Balnaslow mystery to be explored as BHA hearing adjourned to 2020

Chris Cook
<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

A disciplinary panel talked the trainer Graham McKeever out of defending himself over the phone against charges that could result in him being banned from racing. “I really just want to get this wrapped up today,” McKeever said at the start of a British Horseracing Authority hearing into the positive test for cobalt returned by Balnaslow when the horse won the Foxhunters’ Chase over the Grand National fences in April last year.

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When news of the test broke in January, the low-profile McKeever sounded dismayed at the prospect of losing what had been easily his most significant success. However he declined to offer any detail in public about what might have caused the test or what his line of defence would be.

Speaking on Thursday from his stables at Parkgate, north of Belfast, he sounded fatalistic as he told the panel his instinct was to press on with the much-delayed case. However he was eventually persuaded to heed the guidance of the panel chairman, William Norris QC, that to do so might be rash, in view of the gravity of the case and also its complexities, details of which began to emerge.

The veteran Balnaslow was a popular winner when he came home clear of 20 rivals in the prestigious Aintree contest 19 months ago. But a urine sample taken from him that day was found to contain cobalt at a concentration of 213 nanograms per millilitre, more than twice the allowed threshhold of 100ng.

Initial suspicion fell on a feed supplement called “14% special horse nut”, sold by a County Down firm, which had cobalt listed among its contents. According to the BHA’s Tim Naylor, McKeever admitted in an interview that he gave Balnaslow this supplement twice on the day of the Foxhunters’ Chase, in the morning and again at lunchtime.

Expert evidence will apparently say that could account for the positive, if the feed contained cobalt in the amount specified on the packaging. However BHA analysis of a sample provided by the retailer found it actually contained no cobalt. Moreover, the horse returned negative tests for cobalt when subjected to an unannounced test at his yard and again when he raced last summer, despite having remained on the same feeding regime.

Naylor’s conclusion is there was probably a different source of the cobalt found in Balnaslow’s system, a mystery that will be explored when the case returns for a full hearing next year. However he also suggested McKeever was in breach of the rules simply by allowing Balnaslow to receive a substance supposedly containing cobalt on raceday.

An intervention from McKeever suggested he had not understood that point would be argued against him. Norris ordered the BHA to clarify its case summary and serve it on McKeever within the next two weeks, and he also pointed out the trainer might be able to obtain free representation under the terms of a BHA deal with Sports Resolutions.

The ruling body evidently does not accept any criticism of its original case summary would be justified. A spokesman said: “The BHA is more than happy to assist the panel and Mr McKeever in clarifying specific elements of its case. However the BHA’s case remains clear: either the horse was administered feed containing inorganic cobalt on raceday, or the horse was administered inorganic cobalt by another means.”

Earlier, Naylor explained the delay in reaching a hearing had been caused partly by the case’s complexity but also because it took the BHA time to realise the charge should be against McKeever. Initially, it was thought Balnaslow’s owner was the person responsible under the rules, as would be the usual approach in the hunter chasing sphere, but that changed when the BHA realised McKeever holds a full trainer’s licence issued by Horse Racing Ireland. “Apologies have to be made to Mr McKeever,” Naylor said of the delay.

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