You dope! Racing faces its greatest crisis over Godolphin steroid scandal

Top trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni’s admission of 'a catastrophic error' after horses in his stable tested positive for illegal steroids has given Godolphin and the entire Sport of Kings a major problem

It may be overstating matters to talk of the Turf’s “Lance Armstrong moment”. But nor can the scandal that convulsed British horseracing yesterday be dismissed as a mere vignette to sustain its picaresque traditions. This could yet prove its biggest crisis since an anonymous young sheikh took a train from Victoria to Brighton in 1977 – the first chapter, as things turned out, in an unprecedented epic of investment.

After watching his filly, Hatta, win at a track still sleazily redolent of “Pinkie” Brown, Sheikh Mohammed began to build the most extravagant empire in the 300-year history of the thoroughbred. As a son of the desert, he was not simply enchanted by the shady, manicured pastures of Newmarket stud farms, or the colour and heritage of Royal Ascot. He was proud of the breed’s antecedents in the Middle East; and, in ultimately acceding as ruler of Dubai, he also wanted the world to know what was happening there now.

Exasperated by the narrow horizons of the old school, two decades ago he decided to establish an elite stable under his own aegis. He named it Godolphin, invoking one of the three imported Arabian horses that founded the breed. As trainers, he hired his own compatriots; and in the winter, in a revolutionary reversion to their roots, he had the horses flown out to his homeland.

Disclosing a touching propensity for portentous aphorism, Sheikh Mohammed gave Godolphin pointedly political purpose. Like many subsequent investors in sport, not least from the Gulf, the Maktoum family wanted to exhibit the fabulous ambition nourished by barren sands in the era of the internal combustion engine. They laid on the world’s most valuable race, the Dubai World Cup, in front of its most sumptuous grandstand. And, above all, they invested in the eugenic mysteries of the thoroughbred. The Maktoum brothers have spent uncountable millions on the best pedigrees at the yearling sales; as much again, on building their own gene pools.

Throughout, Sheikh Mohammed was at pains to manifest scrupulous standards in the contentious field of medication. The huge purses offered at the Dubai International Carnival are contested by “clean” horses; and his representative on the board of the Breeders’ Cup, the annual crucible of the American sport, recently resigned after its volte-face over a permissive medication regime.

After a spectacular start, meanwhile, Godolphin had begun to stagnate. Some felt the breeding operation to be underperforming, not least because the Maktoums abjured the bluebloods raised by their great rivals at Coolmore Stud in Ireland. Others pointed the finger at Saeed Bin Suroor, a charming Emirati who trained the migrant Godolphin horses – in Dubai during the winter, in Newmarket for the European season. Sheikh Mohammed decided to promote Bin Suroor’s assistant, Mahmood Al Zarooni, to supervise a second stable in his own name.

Al Zarooni swiftly vindicated that decision. Within three years, he had supplanted his old boss as Godolphin’s de facto No 1 trainer. Last season, he won the World Cup – and wrecked the historic Triple Crown bid of Coolmore’s champion, Camelot. On Sunday week, he was due to saddle Certify as one of the favourites for the first fillies’ Classic of the new season. The trouble is that she is no longer permitted to run.

Fifteen days ago, British Horseracing Authority officials showed up at Al Zarooni’s Newmarket stable and took samples from 45 horses. It was a random visit – but one he had been advised to expect as protocol for two positive tests, themselves fairly negligible, within a 12-month period. Yesterday, the BHA announced that no fewer than 11 of the samples had contained prohibited substances: seven, including Certify, showed traces of ethylstranol; another five, stanozolol. Anabolic steroids.

For Sheikh Mohammed, the mortification could not have been greater had they found a fridge full of cobra venom. Ethylstranol is used by body-builders. In a horse preparing for a Classic, it looks a smoking syringe. Stanozolol cost Ben Johnson an Olympic gold medal. In limited, out-of-training circumstances, vets prescribe it to stimulate the appetite of debilitated animals. But it also improves muscle growth, red blood cell production and bone density. In other words, it brazenly enhances performance.

Al Zarooni obliged with an immediate admission of guilt and contrition for “a catastrophic error”, claiming he did not realise there had been a  breach of the Rules of Racing. He faces a lengthy ban from the BHA, and Sheikh Mohammed – cherished for his loyalty in adversity – seems certain never to have him back. Simon Crisford, the Godolphin manager, suggested that their boss is apoplectic. The Sheikh was “absolutely appalled,” and has ordered a total review of the stable’s medication procedures. It is unlikely, however, that any examination of Godolphin’s collective conscience will yield any public answer to the questions now being asked within the professional community.

Some will be unable to resist a degree of Schadenfreude. After all, Godolphin is reputed to stable over 400 horses in Newmarket. But most trainers will primarily resent inferences likely to be drawn by the world beyond, peering curiously at the disgrace of a stable still depicted yesterday, by the National Trainers’ Federation, as a byword for professionalism and probity. Insiders insist that use of performance-enhancing drugs is rare. One prominent jumps trainer, Howard Johnson, quit in 2011 after receiving a one-year ban for administering anabolic steroids – and it is understood that at least one other case is pending. But the onus to disprove endemic use, for now, is confined to Godolphin.

And the fact is that Al Zarooni and Bin Suroor have long been suspected to have relatively nominal responsibility. Nowadays the vast majority of horses under their titular supervision spend the winter in Newmarket – a quiet dereliction of one of Godolphin’s founding precepts, and as such a possible indication that the Dubai winter did not confer the benefits originally claimed.

Other trainers have seen runners at the International Carnival return to the British summer and promptly grow a winter coat. And it now seems that the Godolphin trainers are themselves taking only their own Carnival and World Cup runners to the desert, leaving the rest of their string – including most, if not all, the 11 contaminated horses – in the hands of anonymous lieutenants in Newmarket. It seems conceivable that Al Zarooni was thousands of miles away when these steroids were administered. And if that were indeed so, then it seems rather convenient that the buck should stop with him.

As such, the stench will extend further than the known facts warrant. It is inevitable that sceptics will wonder afresh about the startling improvement contrived by some Maktoum or Godolphin horses in the vaunted purity of the Dubai racing environment. Some may even have the impudence to remember how Al Zarooni routinely credits his employer, for all the distractions of state, with intimate involvement in the yard. Nobody knows that better than the Sheikh, and it will  infuriate him.

Having always presented himself as dynamic and visionary, equally, he will recognise his cue. He must decide what, if anything, Godolphin now stands for. Last year, he bought a majority share in a rising star, Dawn Approach. The colt now races in the royal blue of Godolphin, but he remains in Ireland, in the care of a seasoned, top-class trainer, Jim Bolger.

The original Godolphin project was so proudly defined. Now it is not just amorphous. It has been blackened by disgrace so flagrant that it could only have been perpetrated by an enemy, or a fool.

For either to get anywhere near something so close to his heart is a humiliating novelty to Sheikh Mohammed – and one that makes it impossible to predict how this will all play out.

HORSES vs HUMANS - THE EFFECT OF STEROIDS

While there is relatively little scientific research into the exact effects of anabolic steroids in horses, they are thought to have a more limited positive effect on physical performance than in humans. Steroids have traditionally been used both to improve the performance of healthy horses and aid the recovery of injured animals.

There is anecdotal evidence that suggests horses like humans can become more aggressive if they take steroids. People can also sometimes suffer mood swings and strange behavioural patterns.

Like humans, steroids are thought to increase a horse’s muscle size while allowing them to recover from injuries more quickly.

And both can lose fertility if it is taken over a long period.

However, while humans can also experience hair loss, acne and even increased blood pressure there is little or no evidence for these side effects in horses.

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