Wednesday 15 May 2013

Is a New Dawn Approaching after Doping Crisis?

Shenanigans still continue after the al-Zarooni “catastrophic error”. He is now appealing against the duration of his sentence; Saeed bin Suroor is taking over Moulton Paddocks as well as carrying on with the horses at Stanley House Stables; all the Godolphin horses are now being tested by the BHA before re-licensing the yards; and the Gerard Butler claim that a hundred horses in Newmarket have received banned steroid treatments is being investigated ..... but at least Sheikh Mohammed had the joy of winning the 2000 Guineas with Dawn Approach – mercifully trained by Jim Bolger in Ireland, otherwise he wouldn’t have run.

Anyone of a generous and slightly naive disposition will cling to the “isolated incident” interpretation of the al-Zarooni doping crisis and applaud the BHA for rapid resolution of the whole affair. Indeed, at one level it appears to be a wholehearted endorsement of the dope-testing programme and a clear reiteration of the zero tolerance policy that performance-enhancing drugs will not be allowed in British racing. But the racing brand has doubtless been damaged, and broader changes are called for:

1.  Re-emphasising the policy on doping: zero tolerance is vital to the integrity of British racing. No-one should gain an unfair advantage by administering illegal medication. Any deliberate flouting of the formal governance, rules and procedures of racing should be punished severely. Anything less than that erodes the very basis of racing and undermines the sport, the breeding industry and all our revenue streams. We believe that the BHA should produce an authoritative statement that provides explicit guidelines on acceptable and unacceptable practice for anyone involved with racehorses, and not just those based in “licensed premises”.

2.  Strengthen the sampling regimes: race-day testing (approximately 90,000 runners per annum in the UK, 7,000 samples, with c. 20 positives) is probably sufficiently rigorous, but there needs to be an increase in the random testing of horses in training. This should also be extended into the breeding industry and the non-licensed stables where many horses spend out-of-training time. At the moment these horses can be pumped full of dope and there are no restrictions at all on the use of steroids. A phrase often used at sales and breeze-ups is “this horse will never look as well again as the day he went through the ring”. How widespread is the use of steroids in the breeding industry, and how would we know?

3.  Vetting the vets: the training of vets is broader than that of the medical community, and subject to fewer controls. What inspections are there of veterinary procedures? How many trainers actually know what is in the compounds given to racehorses? Some vets and trainers will always push the boundaries on medication. With such a range of therapies now available, there are grey areas between appropriate medicinal treatment and illegal performance enhancement. One can only agree with Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, Head of Racing in Hong Kong and Vice-Chairman of the International Federation of Horse-Racing Authorities: “Races should always be won by the best horses, not by horses with the best vets.”

4.  Open access to a horse passport / treatment log: it is impossible for a prospective owner, trying to buy a horse, to access a record of the treatments that the animal has received since foaling. Why not introduce a log of all such treatments, similar to the service record of a car? Just consider the effect that such a log would have on the whole breeding, selling and training industry.

5.  Global harmonisation: the scandal of al-Zarooni’s behaviour is that in several racing jurisdictions around the world, he would not have been in breach of the rules. The inconsistencies that exist between Britain on the one hand, and Dubai, the USA, South Africa and Australia on the other, in the definitions of acceptable medication are completely intolerable. If there is any good to come out of the current crisis, it will be an alliance between the BHA and Sheikh Mohammed / Dubai to drive a worldwide harmonisation timetable that puts to an end the unacceptable tolerance of medication that is detrimental to the breed. That really would be a new dawn approaching.

But before we conclude this blog, it is hard not to reflect on Gladiatorus, who turned in a sensational performance to win for Sheikh Mohammed in Dubai in 2009. That horse was trained by Mubarak bin Shafya, for whom Al-Zarooni worked at that time. Subsequently, Shafya was banned for using the steroid stanozolol in endurance horse racing. Al-Zarooni before being caught red-handed by the BHA had also failed tests for the administration of painkillers last year. Are these really isolated and exceptional incidents? Reluctantly, I have concluded that doping worldwide is more common than has previously been acknowledged. I wonder if the Camelot team have had similar thoughts about Encke winning the St. Leger? Doping must be stamped out in line with much tougher, globally harmonised procedures and with zero tolerance of any breaches. I fear that we are many years away from this international consensus.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Mahmood al-Zarooni: Summary Execution in High Holborn

In my more erudite days, before reading Timeform annuals took over, I used to enjoy the Penguin Modern Classics. A novel that had a big impact on me as a student was Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, about a Bolshevik prisoner, Rubashov, as he awaits death in a GPU prison. Darkness and the whiff of cordite definitely descended over the British Horseracing Authority’s offices in High Holborn throughout the last ten days. With almost indecent haste, the BHA investigation panel summarily terminated Mahmood al-Zarooni’s training career, at least for the next eight years, following the sensational disclosures that eleven out of 45 Godolphin horses tested positive for steroids on 9th April. If there were volunteers to man the firing squad, I’m sure that Sheikh Mohammed, Paul Bittar (CEO of the BHA), Rod Street (CEO of Racing Enterprises Limited and leader of Great British Racing), Chris McFadden (Chairman of REL) and Simon Bazalgette (Group CEO of the Jockey Club) would definitely have taken a big stride forward. Indeed, the dazed look on Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford’s face during TV interviews tempted one to think he was already loading the bullets into the Smith & Wesson. Whether that was to use on al-Zarooni or himself is only conjecture. As the wrath of Sheikh Moh is felt across racing, there are bound to be others in the firing line.

First reports indicated a clear, open-and-shut breach of the rules, with al-Zarooni admitting that he had made a “catastrophic error” by administering steroids. Traces of ethylstranol (a steroid often used by body-builders) and stanozolol (which cost Ben Johnson his Olympic gold medal) were found in the horses (including Certify, one of the favourites for the 1000 Guineas), and they have now been ruled out of competition until 9th October. Both steroids are prohibited substances under British rules of racing and cannot be used at any time on licensed premises for horses in full-time training or out of competition. Within the space of a week, al-Zarooni was investigated, sentenced and banished, with the BHA deciding that it was very much in the best interests of racing to sort out the matter as quickly as possible. Full marks to them on that, even though there are inevitably many questions still to be answered.

Alas though, only a couple of days later another bombshell dropped when it was announced that Gerard Butler had been medicating the injured joints of some of his horses with Sungate, which also contains stanozolol. That was discovered on a BHA sampling visit to his yard on 20th February. Butler himself spoke to the press about this, and made a highly controversial assertion, now being investigated, that over 100 horses across various yards in Newmarket had been similarly treated. The firing squad rifles could soon be overheating.

In the next blog I will examine a number of the questions and issues in more detail. But where does all this leave “brand racing”? One of the jargon words often bandied around by those of a marketing bent is the creation of “narratives”. There are probably three that can be readily identified, and which have certainly been well aired at the various parish pumps of racing over the last week.

1.   Straightest racing in the world: no-one applies a zero tolerance policy like the Brits. We have the best and cleanest racing in the world. Doping doesn’t exist. Inevitably a few accidents occur, and we punish the guilty parties with a ruthlessness that other countries ought to be applying.

2.   It’s all a muddle: how on earth can trainers be expected to know what chemical actives are in sophisticated veterinary compounds, or what the precise regulations are in different countries? If they act on the advice of their vets, then who is accountable for mistakes? It is all too confusing. We need much clearer guidelines and global harmonisation.

3.   We’re no different to cycling: scratch the surface of racing and you will find that doping is endemic. The old adage that “good trainers don’t change their methods, they just change their vets” is as true now as it has ever been. It is just that everyone has become more sophisticated in keeping ahead of the regulator.

I fear that the public view sits squarely with the third narrative. So to lighten the gloom: I heard a joke that the BHA should have known what was going on when one of al-Zarooni’s horses won the Tour de France.

Ethics and integrity have always been a strategic priority. It has rocketed back to the top of the agenda. More on this subject next time.