The scale of the scandal suddenly pervading the greatest empire in Turf history was measured by the astonishing urgency that united the response of both the British Horseracing Authority and Sheikh Mohammed himself.
The latter, professing fury that some of his horses had been administered anabolic steroids, announced an immediate lockdown of the Newmarket stable hitherto supervised by Mahmood Al Zarooni. The trainer himself, meanwhile, has been summoned to appear before the BHA on Thursday – not 72 hours after it first announced that he would face charges.
Sheikh Mohammed’s sense of betrayal and humiliation was transparent in an impassioned statement on the Godolphin website. In an attempt to restore faith in his elite stable, the ruler of Dubai has closed the gates of Moulton Paddocks pending tests he has ordered on every horse in Al Zarooni’s care. “I was appalled and angered to learn that one of our stables in Newmarket has violated Godolphin’s ethical standards and the rules of British racing,” he said. “I have been involved in British horseracing for 30 years and have deep respect for its traditions and rules. I built my country based on the same solid principles. There can be no excuse for any deliberate violation. Godolphin is fully cooperating with the British Horseracing Authority to get to the bottom of this matter and take any appropriate disciplinary action.”
When news broke on Monday evening that 11 of Al Zarooni’s horses had tested positive to either ethylestranol or stanozolol – out of a random sample of 45, taken 16 days ago – the Sheikh promptly ordered a thorough review of internal protocols. Now, in his determination to disperse the stench over his stable, he has taken things a step further. “We will be locking down the Moulton Paddocks stables with immediate effect,” he said. “I want a full round of blood samples, and dope testing done on every single horse on that premises. I can assure the racing public that no horse will run from that yard this season until I have been absolutely assured by my team that the entire yard is completely clean.”
The Sheikh hopes that such a dramatic gesture will redress collateral damage to his reputation as a leader in the fight against drugs in horseracing. His representative on the board of the Breeders’ Cup, for instance, recently resigned over its tolerant approach to medication. “I have worked hard to ensure that Godolphin deserves its reputation for integrity and sportsmanship,” he stressed. “And I have reiterated to all Godolphin employees that I will not tolerate this type of behaviour.”
One way or another, it became a day when the Sheikh sought to retrieve control of the agenda. It had already seemed as though the BHA was playing its part, with a remarkable departure from its usual, dilatory practice. Widely congratulated for a scrupulous indifference to his embarrassment, the regulators at least seem intent on obliging the Sheikh by getting the whole sordid business over as quickly as possible.
Many, however, will be alarmed by such conspicuous acceleration in the wheels of justice. Certainly it seems hard to believe that the BHA can have had adequate opportunity for an investigation commensurate with the scandal.
The theory goes that it is in everyone’s best interests to quell such a toxic tide of publicity as quickly as possible. Al Zarooni volunteered so prompt and bald an admission of his “catastrophic error” that he will presumably seek little or no mitigation. On the face of it, then, uncontested charges should not detain anyone unduly. But the fact remains that BHA investigators are uniquely eligible to demand answers from Al Zarooni’s patrons to questions that may otherwise never even be asked.
As things stand, Al Zarooni is being held accountable as sole author of an idiocy so flagrant that it stretches credulity. Will the BHA establish definitively when the horses were given steroids, by whose hand, and by whose authority? Was it after Al Zarooni’s return from Dubai, where he had been supervising his runners at the International Carnival and World Cup? And who, while he was in the desert, had been training all those horses nowadays left in Newmarket all winter – who just happened to include these 11? None of these questions will be satisfactorily answered by the judicial equivalent of leaving Al Zarooni in a room with a bottle of whisky and a revolver.
In detailing the charges, the BHA disclosed that Al Zarooni had volunteered four other horses that had received steroids. But that, in turn, raises another question for the BHA. For it would seem quite a coincidence that 45 random samples – in a stable of hundreds – should identify as many as 11 out of 15 contaminated horses. The Sheikh’s vow to test each individual is plainly intended to satisfy any such reservations. To see his purpose through, however, he might further order that the results be independently verified and published.
Though a verdict is not certain to be published on Thursday, the only other trainer in recent years found to have administered anabolic steroids was Howard Johnson, given a one-year suspension in 2011. The maximum ban, for a positive test on a horse in training, is ten years; and the apparent gravity of this episode has prompted a further charge of “conduct prejudicial to horseracing”, which can yield a three-year prohibition.
At 37, Al Zarooni’s career is in ruins. His embarrassment is painfully compounded by the fact that he was hired precisely to amplify the high standards within reach of his employer’s young subjects. Having previously served as assistant to Saeed Bin Suroor, he was promoted to run a stable in his own right three years ago and soon overtook his former boss as Godolphin’s principal trainer. Sure enough, the next big challenge for Sheikh Mohammed is the appointment of Al Zarooni’s successor. He can hardly corral so many horses back under Bin Suroor. And even if Al Zarooni did perpetrate this madness purely on his own account, anyone promoted from within would bear the tainted of a discredited regime. Unlike certain other pressing questions, however, this one would seem unlikely to be rushed.