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.
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