Last weekend news broke that another young Matamata jockey, the highly regarded Jason Waddell, had tested positive to methamphetamine.
The man charged with rooting out drugs in the sport, New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing's chief racecourse investigator John McKenzie, concedes there is "a culture" of meth use within racing. "But it's not a big one and it's one we're removing from our industry."
McKenzie does not believe meth use is widespread in racing, but acknowledges it does occur in small pockets.
"When you go to places like Cambridge and Matamata, which are big training centres, and you've got 200-300 people riding horses, then you have a much greater chance of finding rogues within."
He points out the eight positive tests reflected a tiny minority of the 200-300 tests conducted each year. Others believe those figures represent only the tip of the iceberg; Miller can think of more than 10 riders who routinely use the drug which, unlike cannabis, passes from the system within two to four days, helping the user avoid detection.
Jockeys go to extraordinary lengths to keep their weight down, starving and sweatboxing themselves, and for most, beer is out of the question.
Their jobs are highly competitive and physically strenuous, and for some, illegal drugs replace alcohol as a way of letting off steam. McKenzie says that although meth has a particular appeal to jockeys as a stimulant and appetite suppressant, he does not believe it is more prevalent in the industry than in any other sector. Jockeys tend to be caught out, though, as they are tested as a matter of workplace safety, begun in 1996 at the request of riders concerned about cannabis use.
Testing identified a problem "far greater than we anticipated" – a quarter of the 120 riders tested positive to cannabis. But today, the most serious safety concerns relate to P."We have jockeys who inform us because they are concerned for their safety," says McKenzie. "They attend the same parties as the culprits. If they don't attend, they'll see them very soon afterwards and see the consequences of the night before. Racing has a brilliant grapevine. Nothing is secret; it all leaks out."
Meth has claimed some big scalps in racing, internationally and at home. The first local jockey to test positive was double Wellington Cup winner Leanne Isherwood in January 2002. The charges were withdrawn because of a possible breach of testing protocol, but five years later she was convicted for possessing $4000 of the drug following a raid on an Otaki P lab. Her boyfriend, a meth cook, was sent to jail and Isherwood later told the Star-Times she had spent $100,000 on the drug over two years.
Tony Allan of Pukekohe, the winning jockey in the 1988 Melbourne Cup, revealed in 2003 that he was addicted to the drug.
But the jockey most closely identified with P is Cambridge rider Lisa Cropp.
Three months before the end of the 2004-05 racing season, during which Cropp rode a record-breaking 197 wins, she tested positive for amphetamine and methamphetamine, with a reading 1000 times the allowable limit. But her legal team challenged the validity of the finding, and she was allowed to keep riding as the court case worked its way through the judicial system, all the way to the Supreme Court.
In the four years from when she was caught until when she was banned, Cropp earned just under $1 million on the track, prompting then-Sports Minister Trevor Mallard to accuse her under parliamentary privilege of cheating through her use of the stimulant. When Cropp was finally found guilty of a positive test, she was banned for nine months and fined $7500 and $90,000 in legal costs.
To this day, Cropp maintains she never took the drug, and says she intends to return to racing. But first she will need to provide samples to racing authorities proving she is drug-free. McKenzie said Cropp's denial about her offending made her difficult to rehabilitate as, in her opinion, there was no problem.
McKenzie claims that "she had some very erratic behaviour that was the subject of concerns by her counterparts...and at times she was almost unintelligible". An unauthorised biography by racing journalist Mike Dillon makes similar allegations, describing her as "far from normal" and "spinning" in the aftermath of the ride in which she tested positive, and over the years her "cheeky personality" eventually being replaced by a "twitching, shuffling, jerky demeanour".
When the Star-Times spoke to Cambridge-based Cropp last week, she was exhibiting many of those characteristics.
"No, sorry, look, my urine was, there's a whole different story with mine. That didn't happen. I'll defend it 'til I'm blue in the face," she said. Of popular perceptions her behaviour was erratic, she said: "People don't know me. I'm a very bubbly kind of person and that's because I'm quite shy, that's the whole bottom line. Because I've been all over the world and I've been in places where there's just no women. I'm quite shy with people and that's how I get past my shyness I guess, I'm a bit eccentric I suppose."
Cropp is raising a 13-year-old daughter with help from her parents, and is finding life away from racing difficult. "It's been quite a hard year actually."
With four positive meth tests for jockeys in the past 14 months, it's been a hard year for racing in general. Particularly in Matamata, where three of the four riders, as well as another caught smuggling a false urine sample into a drug test, were based.
Earlier this year, New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing accused the prominent Matamata stable of Mike and Paul Moroney, the latter a close longtime friend of Cropp's, of having a culture of excessive drug use by staff and horses.
Paul Moroney's girlfriend, a 21-year-old former stablehand, was the most recent racing-related meth arrest in Matamata, when she was arrested after a car chase and charged with possession.
The figure allegedly at the centre of the discord in Matamata is Mohammed Yusof, a 32-year-old Malaysian jockey attached to the Moroney stable who had been in the country for about 3 1/2 years. The married father of three was a "bad bugger", says McKenzie, who blames him for much of the recent troubles in Matamata. In McKenzie's opinion, "he was a bad influence on people in our industry. He used his persuasive character to contaminate others".
Yusof tested positive to methamphetamine in July, but insisted he had not taken the drug. He fled back to Malaysia in October allegedly using a stolen passport, after having transferred $20,000 from Cropp's personal bank account into his own, according to a complaint lodged with police. (Once overseas, it is claimed he emailed the owner of the passport and offered to return it for a sum of cash.)
Fraud charges against Yusof were imminent when he fled, although police who were investigating the case say action against him is now unlikely.
But it is understood that Yusof was involved in much more than fraud. Detective Steve Langdon confirmed that Matamata police had intelligence that Yusof was selling P, both within the racing community and to those outside. One of his customers was Jason Miller. Miller says he knows of four other riders who were getting the drug from Yusof.
Miller claims Yusof was intimidating, and had used standover tactics on others. He says Yusof claimed to be from a mafia family, and even showed Miller a photograph of the "boys who did his dirty work" back home. "Everybody would bow down to him. If you're related to mafia, that's a big thing."
Langdon said police had approached the alleged victims of the standovers, but they had not wanted to make a complaint. "When push comes to shove in that industry, it's hard to get anybody to sign up to anything," he says.
Yusof had also been previously suspended from racing for two separate assaults on stablehands. "No one liked him," says Miller. "He was hated in Cambridge, hated here in Tauranga, hated in the industry."
One person Miller says he spent a lot of time with though, was Cropp. "He'd always be over in Cambridge at her house." Langdon and Cambridge Detective Bill Crowe, who handled her complaint, confirmed Cropp and Yusof were well known to each other, but Cropp denied this. "I don't even know the guy," she said. Then: "I met him at the races and that." Asked how he obtained details to access her funds, she said: "I don't know, you have to ask the bank that." Crowe said Cropp had provided details for Yusof to access her account on a previous occasion, but he did not know what the transaction had been for.
Paul Moroney, who had previously defended Yusof, said he was "bad news, but he's long gone now". He declined to comment further.
Miller wants to return to racing, a career he has invested years in. But the ubiquity of methamphetamine in the industry's underbelly makes that a difficult proposition. For his own sake, he has removed himself from that world, studying at polytech in another city.
"I just want to take the time off and get my will power up, so I've got the confidence to say no," he says. He's glad to be out of Matamata. "When you're there, the temptation is there."
Miller last smoked meth in February, cracking after his bid to re-register as a jockey was denied due to drugs found in his system. "After that I went and had a big burn because it pissed me off," he says. Staying clean has been "a hell of an effort". "There's been some demons inside me."
But he knows he gets more out of riding a horse than chasing a dragon.
"I miss riding. It's an absolute buzz."
RACING'S ROLL OF DISHONOUR
May 2010: Matamata jockey Jason Waddell tests positive to methamphetamine following a routine drug test.
March 2010: Matamata jockey Troy Harris was found guilty of trying to smuggle in a sample of another person's urine as his own into a drug test and is banned for 21 months.
July 2009: Matamata jockey Mohammed Yusof tests positive to methamphetamine, is disqualified for nine months and ordered to pay $3600 in costs.
June 2009: Central Districts jockey Chris Carmine returns a positive methamphetamine test and is disqualified for eight months, reduced by a month for his frank admission, genuine remorse and enrolment in a rehabilitation programme.
April 2009: Matamata jockey Jason Miller tests positive to methamphetamine and is suspended for nine months and ordered to pay $600.
June 2007: Former jockey Leanne Isherwood is charged with possessing methamphetamine after being caught with $4000 worth of P and $7500 in cash when her car was searched during a P lab raid. She is later sentenced to 12 months' home detention after pleading guilty.
June 2006: Otaki jockey Emma Lloyd tests positive to methamphetamine and is disqualified from riding for almost six months.
May 2005: Cambridge-based Lisa Cropp tests positive to methamphetamine but continues to ride until June 2009 when she is banned from riding for nine months, fined $7500 and ordered to pay $90,000 in costs.
June 2003: 1988 Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Tony Allan, from Pukekohe, confesses he is addicted to methamphetamine.
February 2002: Kelly Davidson tests positive to methamphetamine and becomes the first New Zealand jockey to be banned. She now rides in Perth.
January 2002: Two-time Wellington Cup winning jockey Leanne Isherwood tests positive to methamphetamine, but charges are withdrawn because of a potential breach of testing protocol.
- © Fairfax NZ News