Controversial trainer Charles Byrnes plans to appeal a six-month suspension of his licence after being found to be "seriously negligent" when one of his horses was found to have been "nobbled" with a sedative at Tramore in 2018.
Already under pressure due to criticism of some of its anti-doping practises, Irish racing was rocked further on Tuesday when the high-profile trainer was penalised on the back of dramatic findings by the sport’s regulatory body.
A Referrals Committee panel chaired by Mr Justice Tony Hunt earlier this month found that the Byrnes-trained Viking Hoard , who ran in a handicap hurdle at Tramore on October 18th, 2018, subsequently tested positive for the prohibited substance acepromazine or ACP, and its metabolites.
The head of anti-doping at the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB), Dr Lynn Hillyer, told the committee that levels discovered in the horse represented a “dangerous degree of sedation”.
The drug levels in Viking Hoard, who was quickly under pressure and pulled up in the race, were found to be 100 times the applicable screening limit, suggesting the substance was administered shortly beforehand.
The committee accepted interpretation of the evidence that the horse had been “nobbled” by an unidentified third party when left unaccompanied for periods at the racecourse stable-yard in Tramore.
In an unusually lengthy and detailed IHRB statement, betting exchange patterns emerged on that race, and two others in which Viking Hoard competed, which included substantial lay bets on Viking Hoard to lose. It included a liability of €34,889 to win €3,200 at Tramore.
The committee found no evidence to connect Byrnes with any of the betting patterns. However, it said they were part of the “full and relevant context to the events of October 18, 2018 at Tramore and informed the subsequent investigation into those events”.
It also said it approached the case on the interpretation of the evidence that was “reasonably open and most favourable to Mr Byrnes, that being that Viking Hoard was ‘nobbled’ by an unidentified third party at a time when the gelding was left unaccompanied”.
Although not alleged to be involved directly in the administration of ACP, the committee did however point to Byrnes’s “neglect” in the horse being left unattended for a significant period at Tramore.
That, it said, “facilitated what was clearly organised pre-race doping of his charge”.
In his evidence Byrnes said that Viking Hoard was left unattended on two occasions, including when he and his son went for something to eat. On Tuesday Byrnes indicated he will appeal the findings but wouldn’t comment further. “I’m going to appeal, that’s all,” he said.
Investigation of exchange betting patterns also included two races Viking Hoard ran in prior to Tramore. They were at the Galway festival in July, 2018 and at Sedgefield in October of that year.
Evidence was heard that large bets laid on the horse suggested substantial confidence that the horse would not win.
The IHRB’s deputy head of security, Declan Buckley, told the panel of three lay bets on Viking Hoard at Galway, Sedgefield and Tramore that were traced through the Betfair exchange to the same account number.
“These lay bets were initially placed with a limited liability company, which placed them in turn with Betfair, on what appeared to be a combined basis with other such bets,” Buckley told the hearing.
The panel expressed surprise that such a mechanism is possible as it could hinder identification of the possible beneficiaries of lay betting.
Buckley identified an individual “based in a distant part of the world and was said to be associated with match fixing” as being associated with the combined account.
The referral committee found Byrnes in breach of Rule 96(a) as a prohibited substance was present in the sample taken from Viking Hoard and imposed a six-month licence suspension. The Co Limerick-based trainer was also fined €1,000.
Byrnes has achieved notable success in his lengthy career, most notably Solwhit’s Stayers’ Hurdle victory at the 2013 Cheltenham festival.
He also has a popular reputation as a trainer bookmakers fear. In August of 2016 there were unverified reports that a gamble on three Byrnes-trained winners at Roscommon cost bookmakers a seven figure sum.
Byrnes has also been caught up in some high-profile controversies over the years.
In 2010, an employee of Byrnes, John O’Gorman, was banned from racecourses for four months after he was found to have laid Byrnes-trained horses on a betting exchange.
From May to December in 2008, O’Gorman was found to have laid nine Byrnes-trained runners on the exchanges with eight of them losing.
In 2005, the Byrnes-trained Laetitia was banned from racing for 60 days after finishing runner-up to her stable companion Alpha Royale in a bumper in Cork.
Her jockey Michael Purcell was suspended for 50 days and fined €2,000 in an incident that provoked the then Minister for Sport, John O’Donoghue, to comment that such races “only serve to hinder the positive promotion of Irish racing.”