Racing: Net spreads wider in hunt for latest dopers

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Racing's latest doping scandal appears to be the most intriguing yet. Not only is there no sign of the perpetrators who doped Ashgar for a minor contest at Plumpton on Easter Saturday, but there is apparently no motive either. No betting coup has been uncovered. It looks like one for Columbo.

The facts are simple. Ashgar, a six-year-old gelding trained by Philip Hobbs, was sent off at odds-on for a novices' hurdle at the Sussex track. He tried to duck out with his jockey, Paul Flynn, as he approached the stables on the first circuit, made a mistake at the third last and eventually finished third. He was later found to be under the influence of acetylpromazine (ACP), the stopping drug which had been the agent in the long-running race-fixing and doping investigations which foundered ignominiously at Southwark Crown Court in October 2000.

However, then there was clear evidence of financial gain. That factor is absent from the current case. "Even before we got back the results of the positive findings from the lab, alarm bells were ringing at our end with regards to the races involving Avanti Express and Lively Knight [cases from 1997] and there was intelligence received that something wasn't quite right with those races," John Maxse, the Jockey Club spokesman, said yesterday.

"We're trying to get some lead because, at the moment, no evidence has emerged in the investigation to suggest why this horse would have ended up with ACP in its bloodstream. That's the puzzling matter.

"Contact has been made with leading bookmaking firms, as well as a close look at the on-course betting and the betting-exchange sites and nothing out of the ordinary has been returned for the race in question."

Jockey Club security staff visited Plumpton on Monday and investigated the stabling area as well as the actual box where Ashgar was housed. They are now working backwards in an attempt to establish when the shot of ACP was given.

The drug is a fast-acting tranquilliser used to calm fractious animals, and its sedative qualities mean that a minor amount administered to a horse just before a race could have a detrimental effect. It is possible, though, that Ashgar was got at before he arrived at the track.

"The net now spreads wider," Maxse added. "Those who were looking after the horse on the day and those from Philip Hobbs's yard have already been interviewed, and may well be so again, but you then look beyond to try to establish who may have been in the vicinity of the horse on the day.

"The timing of the administration of the drug is not clear yet. It can be administered in a number of different ways: in a tablet, in food or injected."

This latest doping case comes at a most sensitive time for racing, as the Jockey Club has begun a round of unannounced visits to leading stables around the country to check for drugs. This latest testing has been for EPO, a performance-enhancing chemical, and, as yet, there has been no positive proof of its use.

The doping of horses – to win or lose – is not a subject that will ever go away. The last purge into doping is a blemish that the Jockey Club is still trying to rub away. Then, a trainer, Charlie Brooks, and several leading jockeys were arrested without ever being charged and the case against five men accused of doping racehorses was thrown out of court due to insufficient evidence. Roger Buffham, then head of security at Portman Square, did not ultimately survive.

There is a new chain of command at the Jockey Club and, they will insist, a new level of efficiency. The Ashgar case will be the first proof.

Blank screens today

Hopes that a last-ditch deal to enable betting-shop customers to watch the action from all Britain's 59 tracks were dashed yesterday when the Racecourse Association unanimously rejected the latest offer from bookmakers of £3,500 per race for the rights to live pictures.

Last night's deadline passed without agreement between 49 British courses and the layers. This means that only the races at the 10 courses signed up to a separate deal with GG Media together with races shown on terrestrial television and from overseas will be shown.

Last week the RCA reduced its asking price by £1,000 per shop from £5,000, which would yield £35m per annum. The bookmakers' offer would result in a yield of less than £20m.