Horse and Hound
The trial continues. However far into outer darkness trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni may be cast for his confessed guilt in the Godolphin steroids scandal, however shocked and furious Sheikh Mohammed may claim to be at his betrayal, and however worthily the International Federation of Racing Authorities may once again lobby for an overall drugs ban, a court still sits. It is the court of public opinion.
Its jury will take some convincing and its verdict will matter. Time was when racing could happily proceed oblivious of what wider opinion might think provided enough rich owners backed it and enough punters used it for their gambling needs. But now that every jurisdiction is increasingly dependent on sponsorship and media exposure it has to accept the lines that those parties draw. One of the very first of those lines is at the use of anabolic steroids, most particularly with the one called Stanozolol.
We all remember Stanozolol. It was the stuff for whose use bulging eyed Ben Johnson got disqualified after winning the Olympic 100 metres in Seoul way back in 1988. Ever since then the net of public disapproval has been drawn ever tighter around those using chemical means to enhance their performance. What’s more, it has become fully accepted that such enhancement can come not just from dope found, as with Johnson, on the day of the race, but from use during the build-up. In human athletics, the “out-of-competition test” is deemed essential for international credibility. Not so in racing.
For the real shocker about last week’s drug bust at Godolphin’s Al Zarooni stable in Newmarket was not just that 11 of 45 horses tested showed positive for steroids, it was that everyone had to realise that such practices were still in open use in such territories as Dubai, Australia, where Stanozolol trades as Danozolol, and America where it is called Winstrol. At a stroke the credibility of international competition is fig leaf thin. For many places only race day testing matters. Lance Armstrong must wish he was a horse.
Worse still was the initially negative reaction of bodies as far apart as the Australian Trainers Association and Royal Ascot. The former defiantly stating that “a horse needs all the help he can get” and the latter sticking by its “head in the sand” formula that as long as the horse tests clean in our jurisdiction, what it is given back home is the business of its local authority. No it’s not. If Royal Ascot is going to consider its admirable policy of inviting international competition it cannot run by rules which would be laughed out of the room by WADA (World Anti Doping Association) which has battled so valiantly against Armstrong and other cheats.
For steroids remain sport’s dirtiest word and racing cannot accept them if it wants to be called a sport. By all means admire the massively muscled physique of the American two year olds or Australian sprinters which have added excitement to the Royal Ascot winners’ enclosure in recent years. But let’s be sure that their muscle mass has been added by legitimate means, not by “out of competition” anabolics which their territory allows. We should rightly throw our hands up in horror at the scale of the Godolphin bust, but the correct reaction for the wider world is to realise the full implications of our pain.
However uncomfortable it may be, international racing must swiftly and honestly put its house in order. It will have to start with an amnesty and it must do everything to avoid acrimony. It must state that no major race should be recognised that does not sign up to the long stated recommendations of the International Federation of Racing Authorities which were again endorsed by the Aga Khan last Sunday. It must realize that the days are finally over when America’s Breeders Cup can call itself “The World Thoroughbred Championships” or, even “The Racing Olympics”, when under Olympic rules virtually every runner would be thrown out for drug taking.
The court of public opinion may be sceptical but if these steps are taken it could be persuadable. In today’s world all horse sports, not just racing, have no future without public approval. We need this verdict to be the right one.