It is a sad fact that very few sports today are left untainted by doping. In recent years a depressingly high number of sporting superstars whose performance has seen them rise to the very top of their chosen sport have been exposed as "drugs cheats", and now it seems that the very top echelons of horse racing are to be similarly blighted.
Mahmood Al Zarooni, trainer for the mighty Godolphin stable, today faces the potential loss of his trainer's licence following the sensational revelation that prohibited substances have been detected in samples taken from no fewer than 11 of the horses in his care during random testing by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) in April of this year. This is not the first time a trainer has been caught administering banned substances to the horses in his charge, but Mr Al Zarooni is surely the most high profile to date.
The drugs in question have been identified as ethylestranol and stanozolol. Both are anabolic steroids designed to increase muscle growth and development; improve red blood cell production and blood circulation especially to the legs and feet, to improve exercise tolerance and to increase bone density. Ethylestranol has the added advantage from a "doping" perspective that it is rapidly excreted from the horse's system making it harder to detect during random testing.
Mr Al Zarooni has fallen on his sword and accepted full responsibility for the administration of the drugs, saying that he is guilty of a "catastrophic error of judgement." In his defence, he has stated that the drugs were given to horses which were just in training and not actually racing, however the BHA said that the tests were carried out following two positive tests from Al Zarooni trained horses in the preceding 12 months and it is therefore to be assumed that these animals were racing at the time. It is perhaps noteworthy that 2012 was Godolphin's most successful year on the track to date; the jewel in the crown being their success in the world's richest race; the Dubai World Cup.
All the horses which tested positive have been suspended from running for the foreseeable future whilst further investigations are carried out by the BHA.
Godolphin is owned by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, the Prime Minister and Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, and constitutional monarch of Dubai for whom this incident is acutely embarrassing particularly as the Sheikh takes a very close interest in his horses. He is said to be "appalled" and an immediate internal investigation of the practices at Godolphin is now underway.
The wider implications of the scandal are extremely concerning for international horse racing. Sheikh Mohammed is one of the world's most prolific trainers and breeders with horses both in training and standing at stud in the United States and Australia as well as Europe, Japan and Ireland and over the past two decades has invested massively in the industry worldwide and especially in the UK.
The ramifications of today's revelations spread much wider than just the effect they might have on certain race results. Top racehorses have a relatively short career on the track before being retired to stud duties. Wealthy owners will often pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their mares put in foal to a winner of multiple prestigious races in the hope that his progeny will carry his natural ability in their genes. Indeed, the international multi-million dollar bloodstock industry is built around generations of carefully constructed thoroughbred bloodlines. Some of those owners must surely now be wondering if they have invested in a tainted commodity whose performance was not entirely due to his natural ability. Is the stud book now skewed forever?
Unfortunately, as with every sport where such vast sums of money in sponsorship and corporate investment are involved, there will always be the temptation to enhance natural performance by artificial means. Unlike tennis, swimming, cycling and athletics however, racehorses are unable to make a choice. We can only applaud the international governing bodies of the sport of horse racing in their diligence and hope that this high profile scandal serves as due warning to others who might be tempted.
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