James Lawton: The Godolphin verdict feels far
too neat, swift and conclusive
Will the sheikh’s current incandescent anger provoke his own exit?
It was one of the swiftest displays of summary justice since the French Revolution. Godolphin trainer Mahmood al-Zarooni may not have been delivered to Madame Guillotine but his feet hardly touched the ground this week. “One day he was charged, two days later he was dead – or at least heading into the desert,” said one racing man.
How neat, how terribly conclusive it all was. The British Horseracing Authority could claim the most resolute action in the face of crisis.
Zarooni received a ban for eight years for administering anabolic steroids to 11 of the best bred horses in the land – seven years, nine months more than the champion trainer of National Hunt, Nicky Henderson, a few years ago for injecting a banned substance into a horse owned by the Queen.
The issue was simple enough on the surface, certainly, but the trouble was that the going was rather soft. It was not the kind you can fly over, at least not at the pace imposed this week.
A trainer of a Classic winner – and a favourite for this year's 1,000 Guineas – had, we were told, made a "catastrophic error", forgetting that in England, unlike back home in Dubai, you never put banned substances into your animals, in or out of the season.
So it was just a case of one man's stupidity, so crass that you had to wonder how anyone might have been persuaded to put him in charge of old Dobbin down on the farm. Still, it could all be so quickly wrapped up.
The boss, Sheikh Mohammed was raging. The culprit, the only one with any knowledge of the offences, was going quietly after revealing a total ignorance of one of the more basic rules of his trade.
Unfortunately, for the British racing industry which has been financially underpinned for so long by the family of Sheikh Mohammed a number of troubling questions cannot be dispatched quite so quickly.
One of the bigger ones, of course, is whether the sheikh's currently incandescent anger will sooner or later provoke his own disappearance.
This would be the fall of the other shoe in a convulsion which still carries the potential for the most devastating consequences.
The English turf has been colonised by Godolphin – named for the beautiful Arab which was one of the founders of thoroughbred racing – as profoundly as Manchester City football club by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan and the implications of the organisation's liquidation would run far deeper than the mere loss of hundreds of livelihoods in the racing capital of Newmarket.
It would have roughly the effect of the wholesale exodus of English football's foreign ownership. It would, as one denizen of racing put it yesterday, "be the end of unprecedented investment. English racing would be left reeling."
As it is, it must live for some time under a shadow that stretches somewhat further than the one cast by Godolphin's current deliberations. There is also the matter of credibility – and another call to that cynicism which can never be neglected too long by even the most avid followers of the game. If the travesty that occurred in Godolphin's Newmarket establishment could happen to an empire stretching across 12 countries and boasting 200 victories in Group One races, how rife might it be elsewhere, and especially in places where the advantages provided by vast financial resources were not so apparent?
Paul Bittar, chief executive of the BHA, addressed the problem just as soon as the outcast Zarooni walked away into racing oblivion. He said, "We believe that the eight-year disqualification of Mahmood al-Zarooni and the six-month racing restriction placed on the horses in question by the BHA will serve to re-assure the public, and the sport's participants, that the use of performance-enhancing substances in British racing will not to be tolerated. The sport has in place a robust and effective anti-doping and medication control programme."
This is reassurance only partially supported by the current figures that say that of 90,174 horses in training, 7,182 have been tested.
The continued patronage of the aggrieved sheikh also has to be a matter of doubt for some time. There was certainly no effort to dispel it by Godolphin's racing manager, Simon Crisford, when he said, "As far as Sheikh Mohammed's future involvement goes, obviously horse racing needs to be fun for him and what I would say today is that there is no fun attached to this. I very much hope this does not leave a dark stain that he feels puts him in a difficult position – that the enjoyment of horse racing is tarnished too much for him to enjoy."
This is all very well but we do need to ask quite what it is that so endangers the sheikh's enjoyment of a sport in which he has invested so much time and money? Is it simply the fact that the establishment he owns in Newmarket, and which he visits frequently, has been caught out in the most craven of cheating and the price of such diligence is his own defection from something he was supposed to cherish almost as much as life itself?
If this is so he may excuse a possibly pertinent question. Was it really such a passion for the running of the horses or something more in the way of aggrandizement, for himself, his family and his mighty empire of money and power?
Should the answer be the one we least want to hear, English racing must take another bitter conclusion from the bleakest of weeks. It must struggle on in the hope of some patronage that maybe runs deeper and more enduringly and, in the worst of times, with rather less equivocation.
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