Royal Ascot speed contest hit by steroids row

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By linking a series of races in Britain, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong, the Global Sprint Challenge is designed to bring the racing world closer together. Judging from proceedings here yesterday, however, the result is rather akin to the collision of tectonic plates.

Admittedly the diversity of those assembled at the Jockey Club Rooms to promote the three British legs of the Challenge – the two Group One sprints at Royal Ascot next week, and the Darley July Cup here next month – itself testified to the unlikely way the Turf unites different walks of life. At one end of the panel sat an Australian taxi driver, Joe Janiak, plain-talking and shirt-sleeved; and at the other, the patrician Englishman, Hughie Morrison, in a cream linen jacket. Before too long, however, the complex fault lines that still divide their world made it hard to judge which trainer was the true underdog.

Five years ago Janiak bought a crippled gelding for Aus$1,400 (£680) and, training from a caravan in the bush, turned him into one of the world's fastest horses. In 2006 Takeover Target became one of three Australian winners in the last five runnings of the King's Stand Stakes; another, Choisir, followed up four days later in the Golden Jubilee Stakes, a race won in the meantime for Hong Kong by Cape Of Good Hope. All of a sudden, it seemed British sprinters needed Zimmer frames.

Last year, Morrison came to the rescue with Sakhee's Secret, the chestnut blur who won the July Cup and is favourite for the Golden Jubilee after an excellent comeback last month. But the fact that Takeover Target once tested positive for steroids emboldened Morrison to question whether the two horses meet on a level playing field.

This very topic, of course, has just ignited global alarm during the failed Triple Crown quest of Big Brown. In these august surroundings, the exchanges largely remained civil, but some will none the less have registered on the Richter Scale as far away as North Yorkshire, where Mark Johnston – trainer, veterinarian and polemicist – recently denounced Takeover Target as stained by the failed drugs test that required his exclusion from a race in Hong Kong in 2006.

Janiak hotly denied that Takeover Target had ever been given medication that might enhance performance, insisting that steroids had been prescribed by his vet to help the appetite of a horse that travels 12 months. "It was purely so he could arrive in the best condition," Janiak said. "If your horse travels all that way here and gets dehydrated, why aren't you allowed to give it a drink? Does he [Johnston] want horses coming here 60 per cent fit so he has a chance of beating them?"

Seated next to Janiak was his compatriot, Peter Moody, who has brought Magnus back for another crack at the King's Stand after finishing third last year. Moody could hold his own in the front row but is nimble of mind and tongue. "If someone like Mark Johnston wants to live 200 years ago and do things the way his father and grandfather did, that's up to him," he said, before wondering if Johnston ever allowed a vet near his yard. Told, amid laughter, that Johnston is a vet, he retorted: "Maybe not a very prominent one." Moody described Australia's drug regulations as "the strictest in the world" and said he had been "quite amazed" by the slackness of the testing regime when he came here.

Johnston believes that steroids, in building up muscle tissue, make a palpable contribution to performance, and Morrison is of like mind. "There are occasions when steroids can help a horse recover from injuries," he said. "But if people are being locked up all over the world for using steroids, they must be having an effect on horses as well. It's of concern throughout the industry. I'm led to believe – though I can't prove it – that they are used in the preparation of yearlings [for sales], which can't be right. It will become a welfare issue."

Moody restored a note of levity when asked if Magnus – who retires to stud on his return home – had been administered such drugs. "No," he replied. "He's got his steroids between his hind legs. And that's going to earn him a lot of dollars in three months' time."

The overseas party next week also embraces Seachange, the champion mare of New Zealand, and raiders from South Africa. And there also remains a strong Australian interest in Haradasun, whose owners sold a half-share to Coolmore Stud prior to his export to Ballydoyle. Following a promising northern hemisphere debut in the Lockinge Stakes, Haradasun is now 5-1 favourite with Ladbrokes for the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday.

He supplants Creachadoir, the Lockinge winner, who is out for the season after sustaining a fracture – so ripping the heart out of Godolphin's Ascot team.