SUNDAY TIMES SPORT
STEROIDS AND BUST
It could get worse. For the real challenge to racing from last week’s breathtaking steroids scandal at Newmarket is not just to the credibility of Sheikh Mohammed’s vast Godolphin operation. It is whether racing – in which the Ben Johnson famed Stanozolol is an accepted preparation in Australia, America and Dubai – deserves to be seen as a sport at all.
It used to be. Up until the Cup Final overtook sometime in the late 1920s, Derby Day was the biggest, most popular sporting occasion of the whole year. Tens of thousands would trek from London to Epsom, Parliament would take the afternoon off, the whole nation would have a flutter, the winner would be toasted across the country. Now the Derby does not even lead the next morning’s sports pages, the only day that does is the Grand National and very often the treatment is not so much of sport as of freak show.7
The “Sport of Kings” thought it had a pact with the press and the people. Up until the 60s this paper actually had two racing correspondents. The BBC treated The Derby, Grand National, Royal Ascot and Cheltenham Festival as national events. When betting shops were legalized in 1961, horse and greyhound racing were the only betting games on show. Now horse racing is less than half their revenue and rarely features on the outside display. The BBC have dropped away altogether and racing is not one of the seven headlined sports atop their website. And while the daily papers still give plenty of space it consists not of text but of grids of names and numbers of that day’s runners which are inaccessible to outsiders. They treat racing not as a sport but as a betting game.
And racing asked for it. Desperate to sustain overall betting volume despite a revenue slice a fraction of that taken in other bookmaker free countries, they agreed to put on more and more low grade races. They got their newspaper space, but Southwell and Sandown are at different ends of the racing league. Treating them equally rates them both on the bottom rung.
But there has been hope. Racing got more international and with unique good fortune Britain got itself funded by Sheikh Mohammed, the greatest internationalist racing has ever seen. An obvious solution was emerging. Racing would have a tiered system with the “Premier League” courses and personnel on the main radar, the lesser leagues confined to specialist support. Best of all improved flight times and veterinary treatment made global competition possible. In 1984 the Americans launched The Breeders Cup under the bold title of ‘World Thoroughbred Championships’. In 1986 the Sussex trained Dancing Brave won the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris as part of a two hour live programme on Channel 4. In 1992 the Irish horse Vintage Crop travelled down to Melbourne to win the Melbourne Cup. And in the same year Sheikh Mohammed founded Godolphin.
It seemed a great idea. Rather than just fund other trainers he would hand pick his best horses and have them under his own men’s care in Britain during the season and winter in Dubai. It has gone from strength to strength. It has won elite Group One races all over the world, more than 200 of them in 12 different countries. But it has grown big, and last week was shown to have got so stretched as to be uncontrollable. It will change. And all racing will have to change with it.
For the Al Zarooni has to be seen as symptomatic of something much greater than one ‘rogue operator’ with all the unhappy memories of the Leveson Enquiry though that phrase may bring. What did and should shock both racing insiders and general observers was that the Godolphin trainer could even begin to suggest that he did not know that using anabolic steroids in training was against the rules ‘over here’. What blew open was a time bomb that has been ticking ever since they first billed the Breeders Cup as the ‘World Thoroughbred Championships’ and yet allowed, and still allow, drugs which in any human equivalent would have brought automatic disqualification. For years amongst them was Stanozolol.
Yes Stanozolol, the most notorious anabolic steroid of all, the one that turned Ben Johnson’s eyes yellow and his 100 metre medal gold in 1988. It was not until a horse called Big Brown won the Kentucky Derby in 2008 and his trainer Rick Dutrow openly boasted that all his horses got Stanozolol on the 15th of every month that America saw the light. Both Stanozolol and Dutrow are now banned from racing. But Stanozolol, trade name Winstrol, is still used in pre-training as it is under the trade name Danozol in Australia. It is also, by Mahmood Al Zarooni’s admission, used in pre-training in Dubai where its use in endurance racing is common enough that Sheikh Mohammed himself got a six month ban when a horse he rode to victory tested positive in 2009.
So racing has been sailing along under the ludicrous premise that it can hold international events where participants who have openly taken anabolic steroids can compete provided the substance is not in their system on race day, Lance Armstrong would have loved it. Yet to the game’s collective shame, that most people did not truly grasp the situation until this week and first reactions from Australia suggest that the penny hasn’t dropped just yet. “Racehorses need every bit of help” said Trainers president Colin Alderson echoing the stance of Black Caviar’s trainer Peter Moody who accused our Mark Johnston, a qualified vet and the most numerically successful trainer in British history, of being 200 years out of date. Johnston had dared to query whether the steroids might make the playing field uneven when their bulky Australian sprinters come up to run at Royal Ascot. Johnston’s were not the only eyebrows raised when Black Caviar was reported as 25kg heavier than the big steeplechaser Sprinter Sacre.
In fact Mark Johnston is exactly the sort of person to whom Sheikh Mohammed should turn for the full audit of veterinary protocols which is surely necessary to restore public confidence in the Godolphin operation. As it also happens there is a body ready and willing to lead the wider racing world out of the mess it finds itself in. It is the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities whose distinguished chairman Louis Romanet was on the line from Hong Kong’s International Meeting yesterday morning.
“There’s always the chance to take a good side from a difficult situation,” said Romanet who has been in the post since 1994 and whose members now come from 60 countries worldwide. “We are utterly opposed to anything but therapeutic drugs with a strict withdrawal time and anabolic steroids certainly do not qualify. But, unlike the Olympic Games or the Football World Cup, we do not organize the events and control their rules. We have to rely on co-operation. More and more are agreeing with us and I think public opinion is on our side.”
In his diplomatic way Romanet is daring the others to disagree and he has some heavyweight supporters. “It is clear,” says the Aga Khan, the world’s most successful racehorse breeder, “that we need a worldwide system which everyone can abide by. It is a global problem and it has to be handled globally. Otherwise not just the racing industry but the whole breeding industry is jeopardized”.
It could get worse but it doesn’t have to. Now is the chance to put things right. It might be the last one.