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.


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