Racing’s ruling body should refrain from copying the Irish example in seeking harsher penalties for jockeys who fail drug tests and instead consider a significant increase in the number of tests carried out, according to Paul Struthers, chief executive of the Professional Jockeys Association. He was speaking on Sunday, two days after it emerged that jockeys caught in Ireland with cocaine in their systems will face entry-point riding bans of five years.
Irish officials justified the severity of their stance by saying their anti-drug message was evidently “not getting through”, in light of five positive tests last year. But Struthers doubts whether longer bans will have the desired deterrent effect.
“They had two-year suspensions, they increased them to four years and the message now is, effectively, it’s still not working, so we’ll increase it to five. Well, if two years or four years aren’t working, is five years going to make the difference?
“My view is, without condoning the behaviour, people can make a mistake. The penalties need to be a deterrent but don’t need to be so swingeing that their entire life is ruined and, frankly, five years pretty much does that.”
There have been fewer recent positive tests for cocaine in Britain, where the typical punishment for a first offence is a six-month suspension. Struthers feels that is possibly lenient but added: “I do feel what’s more important is education and testing. And I think there’s a strong argument that the deterrent is the risk of getting caught, not the sanction when you get caught.
“For the last two years we’ve been lobbying the British Horseracing Authority for increased testing. Hopefully, if any jockey is minded to take something, more testing would give you pause for thought. At the moment there might be 500 urine samples a year, with the aim of ensuring every jockey is tested once. But one test a year is not much and the chance of being caught is not great.”
He suggested the BHA could increase its testing capacity by having its own staff collect samples at the track rather than contracting out that job.
Struthers added that his organisation is working with the BHA and the two racing schools to expand the drug-related education available to jockeys. He noted that support is available to jockeys struggling with addiction issues, through a helpline and access to therapists.
“There is no place for drug-taking in racing but the reality is, it’s out there in society and, from what you read, it’s increasingly common and increasingly affordable. We’ve got to deal with the issue, absolutely, but I just don’t think that five-year bans is the way to go.”