A Strangely Uplifting (Mah) mood…

al Zarooni's case raised more questions...

al Zarooni's case raises more questions...

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.

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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.

Matt

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30 replies
    • Matt Bisogno says:

      That’s very kind, Roger. There are some excellent analyses out there, notably on the Guardian website, for anyone who might like to read more / a different view.

      Best,
      Matt

  1. Lawrence says:

    You have said it all Matt. I would just like to add though in my opinion he should have been banned for life- he new what he was doing was wrong ,so he should have been made an example of.

  2. courtney833 says:

    Well put Matt.Do you think all overseas horses racing in the UK should be subject to mandatory tests for drugs if they are not already done.

    David

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      I suspect they probably are, David, as part of the quarantine process. Obviously, that doesn’t include European horses, which are generally subject to the same strict scrutiny that British runners are.

      Hope you’re keeping well.
      Matt

  3. Todd says:

    I loved that guy. He won everything he ever ran horses in and made me more money than any other trainer. A legend has been defeated. RIP Mahmood al Zarooni, gone but not forgotten.

    • Gary says:

      I can not believe that you love a cheat who has put racing back years with his actions. shame on you

  4. flyingjc says:

    One of the problems this raises though, is that for horses to operate here, their system has to be clear of the substances to race, meaning that to race a good horse here, it can’t be like say taking the Derby or Arc winner to the USA, it would have to be planned. So maybe our “strong leadership” has to take the rest of the worlds governing bodies by the hands and formulate a world strategy.
    Only the now banned trainer knows if this was a deliberate attempt to win races unfairly, or a genuine mix up, of his Dubai/UK operation, as Saeed Bin Suroor, has operated sucessfully for many years. Plus surely the Sheiks racing manager Simon Crisford should have been on top of the issue.

  5. Gilly says:

    I am not saying the ban is incorrect or inappropriate but Al Zarooni is banned for 8 years. Nicky Henderson who is an establishment figure was reprimanded and given a 6 month ban – through the summer months with virtually no runners – the rules should apply to everyone equally and it seems to me Al Zarooni is the convenient scapegoat. If Sheikh Mohammad had been held to be culpable – he is the owner after all and is supposed to know what is happening within his stables – the effect on British racing would have been profound – a whitewash as far as I’m concerned

  6. Matt Bisogno says:

    From @jimgilch (via twitter)

    Interesting and mostly well balanced Matt. What we must avoid is (at this point) assuming that our rules are ‘superior’ to those jurisdictions which take an alternative view and permit these practices. Any worldwide review might well find that we are superior (and it would be my personal opinion that our rules should be globally embraced).
    That said where it is legal elsewhere and it is not in our powers alone to stop it, and as such we can hardly welcome Aussie sprinters to Royal Ascot while having a witch hunt against Godolphin, given that both these territories accept these practices.

    Such double standards would in my view be utterly unacceptable. As such i hope that the ‘end of the beginning’ BHA comment last night refers to British racing, not Godolphin solely.

    my take for those who didn’t catch it can be seen via twitter (my twitter handle @jimgilch )

  7. Colin B says:

    “Witch hunt against Godolphin”

    Why is it that applying the rules is nowadays called a witch hunt. Viz the Suarez thing too.

    In the case of Godolphin are we so naive as to believe that no-one else knew what was going on.

    The good Sheik himself was banned for riding a horse in an endurance race that had been drugged – do you really believe he would have ridden a horse not to have come first and all that implies.No doubt he was angry that a practice against our rules was in place, and even angrier that it was found out.But there again, that event in Dubai was perhaps his road to Damascus moment.

    As for Mrs Gosden, she would do well as a spokesperson for the British Bankers Association.
    She either has a little tongue or a big cheek.

    A good 1st step by the authorities – now they should step up their testing as it apparantly less than 3% of horses in training.

    To the practice of drugging horses ( anabolic steroids application is NOT medication but abuse) puts the honest owners and trainers at a disadvantage, the jockeys too – all of home are having not only the joy of winning a race taken away from them by the cheats but their prize money too, and of course the punters being also cheated out of their winnings.

    As always , Matt, a thoughtful and comprehensive exposition of the subject.

  8. Todd says:

    It is a witch hunt. You’re correct. An 8 year ban, come on? There have been plenty of trainers in the UK who have used “substances” to enhance performance, some of whom have been caught, but none of the “Queen’s Cavalry” have ever received an 8 year ban.

    Frankie Dettori has had a white nose for 20 years and has been caught loads of times doing an illegal substance which carries a jail sentence, but what type of ban does he get (when they can hide his problem from the public no longer), 6 months.

    If it was Ian Balding what do you think the ban would be?

    You’re right, there wouldn’t even be one. We wouldn’t even have heard about it.

    But Mahmood al Zarooni is an Arab and he didn’t go to their school.

  9. jim says:

    What has happened so far is not a witch hunt Colin, i am merely cautioning against a follow through from here on being seen to be against one party, rather than treating all cases in future on their merits. Zarooni broke the rules and has been punished, rightly.
    Unfortunately it seems I’m not able to link my blog from here, which addressed my views on some of the other points you mention.
    (As for Suarez he’s lucky imho!).

  10. Robert Grimes says:

    Hi Matty,

    A very interesting and thought provoking article, nice writing
    and sensible, but I am very much inclined to agree with Todd, he nailed it properly with his reference to the `Queens Cavalry`, and schools.

  11. Ken King says:

    Having read a really balanced article then heard Graham Cunninghams outlandish ( in my view) comments wonder how people like him get jobs with such a wide audience.

    His inferences were too much and completely without justification.

  12. John Kavanagh says:

    Hi Matt terrific post again , just a few thoughts of my own , I t,hink it was no catastrophic mistake I think also that sheik Mohamed must have known about this , no way his horses are being doped without his knowledge ,

  13. Mike Oliver says:

    Just seen Simon Crisford on Channel 4. They are obviously hanging Al Zarooni out to dry. Are we really expected to believe its all his fault?

    • jim says:

      Interesting discussion. The short point being made above sums the situation up completely. Yes Al Zarooni clearly in the wrong and probably knew what he was doing to be illegal in the UK. However even though swift justice and strong leadership may send out a message to some, surely further analysis and possible charges to others must follow. It is interesting that Zarooni fully admits the charges, didn’t appoint any legal representation and is unlikely to appeal. One can only presume that he is either completely in fear of his ex employers or has been handsomely rewarded to accept all of the blame and consequences. If he feels he needed to take such drastic and unfair action in order to succeed, the pressure of pleasing Crisford and co must be huge. To be taken seriously and to promote the sport as ‘clean’ the BHA has to get to the bottom of this and investigate all of Godolphin, from top to bottom. I suspect however that due to the speed of the action taken and the willingness of Zarooni in complying that those in charge of the investigation will continue to slap themselves on the back whilst we await the next soft target to be taken to task.

  14. Todd says:

    There is no way on earth that it’s Al Zarooni’s fault. He’s the front guy for one arm of the Godolphin operation. He’s been banned but the operation won’t change one bit. He’s simply lost his training license and he’ll be back working there tomorrow. Someone else’s name will be on the front line but it’s still the same team.

    There have been bigger and better scammers than him over the years, in the UK too, and most still hold training licenses. Who can forget Jamie Osbourne telling the world on BBC that he’d do “whatever it takes” to plot a gamble. Or Jack Ramsden, Barney Curley, or Henderson, or Charlie Brooks, who is now more famous for pulling John Francome’s missus and being the husband of Rebekah Brooks.

    Jack Ramsden was banned, but he had money and his daughter went to the right school. Barney Curley was ostracized. Henderson? Friend of the Queen, the people’s hero. Brooks, who cares, but he’s currently “a British socialite” according to his online profile.

    As someone else said, the rules need to be applied consistently throughout. That hasn’t happened here and it’s never been the case in history either.

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      My own view is that there is probably too much ‘absolutely’ and ‘definitely’ in some of these comments, on the basis that none of us have direct access to even the evidence, let alone the day-to-day realities of these yards.

      More importantly, perhaps, I think the historical cases may be somewhat irrelevant now that a new broom (and a non-establishment Australian at that) is sweeping through British racing.

      Just my opinion, of course… and it’s been a good debate. 🙂

      Matt

  15. Peter says:

    Interesting views, Matt.
    I am presuming the aim of these steroids is to beef up the muscles of the horses. I expect the muscles still to be enhanced even after the steroids leave the system and are then not traceable. The horses from the Dubai yards are sent back to Dubai in the winter for some “winter sun”. Steroids are legal in Dubai. They are also legal in Australia which might explain why the Aussies always seem to clean up in the sprint races at Royal Ascot. I remember a year or two back that Mark Johnson was of a similar opinion and he is a vet. Does anyone know what they do in France? I expect they are as stringent as the UK.

  16. ColinB says:

    @jimgilch – my apologies, I misunderstood your point

    Todd – if a witch hunt is pursuing those who have broken the rules, then I accept your namew for it and long may it continue until the “dirty” operators are kicked out, and that the authorities “new broom” equalizes the penalties whoever the perpetrator, but how on earth can you say the Sheik is not part of the establishment, he is as cosy to Royalty as most ! Look at breeding swaps.

    But what on earth has Dettori got to do with it.

    He chose to abuse himself, and presumably for recreational purposes.Whether he should be banned for it I have no opinion. I am more worried that he may do harm to others and that is a matter of law.

    The poor horses have no choice as to what is being pumped in to them regardless of the long term harm being done to them so it is right it should be stopped. It should even be taken further with painkillers banned too The object of those is to ease the suffering of toothache but toprevent horses feeling pain so to keep running whatever their condition/injury.

    Pain is natures warning, and as a possibly extreme example, if you twist your ankle you stop putting stress on it. not only to prevent yourself suffering but to avoid further damage.
    But if you had a painkiller prior to the activity in the area where you know you may suffer, you could well do yourself permanent harm
    We have no right whatsover to inflict that on another being for our personal gain

  17. ColinB says:

    As a postscript, after further reading of the dreadful practices elsewhere in the World, it must put in doubt the claims of Black Caviar that have been extravagently made, and those other Australian horses sent over here to plunded some major prizes.
    It is clearly not a level playing field, and that at the time of racing there is no evidence of drugs in the horses system, does not mean the horse has not been “pre bulked”
    If we believe it is unfair for human athletes to to benefit(and eventually suffer) from such doping, done purely for greed, be it financial or to boost the ego, it is surely wrong to not apply the same rules to the horse racing industry.

  18. Albert Pearce. says:

    Matt,Top Article, but can you whisper to me who is the CHEMIST,I am in Australia so lost touch a bit with some of the trainers.CHEERS Albert

  19. David Iles says:

    I abhor the pumping of drugs into animals for financial gain. They have no choice in the matter. I love horses and horse racing. As far as I am concerned ignorance of the rules as claimed by Al Zarooni is no excuse. I hate the thought that some of the horses I have bet on may have been on steroids. Thanks for this article Matt.

  20. Jim Cannon says:

    Thought provoking piece as usual from Matt the wordsmith.

    There are several questions which pop up and which seem relevant to me. The clear approach is to blame it all on Al Zarooni – and there is no doubt that he has a lot to answer for.

    However, it seems impossible to believe that somebody who had been told 12 months ago to improve his drug record keeping and to keep clean after previous findings against him would be so slack as to carry on as though nothing would happen. In addition, where were the internal reviews from Godolphin to check that he had actually improved his record keeping? or didn’t they ever bother to check?

    I am not a vet but I didn’t think you could just nip down to Boots and collect some anabolic steroids – of different varieties as well it appears.

    So where did they come from? Did Mahmood al Zarooni know all about these from his tiem in Dubai? or was somebody else involved – answer, must have been unless he went to Boots himself….

    In all of this there is a hidden thought that lots of medication is used on horses. The case of Nicky Henderson revealed that it was a common practice to apply some medication. In many cases, medication is needed to help an animal overcome infection, injury etc. I am sure that most observers of the sport are keen to ensure that horses do not suffer pain and equally do not want abusive action taken against them. The welfare of the animals must continue to be high priority.

    SO what happens next?

    I am sure there is a lot more to come from this and it will be interesting to look again in 6 months time when the horses all come back into action, what has developed. Who knows, maybe some of them will be sent to Dubai for ‘conditioning’ while they are not allowed to race (JOKE!!!)

    Thanks again for a good piece Matt

  21. ben speed says:

    I would like to point out an error in your excellent article. Trainers are not allowed to use steroids on horses whether in or out of training.

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