It started with a doping scandal, a documentary error and a convoy of cars driving up to inspect the Co Wexford stables of respected horse trainer Liz Doyle, daughter of former Fine Gael junior minister and MEP, Avril Doyle.

The random search on March 26, 2014 was jointly led by Chris Gordon, head of security at the Turf Club, which regulated the sport, and the Special Investigations Unit of the Department of Agriculture. 

Nothing untoward was found. Liz Doyle had done no wrong. 

But what unfolded that day, and in the weeks that followed, would ricochet around the world of horse racing for years, souring relations between the watchdog and industry players. 

Gordon was accused of trying to entrap Doyle – a claim he fulsomely denied – with a copy of a lodgment docket allegedly linking her to John Hughes, a vet criminally convicted for possessing commercial quantities of anabolic steroids. While the security chief insisted it was all just a mix-up, the row could not be put to bed.

On one side were the Doyles and the senior officials of the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association (IRTA), on the other were members of the Turf Club. Even elite trainers like Dermot Weld and Gordon Elliott were drawn into the dispute.

Each, in turn, would be called to give evidence in the High Court as Gordon sued the IRTA claiming he was the victim of an orchestrated, malicious, defamation campaign – the aim of which, he alleged, was to oust him from his job.

“The stakes are so high for my reputation, for Mr Gordon’s reputation, for everybody’s reputation,” Liz Doyle told the jury when the case went to trial last February.

Represented by Sean Costello solicitors and barristers Thomas Hogan, Mark Harty and Shane English, a vindicated Gordon walked out of court with €300,000. 

This three-part story explains how a seemingly small mistake led to a breakdown in trust between two august institutions, a seven-week trial and a six-figure damages payout.

An unblemished career

For anyone familiar with the world of horse racing, the Turf Club needs no introduction. With an old and distinguished history dating back to 1755, it was the private body that regulated the industry up until the end of 2017 when it became the Irish Horse Racing Regulatory Board. The main events documented here took place in 2014 and 2015, before that name change occurred.

Chris Gordon started working as head of security for the Turf Club in 2010, after a 30-year-long career in An Garda Síochána. Raised in Dublin, the father of two joined the force as a young man in the late 1970s and was first posted to Store Street in the inner city, which was then in the grip of a heroin epidemic. Street crime was rife. When an internal opportunity arose to study Commerce at UCD, Gordon took it, paving the way for a long and varied garda career, often, but not always, in posts away from the coalface of policing. He spent time in charge of training at Templemore garda college; he ran the office of the Deputy Commissioner; he even spent a year on secondment to the United Nations in Cyprus. 

Horse racing, however, was always a hobby and a passion. When the Turf Club job came along, he took early retirement from the force at the age of 50, having risen to the rank of superintendent. 

As Head of Security, Gordon’s role involved policing every aspect of the rules of racing from betting irregularities to stable yard security, and ensuring horses were not given illegal performance-enhancing substances. 

All sorts of red flags might spark an investigation. A horse significantly weakening in the betting market could suggest those with knowledge unavailable to the average punter were backing it to lose – insider trading but on the racecourse rather than on the stock market.

Off the track, the job required Gordon to liaise with the Department of Agriculture, the gardaí, bookmakers and other international regulatory bodies for big calendar events like the Cheltenham festival. In court last February, Gordon described Cheltenham as being of almost Olympic importance to the sport in the UK and Ireland.  

To ensure the Turf Club would stay out front in regulating the sport, Gordon was also expected to develop policies to maintain the integrity of Irish horse racing.

And in 2012, the integrity of Irish horse racing was rocked by a doping scandal.

A doping scandal

Officials at Dublin Airport intercepted two packages containing commercial quantities (6kg) of a powerful anabolic steroid called Nitrotain destined for Carlow vet, and retired Department of Agriculture official, John Hughes. Hughes had been importing the drug from an Australian wholesaler called Nature Vet.

The same year, Department of Agriculture inspectors found unauthorised animal medicines, including Stanozolol, the steroid used by disqualified Canadian Olympic athlete Ben Johnson, at the horse training establishment run by Hughes’s brother, Pat Hughes. A further discovery of one kilogram of Nitrotain was made at the yard of the high-profile, Cheltenham winning trainer, Philip Fenton.

Leading the charge in these inspections was the Department of Agriculture’s Special Investigations Unit, which was set up in the 1980s  to combat illegal growth hormones and angel dust in the beef industry. Its remit widened over time.

In October 2013, John Hughes pleaded guilty at the District Court to possession of Nitrotain. He refused to cooperate with investigators by naming any racehorse trainers he may have supplied. His case was dismissed on its merits by a judge after he made a donation of €10,000 to Kilkenny Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and agreed to pay court costs. He was fined €4,500 and was disqualified from racing for five years by the Turf Club.

His brother Pat Hughes, the Irish Grand National and Ascot winning trainer, was fined while Fenton took a three-year ban.

The situation in the UK was just as serious. In 2013, Emirati trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni, who worked for one of the biggest owners in the world – Sheik Mohammed in the Godolphin operation – was banned from racing for eight years. Anabolic steroids were found in 22 horses he trained. A few months later another trainer, Gerald Butler, was banned for five years for similar offences.

Inevitably, questions were asked about the scale of the problem. Was it niche or was the world of racing awash with steroids? And what was being done about it?

If a trainer refused to open up a veterinary medicine cabinet for a Turf Club official during an inspection, there was precious little the regulator could do.

The Turf Club found itself in the firing line.

Hughes had imported what was described in the media as “industrial quantities” of Nitrotain. But nothing had been detected by the regulator either through testing or through stable inspections?

For some, the controversy was a wake-up call that more needed to be done to protect the reputation of the sport. 

The challenge was substantial. Anabolic steroids are untraceable in the system after 48 hours, even though the performance-enhancing effects live on, building muscle mass which allows a horse to train harder. 

Joint inspections

The trainer Liz Doyle.

Gordon, who attends about 150 race meetings a year, took a hawkish view in regards to tackling the problem. He was constantly being told the industry was far from squeaky clean: “I would be speaking to bookmakers at the track, I would liaise with them. I would be talking to racegoers. I would know lots of people, trainers, stable staff. The view was there was a problem in Irish racing and what are you doing about it in The Turf Club.”

In his role as Head of Security, Gordon made written recommendations to the chief executive of the Turf Club Denis Egan as to how they might combat the use of banned substances in horse racing. 

One of the recommendations, subsequently adopted, was to carry out surprise joint inspections of trainers’ yards with the Department of Agriculture. Together they could send out a clear message that doping would not be tolerated.

The advantage of coordinating with the Department was clear cut. Agriculture officials had wide-ranging powers of search and entry. By contrast, the Turf Club needed a trainer’s permission to come on site, rendering the regulator’s authority somewhat toothless. If a trainer refused to open up a veterinary medicine cabinet for a Turf Club official during an inspection, there was precious little the regulator could do.

But Gordon’s security team could still bring momentum and expertise to the joint enterprise. Without the input of the Turf Club, the likelihood of the Department embarking on a programme of stable yard inspections was small.

The book of evidence

To put the joint inspections scheme in motion, a meeting was held on January 22, 2014 between department officials and members of the Turf Club. At the meeting, the department shared a copy of the prosecution file in the John Hughes case with Turf Club CEO Denis Egan. The file, known as the book of evidence, included Hughes’ diary and corresponding lodgment dockets, some of which appeared to offer a record of individuals Hughes may have supplied with contraband, making it a potentially useful tool in determining which trainers’ yards should receive a surprise visit.  

While a couple of names were directly linked to Nitrotain purchases in the records, the details on about half of the dockets were opaque. One showed a lodgment of €590. The figure was split between two payments of €390 and €200. Beside the figure of €390 was written the initials TH and beside the €200 were the letters LD. During the meeting, there was a discussion between the various officials as to who Hughes’s bank records might refer to.

Egan suggested the well-known trainer Liz Doyle for LD, as she was the only trainer licensed at the time with those initials. He then wrote her name in the margin with a question mark beside it. While his colleagues, including Gordon, saw Egan taking notes during the meeting, the fact he had written directly on to the book of evidence went unnoticed.

Egan’s copy of the book of evidence was subsequently photocopied and distributed to the Turf Club’s security team, led by Gordon and his deputy Declan Buckley.

The new regime begins

The first of over 40 joint inspections that year got underway on March 26, 2014. It was Gordon’s job to decide the schedule. Two horse trainers’ yards were visited that day without prior warning. First up was John Hanlon in Bagenalstown. Vets from the Special Investigation Unit of the Department of Agriculture did a thorough examination of the barns and outhouses. Nothing untoward was found.

The second was Liz Doyle. It was her mother, the former junior minister, MEP and Wexford TD, Avril Doyle who opened the door to the inspectors at Kitestown when they pulled up in their cars after lunch. She went to fetch her daughter outside informing her that there were some gentlemen here to see her.

He said they parted amicably and as he left, Avril Doyle told him there should be more of these inspections.

Gordon showed Liz Doyle a letter of introduction from the Turf Club, a formal document he was obliged to present to request access to the training yard. Veterinary inspectors from the department, led by Louis Reardon, did not have to dispense with such formalities to gain entrance.

Gordon explained to the Doyles that the joint inspection was a new initiative aimed at deterring the use of anabolic steroids in Irish racing. Outside in the barn, while Reardon and his team were checking the veterinary medications and medicines register, Gordon asked Liz Doyle if she had any dealings with the vet, John Hughes. The answer was no. Doyle replied in fairly salty language to the effect that she despised Hughes, and that he was a horrible man.

But she said she was a friend of his brother, Pat Hughes, the trainer. Years earlier, she had ridden out horses for him three days a week, relaying information to him about their speed and wellbeing. It was a way of supplementing her income when she was starting out on her own as a trainer. By 2014, Doyle was a well-established player with several staff members and between 30 and 40 horses in her care.

Reardon gave the yard the all-clear. No irregularities were found. When Liz Doyle asked why she had been selected for an inspection, Gordon told her that her name had been found on a docket seized in the John Hughes prosecution.

By his account, Doyle immediately asked to see the document. Gordon said he held up the book of evidence to show it to her but covered up the other initials, TH, on the page where her name appeared. He recalled Avril Doyle craning her neck to have a look over his shoulder. Liz Doyle’s partner Barry Murphy was also present, as were a couple of staff members.

Liz Doyle denied the docket had anything to do with her. Gordon said he accepted her denial without hesitation and they discussed whether there might be another Liz Doyle or LD in equestrian sports. He assured her that was the end of the matter for her as far as the Turf Club was concerned. 

Avril Doyle later gave evidence that she asked permission to make a copy of the docket and that Gordon replied that there was no need as he accepted Liz’s word. The security chief denied that happened.

He said they parted amicably and as he left, Avril Doyle told him there should be more of these inspections.

An “honest mistake”

But as they walked away, Reardon pulled Gordon aside. He said he did not think the words “Liz Doyle?” had appeared on the original prosecution file. This was confirmed by Reardon when he checked the book of evidence and reverted to Gordon the following day. When Gordon contacted his boss, Denis Egan, about the matter, the chief executive admitted that he had scribbled Doyle’s name down on the page. 

From Gordon’s perspective, going to Doyle’s yard with the wrong document was unquestionably bad practice but it was an honest mistake he was happy to acknowledge. 

Little did he know the repercussions to come.

Liz Doyle had begun to do her own detective work. The Turf Club officials had barely left her yard at Kitestown, when she put in a call to her old friend and boss, Pat Hughes. While she had no issue with the fact she had been inspected, her name on the lodgment docket rankled. “I knew there was something wrong for two reasons; number one, I didn’t get on with John Hughes at all. There was no way he would have my name on one of his documents. There is just no way,” Doyle would explain in court. She also felt that if her name really had appeared on a Department of Agriculture prosecution document, someone would have been in touch with her far earlier.

Pat Hughes was able to confirm in about half an hour that her name was not on the book of evidence in his brother’s case. He then emailed her a copy of the original John Hughes bank slip. Liz Doyle’s name was nowhere to be seen on the document.  It was immediately clear to her that this was not what she had been shown during the inspection.

She said the first thing that came into her head was who had switched it, was it the Department of Agriculture or was it the Turf Club? Who had tried to do this? Her mother recalled that they sat down at the kitchen table and discussed the differences between the two documents.

An amicable encounter with Declan Buckley

On March 30, Doyle approached Declan Buckley, the Turf Club’s deputy head of security, at a race meeting in Limerick. Buckley, like Gordon, was an ex-garda who had taken early retirement in 2012. As a detective inspector in the force, he had specialised in forensics, and was in charge of gathering fingerprint evidence in major criminal investigations. 

Face to face with Buckley, Doyle confronted him about the discrepancy in the bank lodgment docket. It was an amicable encounter.

Buckley was surprised to hear what had happened and promised Doyle he would look into it. On April 2, 2014 he informed her over the phone that a member of the Turf Club had written on the document. He did not name the chief executive Denis Egan as the person responsible. In hindsight, he believed this might have been a mistake but Egan was his boss. 

By Buckley’s account, Doyle was very annoyed on the phone. She asked him for a copy of the document she had been shown in her yard and for an apology. He said he agreed to hand over the documentation but told her she would not be getting an apology because, under the regulations, the Turf Club was entitled to carry out inspections and didn’t need any reason to go into a trainer’s yard.

According to Doyle, during that conversation, Buckley agreed with her that what had happened wasn’t right, and amounted to some form of entrapment. In the meantime, her mother Avril Doyle contacted the Turf Club looking for a copy of the lodgment docket and the names of the inspectors who had attended the yard.

“She completely lost her cool. She got very, very aggressive and abusive and she snapped it out of my hand and it tore.”

Declan Buckley, deputy head of Security at the Turf Club

After the call, Buckley and Gordon discussed how to proceed. They agreed, with Egan’s approval,  that Gordon would write a letter explaining to Doyle why she had been inspected and what had gone wrong. Again, while the letter did not refer to Egan by name, it did set out that a member of the Turf Club had written her name on a copy of the prosecution file.

This letter was to be handed to her, along with the scribbled on Hughes docket which Buckley photocopied from his own copy of the book of evidence. He said it was the same as Gordon’s copy save for a circle he had put around Liz Doyle’s name prior to the inspection of her stables.

The anonymous whistleblower

Buckley was to hand these over to Doyle at a race meeting in Fairyhouse on April 6 along with a third document – a redacted copy of an anonymous letter sent by a “whistleblower” to the Turf Club months earlier accusing several high profile trainers – including Doyle – of using performance-enhancing drugs. The Department of Agriculture had received a copy of the same letter. The Turf Club and the Department would quite frequently get this type of anonymous missive. Gordon said while it couldn’t be ignored, it was treated as “soft intelligence”.

The 2013 letter would later be presented in court. The following extract gives a flavour of the allegations detailed within it. “It has come to my attention that there is widespread administering of illegal performance-enhancing substances to their racehorses. People in the horse racing fraternity know what trainers and handlers are routinely administering drugs. Nitrotain was the most common substance used a couple of years ago but now there is an illegal substance being brought in from the UK. It was developed in the labs in Oxford, the top point-to-point trainers are using this substance. It is very hard to detect as it does not show up in horses’ blood. It has distinct advantages that it allows racehorses to recover very quickly after rigorous exercise while maintaining muscle mass. The substance costs €600 for six injections to be administered over a month with one injection then after that which costs another €100 per injection. To really bring the horses to the boil on a race day they are given Hemo-15.”

Buckley packed this, along with the letter drafted by Gordon and the copy of the Hughes docket in the book of evidence, to give to Doyle.

A “tantrum” at Fairyhouse

Liz Doyle had one horse running at Fairyhouse on April 6, 2014. Just before the fifth race, Buckley spotted her entering the weigh room. He said he approached her and they had the following exchange. “I said ‘Liz, I have those documents for you’ and she said ‘what documents’. I said ‘the documents you looked for the other day’. ‘Oh, it’s just the same old thing’, she said. ‘It’s just the same old thing, I don’t want them’,” he told the High Court.

Doyle would later tell the High Court that she “realised that there was some type of cover-up happening”.

He said she then had a change of heart. The court heard she briefly looked at the copy of the Hughes document and snatched it out of his hand. 

“She completely lost her cool. She got very, very aggressive and abusive and she snapped it out of my hand and it tore, I could do nothing about it. She calmed down a few minutes later and she said ‘I thought you were a nice man but I’ve changed my mind about it now’.”

Buckley said he kept calm during this “tantrum” figuring there was no point getting into an argy-bargy with Doyle. He said she shouted and roared about how he was telling lies and how they were forging documents, which he presumed was a reference to the Turf Club security personnel.

He claimed Murphy put his finger right up to his face and said “how dare you treat Liz Doyle in the manner you treated her in the weigh room, you don’t realise the ferocious pull we have. I will ‘F’ you and the Turf Club.”

The nub of the problem was that Doyle clearly believed the document presented to her by Buckley at Fairyhouse was significantly different from the one she had been shown during the yard inspection days earlier. 

An alleged cover-up

“I could see that it in no way resembled what I was shown in my yard. There were initials introduced and there was a ‘Liz Doyle’ scribbled over to the left-hand side with a circle and a question mark behind it,” she would later claim.

When she brought the torn document back to her mother Avril Doyle, the former MEP shared her daughter’s concern that it was “quite considerably” different when compared to the docket they had been shown during the inspection.

It was a serious allegation. Liz Doyle would later tell the High Court that she “realised that there was some type of cover-up happening”.

In her version of the Fairyhouse encounter, she said she greeted Buckley very politely in the weigh room. She claimed that when he realised she knew the document he was giving her was not the same as the one shown to her in the yard, he tried to grab it back off her. In this mini tug-of-war, she said the piece of paper ripped and crumpled.

Buckley maintained this account was totally untrue. “Why would I snatch it back? I had no reason to snatch it back. This was a document I was giving to her to help her.”

William Fleming, the clerk of the scales who weighs jockeys going in and out of each race, witnessed the encounter. He said he saw Doyle snatch a document out of Buckley’s hand, not the other way around. He said there was a “crossness” in her and that her voice “became progressively temper-ish, aggressive, and at one stage abusive”. He said Buckley was “very quiet”. 

Following the set-to, Buckley remained in the weigh room. After the sixth race, he said he could see from the corner of his eye Doyle’s partner Barry Murphy coming towards him at a pace. He said he feared he was going to be assaulted but decided to keep cool and stand his ground.

He claimed Murphy put his finger right up to his face and said “how dare you treat Liz Doyle in the manner you treated her in the weigh room, you don’t realise the ferocious pull we have. I will ‘F’ you and the Turf Club”.

Buckley said after the “tirade”, he offered to talk it through with Murphy who walked away.

According to Murphy’s account, Doyle was extremely disturbed by her encounter with Buckley. He said when he later bumped into the Turf Club security official in the weigh room he told him: “You’re a disgrace, how stupid do you think you are, you are all fraudsters”. 

A new problem

That night, Buckley emailed Egan to update him on what had happened at Fairyhouse. Egan was worried. “I was very concerned at that stage that there was an allegation that a false document had been presented. Did I do anything?… I decided at that stage I would wait and see what was going to happen from the other side,” he told the court.

In the eyes of Liz Doyle, Buckley had presented her with an entirely new document – a third version of the Hughes lodgment docket.

A new front had opened up. What exactly was Doyle laying at the door of the Turf Club inspectors? Clearly something far more serious than Egan’s notetaking blunder.

While Gordon believed at all times that Liz Doyle was a victim like him – who simply wanted an apology for a wrong done to her – she would later tell the High Court of her conviction that he had allegedly tried to beef up evidence against her. The saga was only beginning.


In part two, tomorrow, read about how the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association, led by chairman and prominent horse trainer Noel Meade and chief executive Michael Grassick, took up Doyle’s cause and the deadlock that followed.

Soon, Gordon would be facing successive complaints from the IRTA arising from other yard inspections, which came to nothing. But for the security chief, it was like being on a high-speed train hurtling along the tracks with Noel Meade, Avril Doyle and Michael Grassick in the driver’s cabin.

He would later make contested claims that something insidious was afoot, that the IRTA had conspired to undermine his position by suggesting he was unfit to be head of security. “It is clear they did not want that scrutiny going into their yards. They wanted the old Turf Club inspections which are weak, ineffective,” Gordon claimed in court.

The IRTA was ready to fight its corner.