It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Depending on your media outlet of choice, the news that eleven (or perhaps fifteen) horses owned by Godolphin and in the care of Mahmood al Zarooni had tested positive for steroids was either proof positive that racing is cursed, doomed or at the very least intrinsically corrupt; or, it was testament to a sport in which no player is too big to take a fall.
al Zarooni’s punishment – an eight year ban – was meted out swiftly and stoically by the beaks of the BHA, and served to top and tail the principle act of a drama whose curtain was only raised on 9th April. In the microcosm of racing administration, this represents a triumph and a step change from previous iterations of racing’s top legislative table when such an incident could have reasonably been expected to develop into a long-running soap opera.
So, plaudits for the management of the situation. But what are the implications for the Godolphin operation; the sport in Britain; and, racing across the world?
Let’s take a moment to consider the victim (or perhaps the agitator, again depending on your media outlet of choice), Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai and owner of Godolphin. The Sheikh’s mantra has always been one of fair play, and in that context, it can be taken as read that he expected his generals – a band including the now banned al Zarooni – to embrace that ethos.
The problem for Sheikh Mohammed, and others whose reach extends to multiple racing geographies, is that ‘fair play’ means different things in different racing jurisdictions. There’s little doubt that the Sheikh would insist on all of his runners (and trainers) operating within the rules of racing wherever they’re domiciled.
But the issue is that these rules vary from location to location. For al Zarooni, whose string has previously been a part of the annual winter migration from Newmarket to the Arab state, his was – as he himself put it – “a catastrophic error”. You see, horses in Dubai are routinely ‘beefed up’ with steroids: the same performance-enhancing compound located in the blood stream of leading 1000 Guineas contender, Certify, and fourteen others.
With hindsight, it may appear to explain why Godolphin’s horses perform so well at Meydan during the Winter Carnival (and also those of Mike de Kock, who is presumably also availing himself of the local lenience towards narcotics). The evidence for this is at best circumstantial, but there’s little denying that al Zarooni was no stranger to the administering of medication during the early part of a racehorse’s training programme.
And would it be too much of an extension from there to suggest that if al Zarooni was guilty of this practice, there is a probability that others in the employment of Godolphin have also ‘helped’ horses muscle up?
I’m not necessarily saying that’s been the case in the UK previously, but it seems more probable than possible that it has been the case in Dubai, as well as Australia, where I understand such preparation is acceptable too. And, of course, in the good old US of A, where medication and horses go together like whiskey and rye, steroids would be just one part of a much deeper and more complex issue.
Indeed, on that last point, US horsemen again shamed themselves recently by railing against the Breeders Cup committee’s decision to ban lasix from this year’s Cup. Such was the outcry amongst the training fraternity that the spineless Breeders Cup board performed a most embarrassing volte face. This is far from the first time the Southern Californian handlers have put a gun to the administrators’ heads (remember the two year tenure of tapeta before it was ripped up in favour of the – much harder on horses – previous dirt surface? Naturally, that was completely unrelated to embarrassing reverses for dirt horses in the Santa Anita Breeders Cup Classic of 2008, when UK raider, Ravens Pass, beat another Euro, Henrythenavigator. Yes, completely unrelated…)
Coming back to the UK, and the action which has been taken, in my opinion this is a serious feather in the cap of British racing. Not only do we have a set of rules which prohibit the use of steroids, and various other substances acceptable elsewhere but detrimental to the health of the horse population, but we are also prepared to invoke them, irrespective of the accused.
This case brings into stark focus the unacceptability of employing steroids as part of a training programme, and aligns well with the more globally accepted ban on their use in human athletic endeavours.
It also raises a further question about how widely used this practice is. Some with an axe to grind will say that this proves racing is corrupt, and that it must be happening everywhere. Others, notably Rachel Hood, husband of John Gosden and President of the Racehorse Owners’ Association, have called this an “isolated incident”.
The reality is that it’s impossible for either side of the debate to evidence their argument with anything more robust than perception and/or hearsay. In my opinion, it is likely that if one trainer was doing this, then others are. (One high profile National Hunt trainer has long since earned himself the nickname, The Chemist, on this blog). But it’s equally likely that any wrong-doers not outed by this high profile case are rapidly re-evaluating their strategy: after all, if the BHA are prepared to challenge and take down a part of Godolphin, owned by British racing’s behemoth benefactor, then ‘the little guy’ should be shaking in the toilet right now.
Other sports have had endemic issues with drug abuse – most obviously, cycling – and their governing bodies (e.g. the untenable UCI) have elected to pay lip service to drug control. Other jurisdictions in racing have done likewise – for instance, the aforementioned ‘limping in’ of the Breeders Cup committee on the subject of lasix (a U-turn which, incidentally, led to the resignation of Olly Tait, Darley’s (i.e. Sheik Mohammed’s breeding operation) Chief Operating Officer).
British racing can congratulate itself on a programme of testing which clearly works, and a legislative procedure which fully and expediently supports it. Equally clearly, there is no room for complacency. And other upcoming hearings against jockeys such as Eddie Ahern and ‘hangers on’ like ex-footballer, Neil Clement, will ensure racing remains in the headlines for the wrong reasons.
But the very fact that British racing is being seen to clamp down on wrongdoing across the spectrum of the sport and its players should, in my view, be lauded as an extremely positive step forward. Yes, there will be those who use it as a stick to beat the industry. But, while their petulant protestations will be given air time by a media which devours such stereotypical outcry (and shames itself in so doing… BBC, ahem), the enduring post script should be that we have a sport which is cleaner than it has ever been.
It also sends out a message to the wider racing world about what strong leadership is, and where ownership must lie. The tail should never wag the dog, as it does in some racing legislatures.
Here in Britain, there will always be more work to do. And there will always be people who want to flex – or outright snap – the rules. And, alas, they won’t always be caught. But, by ensuring that when they are caught, their punishment is both exacting and unambiguous, the right message is sent not just internally to aspirant corrupters, but also externally to a crowd which has subscribed to – and been fed – a hackneyed caricature of the game by some of the more irresponsible / unthinking members of the fourth estate.
The most recent battle may have been won; the silent war on cheating will doubtless continue to rage.
What are your thoughts on the al Zarooni case, and on the integrity of racing generally? Leave a comment below and share.