Racing: Crackdown the latest chapter in drugs saga

Rumours of EPO being used on racehorses force the Jockey Club into action
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The Independent Online

Doping in racing takes two forms: drugging a horse to help it win, and drugging a horse to make it lose. Most allegations in recent times have been about horses being "stopped". Bookmakers, according to the rumour mills, knew a certain horse could not win, so offered the best odds and took huge bets unafraid of losses.

But yesterday's raids on five stables confirmed a sharp switch of emphasis by Jockey Club officials investigating the use of drugs in the industry. EPO, and other drugs which boost performance, are the new enemy.

Rumours run around a racecourse like rats down a drain, and the darkest rumours are about horses being "got at". When money is lost, blame is on the wing, and it is doubtful if more than one in a 100 doping rumours are based on fact.

Racing's annals are full of skulduggery. In the 1834 St Leger, Derby winner Plenipotentiary was a 12-10 favourite but finished 10th of 11 runners. The widespread belief was the horse had been poisoned. In 1903, the Jockey Club adopted a new rule stating that any person administering drugs to horses "shall be warned off Newmarket Heath and other places where these rules are enforced".

But the most wide-ranging attempt to crack down on doping started 94 years later when police, advised by the Jockey Club, began dawn raids. In one swoop, in January 1999, Charlie Brooks, a former trainer, and Ray Cochrane and Graham Bradley, then leading jockeys, were arrested. In the same inquiry, two jump jockeys, Jamie Osborne and Leighton Aspell, were taken in for questioning.

But no charges were ever brought against Brooks or the jockeys, who all vigorously protested their innocence. Later, in the same inquiry, police charged five gamblers, accusing them of conspiring to defraud through horse doping: a charge that each denied.

The four-year investigation finally collapsed in October 2000, having cost £3m, with a judge at Southwark Crown Court ruling that there was no case to answer. It left the Jockey Club looking like bungling incompetents.

Fears that EPO is now used in racing gained their biggest impetus last December when a Lambourn trainer, Charlie Mann, claimed that horses were running on EPO "every day of the week".

"I'm fed up because nobody is doing anything about it," Mann said. "What's the point of me running nice horses against horses on EPO? I might as well pack up training until it is sorted out." The trainer added that he had no proof. However, the resulting media focus obliged the Jockey Club to act.

The substance EPO (erythropoetin) was introduced in the mid-Eighties to treat kidney disease, and first surfaced in a sporting context in the early 1990s, when some distance runners were suspected of using it. Cyclists soon followed suit, as well as other endurance athletes.

It is a naturally occurring hormone which can be synthesised, increasing the level of red blood cells, allowing more oxygen to be transported round the body and in some cases improving performance by as much as 15 per cent.

But many veterinary experts are unconvinced as to the effect EPO would have on a horse's performance. Horses have a significant reserve of red blood cells in their spleen, which can be released into their system at times of greatest need. In other words, nature may already have equipped them with the advantage which someone applying EPO to a horse would seek to achieve.

Istabraq pleases Swan

Triple champion Hurdler Istabraq looked fit and well when completing the main part of his Cheltenham preparation at Leopardstown racecourse yesterday.

Brought to the Dublin course for "a day away" by trainer Aidan O'Brien, the 10-year-old jumped two hurdles and worked over 10 furlongs. The Leopardstown course rode very heavy according to Istabraq's regular partner, Charlie Swan, after almost two inches of rain in the last five days.

"We went as fast as you could work in that ground. The head wind was very bad towards the end of the gallop," said Swan. Istabraq was reunited with Swan for the first time since their victory at the Dublin track after Christmas and the jockey was particularly pleased the way the horse jumped two practice hurdles in the early stages of the work-out.

* Today's jump meetings at Chepstow and Wetherby were both abandoned yesterday because of waterlogging.

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