A 31 year old man passed away early Tuesday morning with no suspicious circumstances, and a fiancée and his immediate family are grieving because of the oh-so-premature passing.

That man is called Stathi Katsidis, and he’s well known as an outrageously talented jockey who was due to ride Queensland star Shoot Out in this week’s Tatts Cox Plate.

He also had a troubled history with both illicit drugs and alcohol, and his death rightly sparks queries in regards to whether illicit drugs are a particular problem for these sportsmen who regularly torture their body to keep their weight in check, and at worst hysterical overreactions from shock-jocks whose stock-in-trade is to insensitively throw brickbats at whatever the day’s events put up.

But with due and absolute respect to those close to him and doing it tough, there are broader issues that should be addressed by the industry in a reasoned and –pardon the wording – sober way as soon as the spring spotlight fades.

Because racing’s attitude to illicit drugs is still reflective of how sports like AFL used to think.

In 2002 ex-Sydney Swan star Dale Lewis claimed drug use was rife amongst AFL players, prompting then operations manager and now long-time AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou to label the claims “naive and stupid,” and Lewis to basically go to ground once a “throwaway line” became multiple headlines.

Demetriou’s reaction was in stark contrast to his future championing of a ground-breaking drug policy in conjunction with the players association that not only respected the confidential nature of what is essentially a medical test, but crucially gave participants an opportunity of putting a “bad life choice” behind them, away from a guaranteed media bunfight.

To boil it down, once the knee-jerk rubbishing of Lewis’s had finished and further investigation revealed his claim was actually “insightful and courageous,” then action was taken to help young men who suddenly had fame, fortune and ratbags of society thrust upon them.

Compare the reaction to Katsidis’s interview earlier this year when he told the Sydney Morning Herald’s Chris Roots on the eve of the Golden Slipper that “about half… of footy player’s and jockey’s” take illicit drugs.

He was hauled before Sydney’s Chief Steward Ray Murrihy and asked to “name names,” before backing down from his “throwaway line”.

Now of course if a footballer takes drugs and runs out on the training track, (keeping in mind a positive test on match day would see him in breach of the WADA drug code as it would be considered performance enhancing) he is only risking doing damage to himself.

Ingesting an illicit drug prior to riding a horse in a race or track-work has the very real problem of endangering others so a “zero tolerance” policy is understandable, and as Murrihy said at the time; “Racing is a very dangerous game and we don’t want any loose cannons out there taking illicit drugs.”

However the remarkable similarity of the two statements and reactions eight years apart, suggest that not only does racing’s attitude not reflect the broader illicit drug challenge that occurs in the wider community, but Katsidis’s tragic passing, combined with the “de-railing” of former leading Melbourne apprentice Brent Evans after a “name and shame” suspension late last year*, surely says that at worst all aspects and attitudes here need revisiting.

One only had to hear Victorian Jockey’s Association CEO Des O’Keefe on Sport 927 yesterday to hear how supportive and well-meaning the entire racing industry is towards the policy, but the interview brought up another comparison with where the AFL policy was and where it’s progressed to.

O’Keefe stated that “over 150 tests a year” were conducted for drugs by RVL throughout season 2009/10, which is impressive until you consider that racing is conducted 363 days a year and compare that more horses are tested than that during the spring racing carnival alone.

In 2007 when Ben Cousins drug problem first publicly aired and the AFL’s “three strike” policy was under the blowtorch, 3AW’s Dwayne Russell editorialized that there was a “better chance of being found dead in the gutter” than there was of an AFL player testing positive to illicit drugs on 3 separate occasions, once it was established that 500 tests a year didn’t go far over the 650+ listed players in the competition.

Now the AFL tests well over 1500 times a year, so at very least the number of tests should be increased in the sport of kings as well.

In addition it should be pointed out that experts in the field of drug counselling and rehabilitation only recently defended the confidential nature of the AFL’s testing to the hilt, yet with racing confidentiality is a challenge when any breach of the code is deemed worthy of suspension by the stewards on grounds of safety.

But it is a challenge that isn’t insurmountable and should be taken up particularly as jockeys do take leave of absence for all sorts of personal reasons at all sorts of times.

I’m happy to leave facile stories that hope that Shoot Out can “win the Cox Plate for Stathi” to others, but do hope that the real legacy that he leaves is that all aspects of the current system and attitudes towards illicit drug taking in racing is openly challenged and reviewed.

And perhaps future jockeys who make a mistake or two along the way can overcome life’s challenges, make full use of their God-given talents and live long lives.

*Brent Evans struggled to return to the brilliance he showed throughout 2009 after serving a two months suspension for testing positive to ICE. He returned to his native Queensland and in one of the hidden good news stories of the carnival, briefly returned to Victoria to win a race on Caulfield Cup day.

**”Racetrack” Ralphy Horowitz is a full-time racing analyst for private clients and media commentator for Sport 927. He is a former producer at 3AW, SEN, The Footy Show, & Sunday Footy Show.

***Back Page Lead is a sports opinion website that provides sports content to Crikey.

Peter Fray

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