Into the world of whippet racing comes a drugs scandal, courtesy of chocolate drops

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The Independent Online

The nation's whippet racers - folk of few words, and plain ones at that - have never known a scandal quite like it.

The nation's whippet racers - folk of few words, and plain ones at that - have never known a scandal quite like it.

Their terse trackside conversations, traditionally confined to the subject of which of their hounds is best equipped to win a quick sprint across a 250-yard stretch of wasteland, are suddenly laced with feverish whispers of drugs, life bans and title-stripping. Like Ben Johnson and Tour de France cyclists before them, they and their unsuspecting whippets find themselves in the grip of a doping scandal.

This is not a matter of testosterone being pumped into the dogs' nimble frames, it should be stressed. The cause of all the consternation is far more bizarre than that. Evidence suggests that the humble chocolate drop - for years a familiar treat in the lives of racing whippets, which spend 99 per cent of their time as nothing more than the family pet - is the criminal agent at issue.

The controversy began when the British Whippet Racing Association, the sport's governing body, decided to introduce random drug testing for its competitions. A series of positive results revealed traces of caffeine and theobromine, derivatives of the cocoa bean.

Although chocolate drops seem to be the obvious cause, a number of respected trainers subsequently incurred the wrath of the association - and several were banned.

After a 36-year career in whippet racing, Jan Ambrosini, from Durham, was at the top of her sport when she was handed a one-year ban by the association.

Her whippet Don Ambro had just won the national championships, beating five hounds across 150 yards on a Derbyshire field. The race was as tight as they come for whippets - the initial chase was a dead heat, and Don Ambro clinched the re-run.

Within an hour, Mrs Ambrosini was being told that her dog was to be tested. But by that time, she claims, she had fed him "chocolate buttons, his main meal, coffee and his KitKat, because we were so pleased with him". She thought nothing of the dope test until she received the results, four months later.

"The dog did nothing wrong," she said. "He won on his own merit and I know that, regardless of what they say.

"He did have chocolate, but they didn't tell me he was going to be picked out to be tested until an hour after the race."

Her one-year ban wasn't the end of the affair. Letters criticising her appeared in the whippet racers' bible, Whippet News. "I was classed as scum by the letters, and I gave up racing immediately," she said. "I could never go back now. It took all the pleasure out of it for me. I didn't even know what these drugs were."

Now the Greyhound Veterinary Association has stepped into the debate, insisting that the chocolate would not enhance whippets' performance.

Another former racer, Liz Tinsley, has called for an inquiry into the testing, which she believes is being botched. She said: "People race for prestige, not for money. Many of those who have failed tests are innocent."

Mark Pettitt, a whippet trainer from Nottinghamshire, is now leading the campaign to force the racing association to back down, although doing so has brought him a lifetime ban from the organisation.

Mr Pettitt, whose dog Xspell was one of the best the sport has seen - and was among those to test positive - said the governing body would not listen to reason. "Innocent people with pets who are just in this for the fun are being branded drug cheats," he said. "I will not stand by and see people bullied. I will see justice done one way or another. People's lives are being ruined."

There has been talk of a court case, perhaps even a libel action, if the allegations are not retracted. But the association is unrepentant, saying it does not need to defend its policy. "Testing is a deterrent and every owner is responsible for what their dog eats. The testing is 100 per cent sound," a spokesman said.

Whippet News was unavailable to comment on the issue yesterday, although another source in the whippet world said the sport was not as cosy as its flat-cap image suggests. Trainers had been known to use the muscle enhancer creatine, which boosts performance.

Mrs Ambrosini's only remaining whippet, Zennie, is meanwhile resigned to a life by the fireside, devoted to an owner who has been left embittered by her experiences and refuses to race him. Happily, he is unaware that the chocolate drops she gives him as treats have some pretty powerful properties.

"How quickly chocolate can be absorbed into a dog's bloodstream is horrendous - it's literally minutes," Mrs Ambrosini said. "I never knew what these banned things were before all this."