation to a revolutionary cell to be found within the ranks of the greyhound community, are to be believed, the misuse of drugs in track dogs is alas still on a scale that should give cause for concern.

Do I think the powers-that-be in the Irish Greyhound Board should take a leaf out of the I.C.C’s book and introduce similar measures into their code?

That is another concept I learned about that day in Kings Cross, the Third Party Question. The Third Party Question is basically one which asks somebody to speculate on what they think somebody else should do. The most important thing to remember about the Third party Question is always to sidestep it.


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