Talking Horses: Is cocaine a growing problem in British racing? Unlikely

Greg Wood
<span>Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA</span>
Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

On a deliberately bare reading of the numbers for tests and positives for cocaine among jockeys this year, it could be suggested that British racing has a growing problem with the drug.

The total of four positives so far in 2019 is already a record, and all occurred in the 300 or so samples which were taken in the first seven months of the year. That is a failure rate of around 1.3%, which does not compare favourably with the one positive from 520 samples in 2018 (0.19%) or the six years from 2009 to 2014, when there was just one failure from 2,488 tests (0.04%).

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Related: William Carson took ‘eight or nine lines’ of cocaine two days before riding

Then again, these are still very small numbers, increasing from an even smaller base, and so if the remainder of 2019 passes with no further positives it could well end up being seen as one of those statistical quirks that can appear by chance when you are dealing with tiny percentages. And there is certainly little sign of an imminent change to the penalty structure for cocaine positive tests to bring Britain into line with Ireland, where a sudden spike in the last couple of years prompted the authorities to introduce a five-year ban as standard for a first offence. In Britain, six months is still standard when there are no aggravating factors, and William Carson, who was the fourth jockey to test positive for cocaine this year back in March, could be back in the saddle later this week as his suspension was back-dated to 4 April, when his licence was suspended following his test result.

Lest the BHA be accused of complacency, however, it should be pointed out that it is currently taking a long look at its approach to drug and alcohol issues, with a view, among other things, to providing more education and support for riders rather than just focusing on the regulatory aspect of its remit.

Carson, whose co-operation with the inquiry following his positive was commended by the disciplinary panel last week, told the hearing that he had battled depression since 2015. “We are satisfied,” the panel reported in their written reasons on Monday, “that whereas the illness cannot be an excuse, it is to some extent an explanation.” A more rounded view of all the issues surrounding the misuse of drugs is a positive and worthwhile development.

At the same time, the BHA also said last week that it will consider the introduction of hair testing “due to the more complete historical picture it can provide of substance abuse”. Benzoylecgonine, the main metabolite of cocaine, takes about three days to vanish from the system, which would, in theory at least, allow a rider to take the drug with little fear of detection if they have a couple of days off. Hair testing, if it indeed comes to pass, would make that much more difficult.

Related: Courageous Innisfree gives Aidan O’Brien 19th Beresford Stakes success

The failure rate for pre-race breath tests for alcohol, incidentally, remains extremely low, with one failure from around 1,800 tests to the start of August (0.05%), below the rate of 0.15% in 2018. So while the apparent spike in positives for cocaine might hint at a deeper issue, it is more likely that the number will return to a lower level – and perhaps even back to zero – next year.

Dull though it might seem given some of the stories of wild excess in the weighing room in decades gone by – including jockeys going straight from a night out to ride at Cheltenham or Aintree – what the statistics actually suggest is that modern-day jockeys are a very professional and clean-living bunch.

Monday’s best bets

Monday’s programme is a meeting short after the scheduled card at Newton Abbot succumbed to the wet weather but at the other end of the country, Hamilton has escaped the worst of the deluge, albeit with a card that will be run on heavy ground.
That will not make life easy for the two-year-olds in the day’s best race, a nursery series final worth £12,000 to the winner. Disappointingly, the five-figure pot has attracted just six runners, and Makyon (2.55) is the only one of those with experience of very soft ground. He was also thought worthy of a run in the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot in June and has several bits of form which suggest an opening mark of 93 is not unduly harsh.

Twentysixthstreet (3.25) is a course-and-distance winner with form on soft going and should also go well on the same card, while Capriolette (3.05), Firenze Rosa (3.35) and Bay Watch (5.10) all have decent chances down at Bath.

Hamilton 1.50 Burmese Blazer 2.20 Conga 2.55 Makyon (nap) 3.25 Twentysixthstreet 4.00 Art Power 4.30 Autumn Flight 

Bath 2.00 Gleeds Girl 2.30 Passing Fashion 3.05 Capriolette 3.35 Firenze Rosa 4.10 Scoffsman 4.40 Good Impression
Bay Watch (nb) 

Wolverhampton 5.25 Twittering 5.50 Amnaa 6.20 Brad The Brief 6.50 Peachey Carnahan 7.20 Acclaim The Nation 7.50 Love Explodes 8.20 The Dancing Poet 

Tips by Greg Wood

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