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Charles Byrnes given six-month ban after runner is 'nobbled' with sedative

Irish racing was left reeling on Tuesday following the revelation that Cheltenham Festival-winning trainer Charles Byrnes's licence has been suspended for six months after Viking Hoard was found to have tested positive for a sedative after being pulled up at Tramore in October 2018.

Hydroxyethylpromazinehydroxide (HEPS), a metabolite of acepromazine (ACP), was found in Viking Hoard’s system after the handicap hurdle and in high enough concentration to exceed the International Screening Limit (ISL).

The ISL is 10 nanograms/millilitre and the estimated detected level in Viking Hoard's urine sample was 1,000 nanograms/millilitre, or 100 times the applicable ISL. ACP, typically administered orally in the form of a gel, becomes active within 15 to 30 minutes of administration and lasts for up to six or seven hours.

During the race, Viking Hoard's jockey Kevin Brouder had to chase him down to the first hurdle and gave him a reminder after it. The gelding had to be scrubbed along throughout, and was detached from the field when pulled up before the seventh flight.

There was also significant betting activity reported in relation to the investigation, with substantial lay bets placed on Viking Hoard to lose. One wager had a liability of €34,889 to win €3,200. No evidence was found linking Byrnes to these bets.

It was established that Viking Hoard was subject to a "dangerous degree of sedation during the race", and the committee accepted the interpretation of the evidence the horse had been "nobbled" by an unidentified third party when left unaccompanied.

It consequently noted that "it follows as a matter of probability that Mr Byrnes's general mode of operation permitted such a strategy to be viable".

Byrnes told the hearing that he and his son Cathal had taken Viking Hoard to Tramore, and conceded the horse had been left alone on two occasions for a total of up to 25 minutes after they had settled him into his stable at the course. The report stated that Byrnes acknowledged he “knew what the rules provided but characterised the reality as being that horses were frequently left along for short periods”.

Due to an absence of CCTV in the stable yard, it had not been possible to conclusively ascertain if someone – apart from Byrnes and his son – who had accredited access to the yard had got to Viking Hoard in their absence, a point that Byrnes's solicitor Patrick Kennedy suggested led to “gaps in the investigation”.

Of the period of time the horse was left alone, the committee found “it represented a significant portion of the time that the gelding was present in the stable yard prior to being tacked up for the race”.

It added: “Significant actual damage flowed from the neglect of the trainer. The damage was financial in the case of affected punters, and reputational in the case of the racing industry.”

The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s deputy head of security Declan Buckley provided evidence the lay bet at Tramore, along with two other similar lays of the horse at Galway and Sedgefield previously, "were initially placed with a limited liability company, which placed them in turn with Betfair".

Buckley also identified an unnamed "individual known to be associated" with the account who was described as being "based in a distant part of the world and was said to be associated with match fixing and associated betting in connection with other sports".

The referrals' committee said there was no evidence linking Byrnes, who on Tuesday said he would be appealing, with the betting patterns, but that they provided context to the events at Tramore and the subsequent investigation.

The committee expressed its surprise that such a third-party mechanism could be used for laying horses as "it could hinder identification of the possible beneficiaries of lay betting".

It added: “This case illustrates the specific and additional challenges and dangers to the integrity of racing posed by the widespread ability to back horses to lose races for significant returns. The desirability of this practice or how it might be better controlled within the available regulatory resources is worthy of further, constant review.”

In all, Buckley revealed three substantial lay bets on Viking Hoard had been traced through the Betfair exchange to the same account holder.

As well as the substantial bets wagered on Viking Hoard to lose at Tramore, another was cited when he finished fourth at Sedgefield on October 2, 2018. On that occasion, Viking Hoard drifted from 3-1 out to 10-1 before the off with over €30,000 risked against €12,000.

Byrnes, a multiple Grade 1-winning trainer, had another runner – Thosedaysaregone – on the Sedgefield card who was also successfully laid for substantial risk. The horse's saddle slipped and he was pulled up.

Prior to Sedgefield, Viking Hoard ran at Galway in July 2018 and once again drifted from 4-1 out to a starting price of 8-1. The risk was €55,000 against a return of €12,000. A post-race sample was taken by the IHRB on that occasion and the committee presumed that “nothing adverse arose from subsequent analysis of those samples”.

The IHRB’s chief veterinary officer, Dr Lynn Hillyer, commented that, in her opinion, the betting patterns were not coincidental in relation to Viking Hoard, and concluded that he had been "nobbled" at Tramore. The conclusion was not challenged.

During post-race examination at Tramore, the acting IHRB veterinary officer noted that the horse had a slow heart rate, which Hillyer stated is “consistent with the presence of ACP in clinically significant concentrations in the gelding”.

Hillyer also noted that the high concentration of the sedative not only impacted the performance of Viking Hoard, but posed a threat to “the integrity of the race and the health, safety and welfare of the animals, the rider, stable staff and other riders and animals in the race”.

Having considered the evidence, the IHRB referrals' committee concluded Byrnes was "seriously negligent" in his supervision of Viking Hoard on the day of the race and found him in breach of rule 96(a) as a prohibited substance was present in the post-race sample taken.

Taking into account the gravity of what occurred, the committee ordered Byrnes's licence be withdrawn for a period of six months and imposed a €1,000 fine on the trainer.

When asked to comment on Tuesday, Byrnes said: “I am going to appeal and I don’t want to comment any further.” 

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