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.

 

Life and Style
love + sex
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
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: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers