Darragh O'Loughlin

Darragh O'Loughlin

THE SHENANIGANS at RTÉ have hogged headlines in recent months and one outfit more than happy with this state affairs, surely, is the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB), the entity that was established by the Bowler Hats of the Turf Club and the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee to oversee regulation of the sport of kings. The going has been heavy at times for the current chief executive, former pharmacy union boss Darragh O’Loughlin, who has had to jump some challenging hurdles, notably over his predecessor’s pay packet and now a “bombshell” financial revelation. DOL recently completed his first year in the saddle and has managed to pick up a long-odds win earlier this month when billionaire Luke Comer came a cropper on doping charges (see p3).

Darragh O’Loughlin has little or no experience or knowledge of the horseracing world and what he brings to the party, clearly, is regulatory experience and an outsider’s view of the sector. This stems for his lengthy stint in the business of dishing out prescriptions rather than prize money, having worked as a pharmacist (his family business is called O&B Pharmacy, where he transferred his shares to his wife, Tracee, last year).

In 2021 O’Loughlin was appointed a director of Gerard Cassidy’s Touchstore operation – which describes itself as “the fastest growing provider of pharmacy and retail management software in Ireland” – and is still listed as a director there today.

More significantly, in relation to landing the IHRB job, O’Loughlin put in 20 years at the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) up to April last year, 10 of them as secretary general, having spent the previous decade on the executive committee. This means he was in situ when a controversial deal was put together between the Irish union and its Portuguese equivalent to establish a joint venture to package data in chemists’ computers for sale in aggregated form to third parties such as pharmaceutical companies. This entity has since haemorrhaged money and dropped €½m between 2020 and 2021.

The new IHRB boss also put in stints on boards of Hiqa, the Irish Medicines Verifications Organisation, the World Pharmacy Council and the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, which regulates pharmacists.

The obvious benefit of saddling up an outsider is that O’Loughlin’s predecessor, Denis Egan, had been in and around the top of Irish horse racing for decades but when he crossed the finish line there was a hell of a stink. Happily for the IHRB, the main event played out before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on June 29 last – the same day the committee’s prime-time show was the grilling of Ryan Tubridy, Noel Kelly et al.

As a result, media coverage of this IHRB handicap was minuscule and completely buried by the Tubs box office feeding frenzy. What the public missed was a forensic inquiry into the manner in which Egan had availed of an early retirement scheme (reminiscent of events in Montrose) and managed to trouser €385,000 – which turns out to be a whopping €142,000 above the sum permitted by the Government in the scheme.

Much like the initial Renault deal, however, the undisclosed extra moolah for Egan did not come out of state coffers but courtesy of a contribution, “in recognition of his decades of service”, from the Turf Club, which he had previously headed up before seamlessly moving into the IHRB saddle when the latter body was established in 2018.

Moreover, although agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue had mandated that all payments be recorded in the IHRB’s 2021 annual report published last year, this was not done. As Egan’s successor, it was left to O’Loughlin to bat away criticisms of the IHRB from the gobsmacked TDs at the PAC hearing. It was the first real test for the new man and he proved more than capable of sticking to the script.

When Fianna Fáil’s James O’Connor said that, from a governance and trust perspective, the Egan payment had been “grossly unacceptable” and “not in the best interest of horseracing in Ireland”, O’Loughlin expressed his satisfaction that “all of the decisions taken at the time were taken in good faith and were taken in what was perceived to be the best interests of the IHRB and horseracing generally”.


The Green Party’s Marc Ó Cathasaigh queried the absence of remuneration details and even an employment contract for Egan, accusing O’Loughlin of “stonewalling” the committee. The IHRB boss duly resorted to the familiar tactic of noting the IHRB had acted on legal advice, even though there had been no legal way to keep the details out of the public domain. (The IHRB refused to tell Goldhawk which firm provided the advice.)

Fianna Fáiler Cormac Devlin expressed frustration that Darragh O’Loughlin did not bring along anyone from the finance department, which meant that certain questions were not being answered. Originally CFO Donal O’Shea was to attend but O’Loughlin announced he was “now on a period of voluntary leave” – a term FF’s Paul McAuliffe said had no legal standing. The absence of O’Shea was linked to the “bombshell” announcement by the IHRB boss that a financial issue that “gave rise to grave concern” had emerged just before the PAC session. It appears to have been picked up by the audit and risk committee chaired by Tom O’Mahony.

This matter is now the subject of a review by Mazars and although McConalogue has demanded that the review be concluded “as soon as possible”, there is no sign of any white smoke. The IHRB told Goldhawk: “At this stage we do not have a firm finishing date.”

One result of the Egan affair is that the agriculture minister has asked his department to undertake a review of governance arrangements in the horse racing industry, although the department was unable to say if this has commenced. Such an exercise would no doubt play to the strengths of former pharmacy regulator Darragh O’Loughlin. The agriculture mandarins are also supposed to be reviewing the service level agreement that is in place between Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), the state agency for funding racing, and the independent IHRB.

Last year, the total amount paid by HRI to the IHRB was €12.7m, while this year the figure is €11.1m, although “this represents year-on-year growth in the funding for integrity services” when capital funding last year is taken into account.

The reason this is important is that O’Loughlin will, in large part, be judged on how much funding he can squeeze out of HRI for the anti-doping measures in particular, in order to quell growing criticisms of the IHRB’s modus operandi, which is based significantly on volunteer stewards rather than professionals. Last week’s high-profile suspending of Luke Comer’s training licence, however, does represent something of a PR coup for the Bowler Hats.

O’Loughlin actually made his first appearance in front of the Oireachtas committee as head of the IHRB in September 2022 when the main subject matter was the lack of progress on the installation of CCTV equipment at all racecourse stable-yards. The absence of such security cameras had come into focus five years ago in the wake of the Viking Hoard doping case when it could not be proved who administered a sedative to the Charles Byrnes-trained horse before he ran in Tramore in 2018.

The multimillion-euro process of rolling out the CCTV installation to all racecourse stables dragged interminably, despite funding being made available by HRI. Darragh O’Loughlin inherited this stalled project and it was a top priority to get it sorted as the heat was being turned up at a political level. He told the PAC it would be done and dusted by the end of 2022 and, although this deadline came and went, the IHRB confirmed to Goldhawk that the process is now complete (snags aside).

Charlie McConalogue

Charlie McConalogue


A big part of O’Loughlin’s job is to ensure the reputation of Irish horseracing is enhanced, whether that is from an integrity or welfare point of view. Part of the integrity aspect is based on race-day stewarding and consistency is something that punters value, whether it concerns decisions regarding interference, non-triers or penalties for other misdemeanours by trainers and jockeys.

In this regard, the IHRB’s reputation took a bit of a body blow back in May when, over the course of a few days, two important decisions taken by the stewards were reversed by the IHRB referrals committee.

The higher profile of the two decisions involved queen of the turf Rachael Blackmore in Kilbeggan, where she misjudged the finish and rode her mount to the line a circuit too early. The episode looked cut and dried but, after Blackmore offered a strange explanation for events, the race-day stewards opted for a mere a caution.

Race-related social media lit up as it was clear to observers what had actually happened, with the result that the IHRB was compelled to reopen the matter for further investigation, after which Blackmore was handed a five-day ban and ordered to forfeit her riding fee. The avoidable episode portrayed the regulator in a poor light.

Another blow for Irish racing’s ‘honorary stewards’ came the same weekend in Killarney when the Gordon Elliott-trained Vina Ardanza was badly hampered at the last fence by the Willie Mullins-trained narrow winner Saldier. Most punters expected the result to be reversed but not even a stewards’ enquiry would have been called had Vina Ardanza’s jockey, Jody McGarvey, not lodged an objection to the result.


After reviewing the race, however, the stewards let the result stand, prompting Eamon Waters, owner of Vina Ardanza, to lodge an appeal. Again the IHRB referrals committee overruled the race-day stewards and amended the result in Waters’ favour. This has led to further suggestions that it is well past time to consider a system of professional stewarding.

In recent months, Darragh O’Loughlin has been featuring heavily in the PR Stakes. This included an appearance on UK broadcaster Nick Luck’s Sunday morning show, Luck On Sunday, which was broadcast live from the Curragh on Irish Derby weekend.

Luck also had trainer Ger Lyons on as a guest and, after O’Loughlin did his best to put a gloss on the IHRB’s coat, Luck asked Lyons what he thought of the recent revelations. Lyons admitted he wasn’t in a position to comment on Egan’s pay etc and instead focussed his attention on O’Loughlin, saying that after over 12 months in the job the chief executive had made no effort to come and meet Lyons to get a feel for a business like his, concluding “shame on you”.

DOL was hired on a seven-year contract and after completing his first 12 months he spoke about using his next six years to “turn the ship around.” Given the difficult going he has already encountered – and surely heavier going ahead – Darragh O’Loughlin clearly has quite the job on his hands to remain on board an IHRB mount that has proved very hard to ride.