Al Zarooni’s career hangs in the balance

alzarooni Punters up and down the country were tearing up their ante-post slips on Certify after trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni was informed by the British Horseracing Authority that the horse would not be allowed to run in the QIPCO 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket next month. As the horse was 7/1 fourth favourite, there will be fair number heading to the rubbish bin.

Certify was one of 11 horses found to have had anabolic steroids administered when BHA officials visited his Moulton Paddocks stables on 9 April, when they tested 45 horses as part of the regular “testing in training” programme. Tests carried out at the Horseracing Forensic Laboratory found two banned substances in the samples. Desert Bloom, Certify, Fair Hill, Ghostflower, Orkney Island, Sweet Rose, and Valley Of Queens all showed up with ethylestranol, whilst Artigiano, Bathrat Amal, Opinion Poll, and Restraint Of Trade had stanozolol in their samples.

The BHA has acted immediately to ban all 11 horses from racing for the foreseeable future. Adam Brickell, Director of Integrity, Legal and Risk for the BHA, set out their position. A statement read, "A Disciplinary Panel enquiry into the analysts' findings will take place at the first available opportunity, confirmed details of which will follow when available. The horses which have produced positive tests will also not be permitted to race with immediate effect and for an extended period of time. As part of the ongoing process a decision will be made as to what period this suspension will be imposed for. The BHA understand the importance of this process being carried out as quickly as possible because of implications for betting markets.”

Al Zarooni quickly issued an apology, which appeared to come straight from the public relations chapter of “50 Slices of Humble Pie” by L Suarez. He said on the website of his employers, Godolphin, "I deeply regret what has happened. I have made a catastrophic error. Because the horses involved were not racing at the time, I did not realise that what I was doing was in breach of the rules of racing. I can only apologise for the damage this will cause to Godolphin and to racing generally."

The claim that he didn’t know he was breaking the rules of racing is a shameful admission, and it didn’t seem to cut much mustard with Godolphin. Racing Manager Simon Crisford said, “This is a dark day for Godolphin. We are all shocked by what has happened. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed was absolutely appalled when he was told and this is completely unacceptable to him. We will await the outcome of the BHA inquiry before taking any further internal action. Sheikh Mohammed has instructed me to begin an urgent review of all of our procedures and controls. That is already underway and we will take advice from the BHA in completing it.”

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Frankly, the future for Al Zarooni looks bleak, and it is highly probable that the BHA will take similar action as it has in the past when it has discovered trainers have been using banned substances. Howard Johnson, for example, was given a one-year ban in 2011. Something at least as severe is likely, and even if the BHA were not to cancel his licence, he wouldn’t appear to have much of a future with Godolphin.

Al Zarooni doesn’t dispute what has happened, but says he didn’t know he was doing anything wrong. Surely he’s read the racing papers and seen the coverage of Johnson’s case two years ago. But let’s accept what Al Zarooni says as true. Why is that a leading, experienced trainer doesn’t know the rules of racing?

I don’t understand what process an individual has to go through before they are awarded a licence, but I would expect it to cover racing’s rules in some way or other. If it doesn’t, it should do. Animal welfare is something that encompasses far more than the fences in the Grand National, and the use of drugs is an important part of it. Al Zarooni clearly knew that a horse should not race on steroids; it isn’t hard to confirm whether or not there’s an issue with using them when the animal is in training.

The BHA’s testing in training programme is relatively new, and was introduced in January 2010. That’s only a matter of weeks before Al Zarooni took up his post with Godolphin, so there’s no real scope for a claim that it was an established practice that nobody in the yard thought relevant to mention to him. And as Al Zarooni was selected for spot checks because he previously had horses that had failed drugs tests, although not with anabolic steroids, he has had ample time to check out the procedures taking place in his stables. But in truth, it is beyond belief that nobody in his yard knew that what was happening was outside the rules.

When testing in training was introduced, I’m sure there was a plentiful supply of information issued to trainers, both through the BHA and the National Trainers’ Federation. Just maybe, it’s something that should be reinforced every so often. But in the end, the buck has to stop with the trainer.

Al Zarooni has accepted full responsibility for what has happened, and that is to his credit, although he could hardly do anything else. The BHA has said it will act quickly, and that’s as it should be. If the only charges Al Zarooni faces are to do with the use of steroids he’ll breathe a huge sigh of relief, as it will allow him the opportunity to serve his punishment and resume his career. But if he is also charged with bringing racing into disrepute, as he may well be, then his career really does hang by a thread. In that case, he’ll have plenty of time to reflect on the irony that one of the horses involved is called Restraint Of Trade.

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