Racing here has plenty of problems, but doping culture isn’t one

The problem is a lack of consistent worldwide standards


Funny things, expectations: people get all affronted by stories of doping in athletics, or cycling, or football, tennis, bog-snorkelling, but when it comes to racing, no one bats an eyelid.

Like everyone expects the horsey-game to be populated by bandy-legged little con-men just aching to plunge syringes into vulnerable veins. There’s almost disappointment if the roguish-slash-criminal caricature doesn’t apply.

And when it comes to steroids, racing’s not like that. No, really. At least not in this part of the world; although that might seem a shaky argument on the back of the Godolphin debacle.

For those indifferent to everything gee-gee, Mahmood Al Zarooni, trainer to the elite Godolphin stable of Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, and bulwark of the world bloodstock industry, has been banned for eight years for giving anabolic steroids to 15 of the Sheikh’s horses.

Twenty days ago racing officials raided Godolphin’s yard in Newmarket and took samples. Last Monday news broke of the positive tests, and on Thursday Al Zarooni got his ban; everything tied up nice and neat within a couple of weeks.

Depending on your point of view, that’s either impressively quick dispensation of justice, or a notably hasty piece of “lone-gunman” PR designed to keep onside a betting public notoriously ready to believe the worst. Anyway, having stuck the boot into various other sports over drugs, this corner has had to take cover from various types of “incoming” the last few days, mostly on a theme of why-don’t-you-have-a-pop-at-your-racing-now.

Which is fair enough in its “if-you-dish-it-you’ve-got-to-take-it” logic, although those really inside the racing tent would be appalled anyone believes a hack might be in there as well – and quite right too. But this is the most embarrassing doping scandal to hit Europe’s racing establishment in a long time – maybe ever: because, credit it or not, this is rare stuff. Not hoist-your-skirts-up-in-shock rare, but still, rare.

Dermot Browne, the notorious “needle-man” who played fast-and-loose with tranquilisers for a while in the early 1990’s was a near cliché chancer on the make. Except that was about stopping horses.

The banned north-of-England trainer Howard Johnson was done for administering a steroid a couple of years ago. Before that, there were nod-and-wink tales of EPO use a decade ago which resulted in zero actual evidence.

And that’s been pretty much it in terms of high-profile headlines for the last couple of decades.

It is the instinct of every punter with a busted docket to mutter darkly about dope, and plots, and blind eyes being turned. But compared to most sports racing is actually an oasis of propriety compared to stuff that takes place in supposedly more “pure” activities where it’s impossible to believe anything that happens after years of officialdom looking the other way.

In many ways, what’s most remarkable about this scandal – and giving steroids to vulnerable animals is pretty scandalous – is that no blind eye has been turned.

Raiding Godolphin is like raiding the Garrick: it doesn’t get more establishment. The Sheikh and the Queen are pals. He is Newmarket’s biggest employer. By common consensus British racing would be a glorified heritage park without the Sheikh’s investment. But his stables got raided anyway.

There was some sceptical musing at Punchestown last week about what might happen here in similar circumstances but even those who’re not fans of the Irish racing authorities concede they’re strict on doping. It doesn’t do to be smug about such things, but while racing in Ireland has plenty of problems, a doping culture isn’t one of them.

That doesn’t mean Irish horsey-types are paragons of purity. When they travel horses to the doping la-la-land which is the USA for instance, most horses are immediately filled to the gills with everything going. But here it’s a no-no that everyone knows.

Raises an obvious question
In contrast, steroids are completely legal in Australia and New Zealand, just so long as they don’t show up in a post-race test, something that only happens to the moronic since steroids can clear the system in 48 hours.

That raises an obvious question then as to how to know for certain Al Zarooni is a blip: which is where the evidence of your eyes comes in.

The whole point of steroids is muscle-mass, and short-cutting the process towards race fitness.

If you want to know what horses look like in a steroid culture, take a gander at American two-year-olds, many of whom carry bulges that ain’t the result of a water and oats diet. Or go to Australia where sprinters possess the sort of bulk normally associated with Charolais bullocks.

European-trained horses visiting the US or Australia are often dwarfed in comparison, just as they are when their rivals visit here.

The reverberations of the Al Zarooni ban have gone global, and shown up the real problem which is a lack of consistent worldwide standards.

The president of the Australian trainers body immediately and vigorously defended steroid use, claiming they provide “a significant cost-benefit to owners,” a statement containing a massive moral vacuum in terms of animal welfare, and an inadvertent admission that his colleagues can’t do the job properly.

In America such admissions are implicit in the fervent opposition to banning medication such as lasix. So despite the headlines, in terms of performance-enhancing doping, racing here is actually an example to the rest of the world. Maybe even to the rest of the sporting world.

But you probably expected me to say that.

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