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.
Latest in Sport
Mario Balotelli to Liverpool: Best memes as Twitter reacts to imminent £16m transfer
Manchester United transfer news: Louis van Gaal joins Arsenal and Chelsea in the race for Sami Khedira
Mario Balotelli takes 50 per cent pay cut to join Liverpool as Samuel as Eto’o waits in the wings if deal falls through
Crystal Palace next manager latest: Palace consider Ally McCoist - EXCLUSIVE
Click here for the full story." title="When a youngster asked for an autograph outside Manchester City's training ground, Balotelli demanded to know why the boy was playing truant. After the child revealed he was being bullied, Balotelli drove the boy and his mother to the school in question so he could tackle the bully himself. He demanded to see the headmaster to make him aware of the issue and then mediated between the two boys to resolve the problem. A source said: 'Mario feels strongly about bullying.' Click here for the full story." width="88" height="52" />Mario Balotelli: The funniest stories
- 1 'Alien thigh bone' on Mars: Excitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
- 2 West poised to join forces with President Assad in face of Islamic State
- 3 Mother fed her daughter tapeworms to make her skinny for pageant
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Disgusting, frustrating, but intriguing: how the country really feels about its politicians
Bin bag full of cats' heads discovered near Manchester's Curry Mile
£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...
£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...
£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...
£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...