Chris McGrath: As long as horses have vets, and vets have syringes, zero tolerance has zero credibility

Mahmood al-Zarooni himself would not have been in breach of the rules in Australia, home of a series of powerfully built Royal Ascot raiders in recent seasons

Unless and until trainers are confined to feeding hay, oats and water, then it is fairly fatuous to pretend that the status of everything else entering a racehorse’s system is invariably black and white. The spectrum of available therapies will always extend into grey areas; and so, too, will the interpretations that might tempt human nature, in moments of weakness, naïveté or desperation.

That does not mean the abuse of steroids is impossible to regulate – far from it. After the trauma of the last week, however, it does make “zero tolerance” seem rather too glib a description for the British thoroughbred’s exposure to the margins of veterinary treatment.

Between them, with breathless haste, the British Horseracing Authority and his former employers last week depicted and dismissed Mahmood al-Zarooni as such a flagrant aberration that he could barely be sane. One way or another, however, a genie is now out of the bottle. People have begun to take a closer look at those grey areas.

BHA rules, for instance, apply only to licensed premises. Horses taken out of training, perhaps for a spell of rest on an owner’s stud farm, could be pumped full of steroids three times a day after meals and nobody would be any the wiser, so long as the medication had cleared the system before the BHA was able to test them.

Unsurprisingly, raceday samples on British tracks prove overwhelmingly negative. Trainers and their vets know the “cleaning” window for every treatment, and are prudent enough to allow plenty of slack. And it is only those trainers unlucky enough to come up with a raceday positive – typically to something relatively innocuous – who can receive a “dawn raid” from testers, and then only over the next 12 months.

Zarooni was one such; and so was Gerard Butler, whose very different story was broken in these pages on Monday. It turns out that even something as baldly emotive as steroids – their use ranging from remedial treatment of joint injuries, as recommended and administered by vets, to the brazen, intramuscular pumping of brawn – can retain its equivocations. And that is bound to remain the case, so long as the international Turf accommodates such diversity in veterinary norms.

Zarooni himself would not have been in breach of the rules in Australia, home of a series of powerfully built Royal Ascot raiders in recent seasons. It was only after the 2008 Triple Crown campaign of Big Brown raised such a stench, meanwhile, that the majority of American states banned steroids. That summer, a disgusted Hall of Fame veteran said that his profession had become “chemical warfare”. Even now that collective action has been taken against steroids, the vast majority of American horses still receive some kind of syringe a few hours before racing (typically for an anti-bleeding medication).

Another spectrum, then – and its meaningful demarcation ultimately depends on international solutions. As the Aga Khan has said: “It is a global problem and has to be handled globally.” Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the head of racing in Hong Kong and vice-chairman of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, believes that steroids are “a fundamental issue that will hurt the integrity and branding of the sport” and should never be permitted in training.

He says that races should always be “won by the best horses, not by horses with the best vets”. After all, there is a genetic legacy. Even as an aspiration, hay, oats and water may seem fanciful. But it is hardly less so to imagine that Britain has already achieved genuine zero tolerance.

 

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
news
Sport
Lewis Hamilton with the Santander trophy after winning last year’s British Grand Prix
F1It's the race organisers who are to blame, apparently
News
peopleFormer Disney CEO isn't going to win any fans with this quote
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test