Racing Commentary: Charm offers a cautionary tale: Classical performance at Naas is a false alarm, but disquiet over doping can only increase as the Festival approaches

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IT IS open season in racing for intrigue and suspicion.

At Naas in Ireland on Saturday a 2-5 favourite was beaten in dubious circumstances in a three-horse race - but was yesterday found to have nothing worse than a lung infection - while in Britain the trainer of a horse called Aahsaylad repeated his charge that the animal was recently got at, despite the absence of medical evidence. Join the queue, if you have your own allegations.

For a day the Irish case was genuinely worrying. Classical Charm was expected to merely jog round in his Cheltenham Festival trial, the Nas Na Ri Chase, but was beaten 20 lengths by the second favourite (nudge nudge, wink wink), and was found to be distressed after the race. Samples were taken for analysis by the Turf Club vet.

'He never took hold of his bit and was struggling after the first fence,' Classical Charm's rider, Ken Morgan, said, before adding with a flourish: 'You would think someone has got at him.' But if this has been exposed as an over hasty verdict brought on by the Flash Of Straw and Her Honour cases in Britain, remember that there were major outbreaks of doping in Ireland at Kilbeggan in May, 1991, and at Down Royal and Downpatrick three years earlier.

There were no prosecutions then and there have been none in this country over Flash Of Straw or, more disturbingly, Bravefoot, Norwich and Flying Diva, the three horses tranquillised in 1990. However these race-fixers are breaching race track or stable security (probably the former), they are doing so without leaving a trail strong enough to secure convictions. On Saturday a spokesman for Surrey police was quoted as saying: 'As far as we can see, the dopers of Flash Of Straw have got away with it.'

That an officer should make such an admission when an investigation is still in progress is a perfect illustration of how successful the crooks have been. At first the statement sounds shocking - even unacceptable - but then you realise that the police are simply facing the truth about an inquiry that has been continuing, fruitlessly, for seven months.

It is clear which side is winning, and meanwhile the concerns of trainers multiply alongside the charges of incompetence directed at the Jockey Club. Why did they lean on Martin Pipe, the trainer, to keep secret the nobbling of Her Honour? Why will they not name the substance involved? Why, when the police asked only for a brief news blackout, did the Club conceal from trainers the truth about Flash Of Straw for seven months, thus denying them the chance to step up security?

Perhaps we were wrong, when the new British Horseracing Board was conceived, to agree that the integrity services should remain under Jockey Club jurisdiction. One trainer who has a history of clashes with Portman Square recently confided: 'They may not have the best business brains in the world, but these men are incorruptible. You could offer them a million pounds and they wouldn't even look up.' But incorruptibility is not enough. Not when horses are being doped, runners and riders imperilled, and punters cheated.

There are two other cases currently arousing anxiety. One is Aahsaylad, and the second is another Martin Pipe horse, Boogie Bopper, who was definitely 'stopped' according to the trainer's assistant, Chester Barnes. Barnes, incidentally, says he has not even been interviewed by the Jockey Club or the police over the Her Honour affair, even though he saddled the filly that day in the absence of Pipe.

Boogie Bopper started a 4-6 favourite at Leicester on 18 February, but performed abominably and finished last. His formbook entry reads: 'prominent till weakened quickly (at the) sixth (flight of hurdles), tailed off'. Barnes was not alone in noticing that the winner was the second favourite (Ste-Jen, at 2-1), and that all the other runners had gone off at 16-1 or higher. This was a race in which, if you eliminated the Pipe horse, the winner would be relatively easy to find.

Aahsaylad is different in that tests organised both by the Jockey Club and the trainer, John White, have shown up negative. But White insisted yesterday: 'I'm convinced my horse was doped at Chepstow. I came to this conclusion before I heard other horses had been doped.'

White, who believes some sophisticated substance, difficult to detect, may have been administered, also said: 'After the race Aahsaylad's heart was out of rhythm. I've been with horses for 25 years, and that horse had definitely been tranquillised.'

Cheltenham is approaching, and the mood is dark as stable staff prepare for many lonely vigils to protect the country's finest jumping horses. Almost as difficult as catching the culprits will be stifling our inclination to cry foul whenever a horse runs badly, as they so often do for entirely innocent reasons.

The facts, like the ones in the Classical Charm case, can be our only guide.

TODAY'S cards at Leicester and Plumpton were threatened by frost last night. Officials will inspect the tracks at 7.30 this morning. Tomorrow's meeting at Nottingham could be in doubt. Charlie Moore, the clerk of the course, said: 'The course is raceable at the moment but the forecast is not very encouraging.'

(Photograph omitted)