Racing: 'I believe there are trainers who are giving their horses drugs to get an edge' - Brooks

DOPING CLAIM: A former leading jumps handler alleges that illegal substances are being administered to horses to enhance their performance
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BETTING SHOP cynics who insist that trainers cannot be trusted received support from a man who should know yesterday, when Charlie Brooks, until recently a trainer himself, claimed that some of his former colleagues are using performance-enhancing drugs on their horses.

BETTING SHOP cynics who insist that trainers cannot be trusted received support from a man who should know yesterday, when Charlie Brooks, until recently a trainer himself, claimed that some of his former colleagues are using performance-enhancing drugs on their horses.

Brooks made the claim in his autobiography, Crossing The Line, which was published yesterday. In particular, he expresses concern about the possible use of erythropoietin (EPO), the blood doping agent which is thought to be widely used by professional cyclists, and equine somatrophin (EST), a growth hormone. Since both occur naturally in the body, neither substance can be detected by standard post-race urine tests.

''I believe,'' Brooks writes, ''that there are trainers in Britain who are giving their horses drugs to get an edge, and it is easy to understand why.''Generating controversy is, of course, a useful weapon in a book-plugger's armoury. Brooks, though, said yesterday that his suggestion was simply intended to be ''thought-provoking''.

''It's rife in swimming, cycling and athletics, nobody argues with that,'' he said. ''There's considerably more money in racing than there is in any of these sports. Do you really believe that it's just not an issue in racing? I find that very hard to accept because that would be totally contrary to human nature.''

Although EPO and EST are the only performance- enhancers he refers to by name, Brooks also said yesterday that ''there are a lot of other things around, probably new things every year, and the users are always ahead of the testers in life.'' He suggests that post-race samples of blood, rather than urine, should be taken from British Group-race winners, and frozen for 10 years. ''That would give the testers a chance to catch up,'' he said. ''If you happen to be a user and you know that a sample will be kept for 10 years, that might put the wind up you.''

The logic of Brooks's argument is straightforward. It happens in other sports, there is an even greater financial incentive for it to happen in ours, and therefore, it almost certainly does. As others were quick to point out yesterday, though, the situation is not necessarily that simple.

For one thing, there is no evidence that horses would respond to substances like EPO and EST in the same way that humans do. ''Look at creatine, for example,'' Dr David Martin, senior scientist at the Animal Health Trust, said yesterday. ''It was absolutely wonderful in human athletes, but when people came to try it in horses, they found it wasn't absorbed from the gut.''

And in one sense, horses are already doping their blood themselves. ''Horses have a large reservoir of blood in their spleen,'' Dr Martin said. ''When they exercise for a minute or more, they can squeeze out more red blood cells, which can carry more oxygen to the muscles and allows them to work for longer. A human athlete like Lasse Viren, who used to take his blood out and then put it back a day before the race, was blood-doping himself, but a horse does that naturally. I can't see that EPO would make much difference.''

Indeed, there is some evidence that increasing a horse's red blood cell count using EPO might actually hinder it's performance. ''When the spleen contracts and squeezes these cells out, it makes the blood thicker,'' Dr Martin said. ''This puts more strain on the heart and lungs, and you may end up with problems of heart function. If EPO is being used by trainers, it is unlikely that the horses run any better, and they may actually run worse.''

As for EST, ''we're dealing with what is already an elite athlete, and in some ways it can be hard to improve on what we already have. Growth hormone is actually released by exercise, it helps with the repair of tissue, but I'm not clear what the benefit might be.''

There are other practical problems with Brooks's suggestions too. A trainer who was not also a qualified vet would almost certainly need the collaboration of a vet, not to mention a blood-testing lab which did not ask too many questions. And, as the Jockey Club pointed out yesterday, any sudden improvement in a horse's form will always attract attention. ''Those horses would be subject to more post-race testing, even if they don't win,'' John Maxse, the club's spokesman, said. ''We are also experimenting with more pre- race blood tests, though not specifically for EPO, and also have the ability, with our in-training testing, to turn up unannounced at any yard to take urine or blood tests.

''You would also hope that a trainer considering taking short-cuts would realise that he's not just facing a fine or a short jail sentence. It would be the end of his racing career. His licence would be taken away and he would be very unlikely to get a job in racing ever again, anywhere in the world. It's a huge risk to take for what at this stage look like unquantifiable rewards.''It is also very difficult to keep a secret in racing's tight-knit world. Unlike cycling, or swimming, there is no deep-seated allegiance to a team or a country, and most stable staff would feel that their first duty is to their horses as much as to their employer.

The temptation for a trainer to resort to a chemical short-cut to success has been around for at least a century (cocaine was the drug of choice back in the 1890s). In a heavily-populated racing stable, though, it would be a perilous course to take. Charlie Brooks is right to point to the threat posed by drugs, but it still seems unlikely that, for racing at least, the problem is any more tangible than that.