Godolphin facing a complicated road to redemption

Swift justice applied to disgraced trainer has still left racing with more questions than answers, writes Chris McGrath

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Not even Sprinter Sacre could hope for centre stage this week. But if Punchestown was far from the epicentre of the scandal that erupted on Monday evening, it did prove a valid place to register the seismic impact on the Turf.

With so many trainers, bloodstock agents and other racing professionals convening in one place, the sensational downfall of Mahmood al-Zarooni was the subject of constant, fevered speculation. And Sheikh Mohammed, the man who has built the most expensive racing empire in history, would not have enjoyed the tenor of many conversations.

While Zarooni has been banished from Eden – now reviled as a serpent by his former employers – it is too late to stop the tree of knowledge altering perspectives. Simon Crisford, the Godolphin manager, is right to fear that it will take “a very long time” to restore the credibility of the sheikh’s elite stables.

Even the extraordinary haste with which Godolphin and the British Horseracing Authority contrived to put out the fire allowed new questions to smoulder. The BHA announcement that Zarooni had been given an eight-year ban, for administering anabolic steroids to horses in his care, came barely 72 hours after the one that caused such astonishment on Monday evening.

That had been accompanied by a statement on the Godolphin website, quoting Zarooni as regretting “a catastrophic error” in causing 11 positive tests when BHA investigators took samples from 45 horses on 9 April. Crisford and the sheikh in turn pronounced themselves shocked, and vowed that no horse would run from the Moulton Paddocks yard at the centre of the scandal until it had been tested as “clean”. After Thursday’s hearing, the BHA expressed thanks for their proactive approach.

Even so, many felt uncomfortable with a judicial timetable that sooner evoked a kangaroo court. While the BHA had a meek admission of guilt from Zarooni, it had to be wary of dealing with him in a way that seemed conspicuously convenient for the image of both the regulators and the sport’s most powerful benefactor – each acting decisively in shared outrage. His employers were so determined to distance themselves from Zarooni that they changed their minds about providing him with legal representation. Even if he was indeed sole author of his disgrace, it could not be right that someone with a modest grasp of English should be denied the expertise required for any plea in mitigation.

The BHA promised that the detail of the disciplinary panel’s verdict, once published, will show that its investigation established Zarooni as directly accountable for the dopings. It has also undertaken to interview others involved, namely two foremen and a veterinary assistant. That is important, because long before this shocking denouement people have wondered about the supervision of hundreds of horses – trained by Zarooni and also Saeed bin Suroor – nowadays left behind in Newmarket when the two trainers disappeared to Dubai every winter.

As such, it was highly significant that the BHA chief executive yesterday indicated that Zarooni was on site in Newmarket when the steroids were injected. “The evidence we have – written evidence from Godolphin and al-Zarooni – suggests that he was a) in the country, and b) responsible for directing the administration of the drugs,” Paul Bittar said. “Some investigations are ongoing. The ‘vet’s assistant’ who has been mentioned is a nebulous term. He’s not really a vet at all, he just simply assists, but he’s not captured under the rules. The interviews with the foremen are ongoing, but because of al-Zarooni having responsibility for the horses we needed to deal with him first.”

Bittar did not rule out further charges and reiterated the reasons for accelerating the wheels of justice. “Rarely do we have a situation where the trainer puts up his hands and gives us a list of everybody else that has been involved in the giving of the medication,” he said. “Ultimately, we were able to deal with it quickly, because of the public interest issue. We certainly didn’t do this on Godolphin’s terms – but rarely do you get their level of cooperation.”

Crisford yesterday reproached himself for “a remarkable lack of judgement” in recommending Zarooni to their boss, but will stay on to manage the crisis as requested by the sheikh.

“When his horses failed the tests for painkillers last year, we sat down with [Zarooni] and told him he had to keep his records maintained in a much more efficient manner,” Crisford said. “I had lengthy conversations with him about that, but I’m afraid he’s betrayed the trust we put in him. He’s let everybody down, not only Godolphin but the British public, too. We’ll have nothing to do with him again, and I have no sympathy for him.”

Sheikh Mohammed’s anxiety to restore his reputation as an opponent of drugs in racing is measured by the fact that the BHA will itself conduct the voluntary testing of all Zarooni’s other horses. But he will be perfectly well aware of – and duly humiliated by – the kind of thing being said round the sport’s parish pump.

Zarooni told the BHA that he had never previously administered steroids, and Bittar noted that both his yard and Bin Suroor’s had produced only negative tests in previous visits. Inevitably, however, many will no longer consider Zarooni an especially credible witness.

Crisford himself refuses to believe Zarooni’s claim that he did not know that steroids were banned even in horses out of competition. The fact is, however, that Britain’s zero-tolerance approach is by no means reciprocated in every major jurisdiction. Dubai itself focuses on raceday tests, while Australian trainers are fiercely jealous of their right to prescribe steroids in training.

It has long excited comment that certain of Sheikh Mohammed’s horses have thrived conspicuously during the Dubai racing season. Gladiatorus was a sensational winner on World Cup night in 2009, but never looked the same horse again. He was trained out there by Mubarak bin Shafya, who employed Zarooni as his assistant for a year before the latter’s recruitment by Godolphin. Since then Shafya has been banned from the separate discipline of endurance racing – itself very close to Sheikh Mohammed’s heart – for his use of stanozolol, one of the steroids used by Zarooni.

Sheikh Mohammed knows that people in the industry are now going to put two and two together and come up with five, and maybe 500 for that matter. But the fact is that Zarooni has indelibly tarnished all his success over the past three years, however innocently achieved.

Conceived as the sport’s first international stable, dismantling frontiers, Godolphin has now imported precisely those suspicions that most divide the racing world. But with the BHA now seeming certain to give fresh priority to out-of-competition testing, the stable may ultimately have performed an unexpected service.