The doping scandal at one of the UK’s most elite stables has left a potentially devastating stain on the sport of kings, writes Dani Garavelli
SHEIKH Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and the single most influential figure in the world of racehorsing, was relatively new to the British scene when he made his last humiliating mistake. Looking for a foundation stallion for his expanding breeding operations, he paid a then unprecedented $10 million for Snaafi Dancer – a horse that never ran and, when put out to stud, turned out to have fertility problems. Legend has it that, for a time, the Sheikh kept Snaafi Dancer close; an emblem to remind him of the limits of his own wisdom.
Today Sheikh Mohammed is facing a much greater humiliation. After three decades at the top, his prestigious Godolphin operation is at the centre of the biggest doping scandal ever to hit the sport. Last week, trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni – a man personally selected by the Sheikh to train 150 horses at the historic Moulton Paddocks in Newmarket, the headquarters of British flat racing – was disqualified for eight years after 11 of them, including the 1,000 Guineas favourite, Certify, tested positive for ethylestrenol and stanozolol, both anabolic steroids. Al Zarooni has since told the British Horseracing Authority that four more horses were given the performance-enhancing drugs, describing the decision as a “catastrophic mistake”.
The incident is doubly embarrassing for the Sheikh, who has always been vocal in his opposition to drugs, as this year his representative pulled out of the Breeders’ Cup in the US over its decision to allow the use of the anti-bleeding drug Lasix on race day.
Horse racing has never been regarded as the cleanest of sports; race fixing, once endemic, spiked again with a flurry of cases involving horses being bet on to lose on betting exchanges, while leading British jockeys Kieren Fallon and Frankie Dettori have both served bans for the use of cocaine. But the doping of horses has been a rarity, so the revelation that the injecting of anabolic steroids could have been taking place on such a scale at the most elite stables in the country has shocked the sport to its core.
“This is horseracing’s cycling moment,” says Martin Hannan, Scotland on Sunday’s racing correspondent and author of Rock Of Gibraltar, a book about the stallion owned by Sir Alex Ferguson. “In any given year, Godolphin is the world’s number one stable – it has so much influence worldwide. This is the biggest breach in the sport’s history and it must be treated as such.”
The comparison with Lance Armstrong is not overblown; as with the cycling idol, this doping scandal involves one of horseracing’s most powerful personalities and places the future of the sport in jeopardy. By all accounts, it has devastated the Sheikh, who invests millions of pounds a year in his stables, prides himself on maintaining the highest ethical standards and will be smarting at the impact this will have on Brand Dubai.
But it will also have shaken the confidence of ordinary punters who must now be wondering whether, if doping can take place somewhere with Godolphin’s reputation, it is rampant within the sport. Last week, the country’s biggest bookmakers moved quickly to reassure them, with Ladbrokes, William Hill and Coral all volunteering to refund hundreds of thousand of pounds worth of ante-post bets on four horses, Desert Blossom, Artigiano, Restraint of Trade and Certify, which have been banned from racing until October. The Sheikh, too, has taken drastic action to shore up his image, locking down Moulton Paddocks, insisting comprehensive blood tests will be carried out and promising no horse will run until the stables have been given the all-clear. Doubtless he hopes his response will convince the wider world that the incident, though serious, was a one-off carried out by a maverick trainer under pressure to produce winners.
Yet the speed of both the BHA’s response and Al Zarooni’s willingness to accept all responsibility raises questions of its own. Did the BHA investigate how long the doping had been going on and to what degree other members of staff were involved? And could the desire to find a scapegoat and wrap the case up quickly signal a reluctance to cause any further embarrassment to a figure on whose wealth so much of the British sport depends?
To understand Sheikh Mohammed’s status in horseracing, one need only look at the £50 billion Meydan complex he has built in Dubai. A lavish temple to the sport, its mile-long grandstand is capable of housing 60,000 spectators and includes a hotel. The Sheikh’s Dubai Al Quoz stable complex, where the Godolphin horses spend the winter, has amenities worthy of The Ritz – air-conditioned boxes, equine pools, separate quarantine areas for its globe-trotting stars.
Though, as a Muslim, Sheikh Mohammed doesn’t gamble, his passion for racing has been at the centre of his attempt to ensure tourists will keep his country prosperous long after the oil, which helped transform it from a fishing village to a 21st-century Metropolis, has run out. The royal blue Godolphin silks under which his horses run have been used to promote its attractions across the world.
Today the most talked-about event in the country’s heady social calendar is the Dubai World Cup, which has a purse of £10m; then US ranchers and Russian oligarchs, wealthy South Africans and Home Counties wags, rock stars, footballers and soap stars all gather for a week-long extravaganza which also features golf competitions, luxury cruises on board the Sheikh’s yacht for the lucky few and an Arabian Nights party in the desert for 2,000.
The Sheikh has been a force in UK horseracing since the early 1980s when he bought Gainsborough Stud at Woolton Hill in Berkshire and teamed up with legendary trainer Sir Henry Cecil. After a spectacular falling out with Cecil in the 1990s, he struck out on his own. He now owns Ballysheehan stud farm in County Tipperary, Darley Stables in Newbury and Godolphin, which has had 202 group-one wins – the most prestigious races – in 12 countries. At Godolphin, several hundred thoroughbreds are split between the Godolphin Stables and Moulton Paddocks, with Al Zarooni brought in to look after the latter in 2010. In only his second season there, Al Zarooni outstripped senior trainer Saeed Bin Suroor, sending out 81 winners compared to his rival’s 58 and earning double the prize money at £1.8m.
But last season, despite winning the Dubai World Cup with Monterosso, he fell behind, sending out 65 winners to Bin Suroor’s 85.
Though Al Zarooni was the Sheikh’s personal appointment, few at the heart of racing believe he or racing manager Simon Crisford had any insight into the goings-on at Moulton Paddock, although they do suspect someone lower down must have known what was happening. “I’m sure the Sheikh was totally in the dark about it – that the trainer did it more or less on his own,” says Gordon Brown, of Racing UK and Scottish Racing. “With all his wealth, the Sheikh is not a gambler – he just wants the prestige of winning a big race at Royal Ascot or Epsom or Ayr. He has been more than happy to abide by the way British racing is run and he’ll be appalled by the damage to the image of Godolphin.”
In the wake of the BHA’s announcement, some worried the Sheikh would withdraw from the UK – a move which would have been devastating for a sport which needs his investment. His money is everywhere; it’s in the sale and training of the horses themselves, in the sponsoring of races; it’s even in the success of the Racing Post which he bankrolled before selling the licence to use the trademark to Trinity Mirror for a pound.
“It’s no exaggeration to say Sheikh Mohammed props up British racing – it is as serious as that,” Brown says. “He probably has the thick end of 600 horses in training in the UK. If you think of stable staff involved there; it will be two horses to one member of staff, plus all the work riders, plus all the local economy spin-offs. If he withdrew from British racing, it would be catastrophic.”
With the Sheikh’s response dispelling those fears, the question now is whether or not the use of prohibited substances is widespread and, if so, what can be done to prevent it. Although serious incidents are rare, doping horses is not a new phenomenon. In the 19th century, gangs used cocaine to boost horses’ performance. More recently, “milkshaking”, the administering of a powerful alkaline substance via a tube to the horse’s stomach on the trackside, has been more common. But the advantage of steroids, which build up muscle, is that their performance-enhancing effects last long after the drug has left the system.
In the past few years, most horse-doping cases in the UK have involved painkillers; Al Zarooni was fined £2,000 after two horses tested positive for the analgesic Propoxyphene, but, in 2011, County Durham trainer Howard Johnson was banned for four years for the use of steroids.
There are those who see this latest incident as evidence something is very much awry; but for most, the fact Al Zarooni was caught while his horses were out of training proves just how hard the BHA is working to clean up the sport.
Scottish jumps trainer Lucinda Russell, who is based at Arlary Stables, near Edinburgh, says the severity of the eight-year punishment sends out a signal to others. “It’s surprising that a set-up of this standard has made this error, but I think it’s fantastic they caught him. To those outside the horseracing community the punishment may seem a bit harsh, but it sends out a message – you can’t get away with using performance-enhancing drugs in the UK.”
For Ladbrokes too, the sure-footed way the authorities have responded has prevented the scandal from undermining consumer confidence. “The fact they have seen how quickly the way the BHA has acted and how quickly the bookmakers have acted to refund bets will go a long way to reassure punters that they are not going to be short-changed if things like this happen,” says spokesman Alexander Donohoe. “And I don’t think they are going to think things like this are going to happen again given the sanctions that have been handed out. We have a very busy weekend of racing ahead of us and I don’t believe people already involved in racing will think twice about going to the racetrack and enjoying it as they normally do.”
With Al Zarooni taking the rap, it seems unlikely the doping allegations will taint horseracing in the way those levelled at Lance Armstrong have tainted cycling. But they have led to calls for more consistency in the rules surrounding steroids and other drugs. At present, the difficulty for those trying to comply is that they vary so much from country to country. In Australia and Dubai, the use of anabolic steroids are allowed while a horse is out of training; in the US, the use of the anti-inflammatory drug bute, which hit the headlines during the furore over horsemeat, is permitted.
Al Zarooni claimed he was confused which rules applied where. Some commentators, including Hannan, would like to see the introduction of a worldwide charter to level the playing field. In the meantime, no doubt, Sheikh Mohammed will be licking his wounds and rueing the day he singled out the former stable groom for promotion. The Crown Prince may be worth £9.7bn, but the sight of the 37-year-old leaving the disciplinary hearing will provide a very potent reminder that with people, as with horses, he doesn’t always pick a winner. «