The hearing before the Referrals Committee arose after twelve of the trainer's horses tested positive for the anabolic steroids metandienone ("MD") and methyylterosterone ("MT"). The ban was due to commence on 1 January 2024 however media reports have indicated that both Mr Comer and the IHRB have lodged appeals in relation to the decision. While Mr Comer's appeal relates to various elements of the decision, the IHRB's appeal relates to a claim of undue leniency in respect of the sanctions imposed.
Alleged breaches of Rules
Mr Comer's horse He Knows No Fear initially failed a drug test following a race in Leopardstown on 16 October 2021. Out of competition testing was then conducted at Mr Comer's Kilternan yard on 21 November 2021 when the horse along with eleven others tested positive for MD and/or MT.
MD and MT are Prohibited At All Times (PAAT) substances, as set out in Rule 20(v) and Regulation R4 part 1.2(a). The steroids are androgenic anabolic steroids, meaning that they are drugs derived from testosterone. No products containing these androgenic anabolic steroids are licensed for use in horses in Ireland and the use of anabolic steroids in thoroughbred horses training and racing in Ireland is prohibited.
While Mr Comer was not charged with administering or attempting to administer the steroids, he was charged with the following breaches:
Charge 1: Breached Rule 96(a) in the following circumstances: The IHRB took hair samples (A and B samples) from a horse named He Knows No Fear on 16 October 2021 after a race at Leopardstown. The A sample was found to contain MD and MT. The B sample confirmed the result.
Charge 2: Breached Rule 96(b) and/or (c) in the following circumstances: IHRB staff attended Mr Comer’s Training Establishment at Eagle Lodge, Kilternan on 10 November 2021 and took hair samples from the following horses: He Knows No Fear, Old Tom Higgins, Boxing Hero, Grand d’Espagne, Aircraft Carrier, Powerful Don, Wee Jim, Great Moon, Our Man Flint, Questionare, Green Force, and Blyton. The A samples were found to contain MD and/or MT and the results were confirmed by the B samples.
Charge 3: Breached Rule 147(vi) in his capacity as a trainer. The Rule provides that a trainer may only train horses at a Training Establishment licensed by the IHRB. It is alleged that Mr Comer trained horses at Ballinteskin Stud which is not licensed by the IHRB.
Charge 4: Breached Rule 272(i) in that the matters alleged against him, if proved, constituted conduct or behaviour prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of horseracing.
During the nine-day hearing before the Referrals Committee, the IHRB presented evidence relating to the presence of the steroids in the horses. The findings were based on the testing of hair samples taken from the horses and the IHRB relied on several experts in relation to the use and benefit of hair analysis in detecting PAAT substances.
Mr Comer called 11 experts during the hearing in fields that included toxicology, pharmacology and veterinary science. Some of this evidence was critical regarding the reliability of hair testing in horses.
In respect of hair testing, the IHRB has employed hair testing in its anti-doping strategy since 2016 and during the hearing, the Committee "heard […] credible evidence to show that [hair testing] is being increasingly used and is […] useful in allowing a more extended look-back period for the presence of Prohibited At All Times (PAAT) substances."
The Committee concluded that it was "satisfied that the use of hair as a sole matrix for testing the horses for PAAT substances was appropriate".
Presence of the Steroids
In respect of charges 1 and 2 above, Mr Comer denied that he or his staff administered the steroids in question but did admit the presence of the steroids in small traces. Mr Comer suggested that environmental contamination could have cause the presence of the steroids however, pointing to the possibility of contaminated hay.
Although as noted above, Mr Comer was not charged with administering the steroids, the Committee did consider evidence as to how the steroids came to be present in the horses.
Concerning the possibility of environmental contamination, having considered expert evidence, on the basis of the evidence presented, the Committee found that "no convincing case was made out for environmental contamination being the most likely explanation for the positive results" but also noted that it was "difficult to evaluate the evidence on environmental contamination".
While the Committee could not establish how traces of the steroids were found in the horses and concluded that there was no direct evidence of deliberate administration of PAAT substances, it found that "in view of the admissions and/or acknowledgments made by Mr Comer concerning Charges 1 and 2 above, that these charges were proved."
Concerning charge 3 above, the Committee did not consider Ballinteskin Stud to be a Training Establishment within the meaning of the Rules and no breach of Rule 147(vi) was found.
In respect of charge 4, although Mr Comer denied misconduct, the Committee considered the case law and did not "see a direct equivalence between the case law on professional misconduct and the interpretation of Rule 272." It held that "it is not necessary to establish moral turpitude or conduct of a 'morally culpable or otherwise disgraceful kind'". The Committee noted however that while Mr Comer claimed in his witness statement to have an “unblemished record” and confirmed that there was nothing in his statement which he wished to change when asked, it was "clearly not the case" that Mr Comer had an unblemished record.
The Committee noted that during the Inquiry, Counsel for the IHRB had taken Mr Comer though records which established that Mr Comer had been found guilty of multiple breaches of the Rules in the past, including the supply of misleading information. Mr Comer had been disciplined and, in some cases, fined in respect of these breaches.
Additionally, the Committee noted that when the previous Rule breaches were put to Mr Comer "he sought to explain some of them away and to minimise what had occurred". In any event the Committee held that what was beyond doubt was that Mr Comer did not have an unblemished record. It was therefore found that Mr Comer supplied misleading evidence contrary to Rule 272.
It was further noted by the Committee that:
- Although Mr Comer holds a trainer’s licence he only spends three months a year in Ireland and his absence from the Country for long periods of time makes it extremely difficult for him to perform the duties expected of a licensed trainer.
- At the time of the incidents there was poor security at the yard especially in terms of camera surveillance and it would have been all too easy for unauthorised persons to gain access to the horses undetected.
Several factors were considered by the Committee when reaching its decision on sanction. In relation to the appropriate sanction to impose, the Committee explained that the sanction imposed must be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and noted that the presence of PAAT substances in 12 horses was a very serious matter, and quite unprecedented. It referred to the importance of the principle of deterrence, where a serious breach occurs, in order to "avoid trainers and others giving in to the temptation to take steps which would give their horses an unfair advantage. Such conduct strikes at the very heart of the of the sport’s integrity."
In considering the appropriate sanction to impose, the Committee considered aggravating and mitigating factors. The Committee found that that the presence of the steroids "in so many horses in one yard" was an aggravating factor. In relation to mitigating factors, the Committee noted that while Mr Comer did "eventually" make certain admissions in relation to the matter, however this was considered in the context where he had also "doggedly" pursued the issue of hair testing the horses for the presence of steroids. The Committee stated that this approach significantly added to both the length and expense of the Inquiry.
The Committee also took into account the personal circumstances of Mr Comer and noted that if Mr Comer's licence was withdrawn for a period of time, there was no reason why his racing enterprise could not continue. The Committee noted that Mr Comer is only in Ireland for three months a year and also has an assistant trainer.
When considering whether to withdraw Mr Comer's licence, the Committee noted that while these were Mr Comer's first offences in respect of PAAT substances, Mr Comer had a number of other convictions for breaches of Rules. The Committee found that the large number of animals involved warranted a withdrawal of Mr Comer's licence for three years commencing on 1 January 2024.
In addition to the withdrawal of his licence, Mr Comer was issued with fines totalling €85,000 and ordered to pay 80% of the costs incurred by the IHRB, a figure estimated to be over €750,000.
Mr Comer's horse He Knows No Fear is to be restricted from running for a period of two years from the date of his last run, which was 16 October 2021 and the eleven horses specified in Charge 2 are to be restricted from running for a period of two years from 10 November 2021, being the date on which the samples were taken.
The sanction imposed in what the Committee described as a "quite unprecedented" case, comes as a stark warning to trainers working in the area that, as a licensed trainer, they must ensure compliance with the Rules and be aware that they remain responsible for what occurs in a training yard under their licence, irrespective of whether or not they are present on site.
Refer to https://bit.ly/3PShi0U for more information
Written by: JP McDowell, Zoe Richardson and Ayesha Ryan
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