Horse Racing, a story of Jockeys, Punters, Cocaine and Punch-ups

Cocaine, the old Columbian marching powder, shovel, sniff, charlie, bugle, call it what you will horse racing has had its problems with the Class A Drug in recent months.

Be it jockeys testing positive for the banned substance, racegoers sneaking a cheeky line between races or gangs of boozed-up lads causing a snowstorm in the karzi before tearing lumps out of each other after the last, the white stuff has been in the horse racing headlines quite a lot over the last few months.

Out in Ireland already this year (and we’re not eight weeks into it as I write) Damien Melia, a 7lb claiming apprentice, and Conor Murphy, a 7lb claiming amateur, have been given four- and five-year suspensions by the IHRB after testing positive for metabolites of cocaine. It is believed a third jockey has also tested positive for cocaine but that case has yet to be heard. I read recently that in Ireland there have been 13 positive tests in just four years.

Here in the UK rising star of the weighing-room Kieran Shoemark tested positive for a banned substance in November 2018, believed to be cocaine, and is facing a ban of six months.

It’s nothing new. Graham Gibbons tested positive back in 2016 and was accused of swapping a urine sample with that of another rider. Former jockey Dale Swift was banned from racing for 21 months having tested positive for cocaine back in March 2017. It was the second similar offence as he had been given a 6-month suspension in 2015. He has already retired from the game by the time the hearing was heard and sentence passed in September 2017 claiming that weight issues had left him "miserable". He spoke candidly at the time to the Racing Post about his weight problems and how he had resorted to flipping. Some big names of the game have been caught as well. Frankie Dettori famously tested positive to a prohibited substance, believed to be cocaine or a derivative of it, while riding at Longchamp back in 2012 and was banned for 6 months. Kieren Fallon, the bad-boy of the saddle, twice tested positive for cocaine during his career, incurring a 6 month ban on the first occasion and 18 months the second time.

Even the horses themselves have been affected. Walk In The Sun tested positive for a metabolite of cocaine following his victory at Lingfield Park in February 2018.

The British Horseracing Authority has undertaken an overall review of the anti-doping education program in the industry. Robin Mounsey, the BHA’s head of media, said earlier this month “Dr Jerry Hill (the BHA’s chief medical advisor) has made an overall review of the anti-doping education program a priority in 2019. This will include an assessment of cocaine and recreational drugs and will include looking at how prevalent their use is, how much guidance, education and support is in place for participants and, if appropriate, our penalty structure.”

It is clearly a problem in the game and hopefully, the BHA can help those affected.

Off the track and in the Grandstand the use of cocaine has brought unwanted headlines for the racing game recently. Just this weekend we saw a dozen or so blokes trying (and in most cases missing it has to be said) to punch each others lights out at Haydock – from what I’ve seen it was nowhere near the ‘50-strong melee’ that was reported in some parts. Merseyside Police said that a 26-year-old man had been arrested in relation to the incident on suspicion of affray and possession of a controlled drug. He was taken to a local station for questioning.

This has, of course, brought back memories of the scenes at Goodwood and Ascot last spring, generally attributed to groups of lads ‘off their faces’ when mass brawls broke out and the pictures and videos were shared across the press and social media platforms. It appears plenty of visitors are still partaking of a sniff or two at the tracks and this latest outbreak of handbags will do little to improve the image of horse racing as a family day out.

In May 2018 the Daily Mail Sportsmail team reported on an investigation they undertook into the scale of Class A drug use at racecourses. They visited Newbury on Lockinge Stakes days and despite sniffer dogs and amnesty bins, they reported all 13 of the cocaine swabs used by the Sportsmail team in toilets at the Berkshire course came back positive for cocaine. Now I know this particular newspaper isn’t afraid of a little sensationalism to flog extra copies and up the unique visitors number or their website but it goes to show that plenty of people are still smuggling wraps of the nose candy into race days.

Should we care? I think so when it leads to this sort of behaviour. Can it be stopped? The taking of the drug, probably not, controlling the behaviour hopefully yes.

Let’s face it the use of cocaine is common and widespread across the UK in pubs, clubs, restaurants, sporting events etc… day in day out why should horse racing be any different? Truth be told I know a little bit about the stuff, I am no choir boy, and if I am honest if someone wants a line during their day out at the races, or wherever they may be, it doesn’t bother me I have to say; they do call them recreational drugs after all. I know plenty of people who have had a line or two to enhance their enjoyment of a day out and it has done just that; they have never felt the urge to knock ten barrels out of someone afterwards.

Sadly, there are a few people that after a sniff of the barmaid’s apron and a cheeky line are totally incapable of behaving themselves.

The problem, it appears to me, is when it is taken by a coach load of people en masse. People’s behaviour in a large group tends to change anyway, often people naturally become louder and more outgoing in the comfort and security of larger groups. Boys show off to girls, girls play-up to boys, a certain amount of posturing and preening naturally goes on – we’ve all done it. In larger groups, people can become less concerned by others around them and how their actions are affecting those other people. Get three or four of these larger groups all under one roof together, add to this mix soft security measures, a few alcoholic beverages and a toot or two of the marching powder and it's light the blue touch paper and stand back time!

Sniffer dogs and amnesty bins do not seem to be putting people off. Better security within the Grandstand is surely the way to go, nipping any potential flashpoints in the bud before they flare-up. Let's be honest in most cases it aint hard to spot these groups at the courses. Any regular racegoer has almost certainly witnessed two or three fella’s coming out of the same toilet cubicle at one time or another at race meetings. Now unless the racetracks of Britain have become a hotbed for cottaging activity there can really be only one reason for this behaviour.

I honestly think the problem is that race tracks are seen by some as perfect for a day out on the booze and gear with little to no chance of getting nicked – in days gone by truth be told it has been like that.

If racing wants to curb this behaviour then security needs beefing up – literally.  Half-a-dozen proper big old lump security guards dotted around premises along with an actual Policeman or two would surely at the very least deter most people; the stewards at most racetracks do a fine job but let's be honest most aren’t in any shape to be breaking up a brawl between half-a-dozen fuelled up geezers. Get some proper security in, you get caught causing problems or starting a fight, you get chucked out of the track and handed straight to the Old Bill. You’ve done your entrance money, ruined your day out and are likely to cop for a big fine and criminal record when you go up in front of the Magistrates. 

Unfortunately, at the moment the Press love it, brawls at the horse racing make great headlines and drive traffic to their websites. The Independent had the number involved at Haydock as 'at least 60-100' which is clearly incorrect and can only have been used in the headline of the link on search engine result pages in an attempt to get more people to click the link to the story on their website. This is on no way helping the image of horse racing and the courses need to get on top of the problem asap as you know the papers will be all over the next punch-up likely with even more exaggerated headlines.