Racing: Dawn drugs tests on 350 horses baffles top trainers

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The Somerset yard of Martin Pipe, the champion National Hunt trainer, was the most prominent of five stables to be visited by Jockey Club officials conducting unannounced drug tests yesterday.

Just two weeks before the pinnacle of the winter season, the Cheltenham Festival, a total of 20 agents from Portman Square called unexpectedly on Pipe, Paul Nicholls, Venetia Williams, Len Lungo and Alan Jones. A total of 350 blood samples were taken for analysis and the results will be known in 48 hours after examination at the Horseracing Forensic Laboratory at Newmarket.

The five trainers were chosen either at random or on the basis of intelligence received, though John Maxse, the Jockey Club spokesman, would not identify which category Pipe, or any of the other trainers, fell into.

Certainly Pipe, the nine-times champion trainer, did not appear a rattled man as he sat on his vast sofa at Pond House in front of a bank of television screens yesterday. "Look at these," he said, waving a sheaf of papers in the air. "Receipts for blood tests for 150 horses. They came at 6.45am and took samples from every horse here. They were here all morning disrupting things. We were trying to gallop horses and the fact they were here didn't exactly help.

"This looks bad for racing and I wonder what other yards are going to be raided? What are they looking for?"

An immediate suspicion was that the Jockey Club was searching for traces of erythropoietin (EPO), a drug which raises the red blood cell count and helps performance in endurance events. Charlie Mann, the Lambourn trainer, recently voiced the concern that the use of EPO was becoming increasingly widespread in racing.

"I have absolutely nothing to hide," Pipe added. "I have never used EPO on my horses and I never intend to. I'm not even sure how it works.

"The way I understand it, it can't be done with horses anyway. The horse is a flight animal and its physiology is already equipped to flood the system with an increase in red blood cells, which are stored in the spleen in readiness for when it's frightened and has to run away.

"Their timing could have been better. Why didn't they investigate this before it first blew up? We are now two weeks before the showcase event of the sport and it's not going to show the sport up in any good light. The timing is a bit of a mystery."

The least well-known – by some margin – among those visited yesterday was Jones. "I feel a little bit victimised," he said. "Why me? The other trainers investigated are among the top in the country and I've got only four horses. I've got nothing to hide. I think I'm under suspicion because when I was at Norman Mason's [as assistant trainer] we had a lot of big-price winners and horses winning by wide margins. And I have had a couple of horses finish second after being backed from 66-1 so I think they chose me because of their improved performances.

"I understand why they are making investigations, but I have got nothing to hide. At the end of the day I don't train horses on drugs."

The Jockey Club's belief is that yesterday's movements will further underscore the official determination to deal with doping and also back up the view that drug abuse within racing is "minimal".

"The message that needs to be shouted out and that is in danger of not being heard is that our veterinary director, Peter Webbon, expects these tests will back up our belief that drug abuse in British racing is minimal," Maxse said. "People will try to portray these as 'dawn raids', but the five trainers were all extremely co-operative and our belief is that this will show we are in a very strong position.

"I hope that this is a marker set down to show our determination to deal with the issue. It will be controversial, but I cannot see a downside.

"On the one hand if all the tests are negative it will show drug abuse is minimal. On the other hand if there is a positive it is better to find out before a meeting like the Festival and we can bring people to justice."

The Jockey Club has had the power to test horses in training since 1998, though yesterday represented the first time its teams have arrived at stables unannounced.

The policing arm of racing in still coming to terms with a recent failed inquiry, when a long-running investigation into doping and race-fixing came to nothing. That embarrassment came under the reign of security head Roger Buffham, who was removed from office and replaced recently by Jeremy Phipps.