15 June 2008

The sun was scorching the lush Ascot grass yesterday afternoon promising fast conditions for the five days of the world’s greatest race meeting. But a cloud looms in the spangled sky. It’s called drugs.

Ascot’s considerable enterprise in annexing its five-furlong King’s Stand Stakes (to be run on Tuesday) and the six-furlong Golden Jubilee Stakes (Saturday) into the Global Sprint Challenge has paid off in the last two years with hugely popular victories for the Australian horses Takeover Target and Miss Andretti. But in December 2006 Takeover Target was prevented from running in the Hong Kong Sprint because he tested positive for an anabolic steroid – HPC – which was then legitimate in Australia. It has now been banned but the traces of the dispute if not the drugs remain.

Indeed, the Royal Ascot press conference at Newmarket on Wednesday got dangerously close to an international slanging match when Australian Peter Moody, who saddles Magnus against Takeover Target on Tuesday, accused top British trainer Mark Johnston of being critical of the Australian regime for suggesting that if he had done as the Australians did he would lose his licence.

Suddenly all the goodwill engendered by a marvellous banquet began to quiver as the shaven headed Moody said: “If someone like Mark Johnston wants to train like he did 200 years ago, then good luck to him. You’ve got to look at every advantage within the rules of racing to get to the highest level. Obviously he doesn’t have a vet in his yard.”

Fortunately the feisty Johnston, a qualified vet himself and mastermind of over 600 winners and more than £8 million earnings in the last five years, was back in his yard at Middleham. But his response was immediate and telling. “Whatever excuse you make,” he said, “the fact is that anabolic steroids are a drug and they stimulate the appetite and allow more lean muscle than normal genetic potential. To suggest that the use of steroids has not affected performance is nonsense. I think the substance that Takeover Target was administered was banned in February, but February was not long ago. If an athlete was taking steroids up until four months before the Olympic Games there would be an impact on performance. It seems that the rules for British trainers are different from those for Australian trainers with runners in Britain.”

The fault, of course, lies not with any individual but with the international authorities who hail the idea of global racing without agreeing an international code on drug use. Nowhere more so than in America where on Thursday trainer Richard Dutrow will be before a hearing in Washington pointedly billed as “Breeding, Drugs, and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Racing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred horse.”

For years American racing has hid behind the euphemism of “medication” for the use of painkilling drugs that would be banned in humans let alone horses. Now Dutrow’s flagrant admission that every month he was legally administering his star horse Big Brown with the anabolic steroid ‘Stanozolol’ has blown any respect for his sport’s administrators to smithereens. Google “Stanozolol” and you find Ben Johnson for it was on that drug that he won his infamous Olympic Gold in Seoul. The next move for racing is blindingly obvious. At the International Conference in Paris this October it should be formally resolved that anabolic steroids have no place in top meetings anywhere in the world. Anything less will rightly bring in the public hostility which is now harrying the sport in America.

Ascot this week can wave the glory flag and start with a now steroid-free Takeover Target showing quite how magnificent a battler he is by outgunning Magnus and the flying three-year-old filly Fleeting Spirit in the King’s Stand Stakes. All the Ascot fashion and luxury excess should never cloud the fact that this is racing at the very highest; the very next event after the King’s Stand sees the reappearance of dual Guineas winner Henrythenavigator in the St James’s Palace Stakes.

That quality is maintained right through the week and might well include an Aidan O’Brien treble with Duke of Marmalade, Soldier of Fortune and the massive stallion-like Gold Cup winner Yeats, who is unique in snorting loudly his way not just round the paddock and the race but around the unsaddling enclosure, too. A huge gamble has developed on Luca Cumani’s Bankable in the Hunt Cup on Wednesday, but at the risk of self indulgence, the race and the bet I am really interested in is Thursday’s Britannia Stakes in which “my” horse Redford will be trying to build on his winning comeback at Doncaster last Saturday.

Way back in cold and soaking January this column reported on the long road this big, handsome, lazy puppy of a colt had to tread towards the challenges of high summer. Two disappointing gallops meant that last week’s 8-1 victory was an agreeable surprise. But now we are here and as he chewed my shoe laces affectionately in his box on Wednesday morning, it’s clear that his nerves are a lot better than those of his assorted owners. We need a bit of rain. But this is a horse ahead of the Handicapper who travels like a champion. The dream is hardly bearable.

* A poorly Peter Chapple-Hyam enjoyed a welcome tonic with the victory of Brave Prospector in the £100,000 Betfair Sprint at York yesterday. Chapple-Hyam has been under the weather and preferred to stay at home at Newmarket. Last year’s Derby-winning trainer showed his prowess once again, though, rejuvenating Brave Prospector with the application of a tongue-strap.

Carrying the colours made famous by Authorized, 12-1 shot Brave Propector cut through the pack under Alan Munro to beat Victorian Bounty by a length and a half. The favourite Ancien Regime was a neck away in third.

“Peter hasn’t felt too good lately and didn’t feel up to travelling. He’s trying to get himself right for Ascot next week,” said stable representative Gary Hindmarch.

“A tongue-tie has made the difference to this horse. He wore it for the first time at Newmarket on his latest start.” A delighted Munro added: “He just lost his way, we couldn’t explain it, but Peter showed why he’s such a good trainer. He knows the problem and puts on a tongue-tie.”

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