Racing faces battle to protect its credibility
The story engulfing a beleaguered horse racing industry is attracting all the wrong headlines. Racing's latest drama began in Moulton Paddocks, Newmarket on April 9.
Moulton Paddocks is a setting that doesn't lend itself to horror stories. It is a five-star equine accommodation, a place where nothing but the best is evident.
But behind closed doors, we now know the practices of people entrusted with running this establishment were anything but the best. British Horseracing Authority (BHA) officials confirmed last week that 11 horses from the stable recently tested positive for banned steroids. And so we had a beginning.
As the story twists and turns with new daily developments, we have a middle. Unfortunately, there is no end in sight. And that is alarming for an industry and a wonderful sport.
With every passing day, this crisis deepens. What started in one of the UK's biggest stables has developed into a crisis with ramifications as far-reaching as Australia. A focus has shifted to a potentially divisive and destructive subject.
For sceptics, this is the promised land. As a racing fan, it's a disappointing shambles. For the first time in my career at Sky Sports, a racing story led at the top of the hour.
The situation was bad when the problems were initially just confined to within one half of Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operations in Newmarket.
Observers justifiably asked how 11 horses in one of the world's leading training establishments could test positive for anabolic steroids. Once the story broke, Godolphin acted quickly and their trainer at Moulton Paddocks, Mohammed Al Zarooni, stepped forward to accept complete responsibility.
He claimed to be ignorant to the rules of British racing. Seemingly, responsibility for this disaster was his and his alone. In a statement, Sheikh Mohammed claimed he was "appalled and angered" at the news and said he had a "deep respect for racing's traditions and rules. I built my country based on the same solid principles. There can be no excuse for any deliberate violation."
If Al Zarooni's explanation is to be believed, the Godolphin operation is culpable for giving responsibility to man who was unfamiliar or not made aware of the regulatory environment in which he operated.
It was reckless to give free rein to an individual who claims not to have known the rules. Al Zarooni may have administered the steroids, but his employers had a duty to ensure their trainer – an employee – was operating without blatant ignorance. Many will doubt Al Zarooni's defence, and perhaps his excuse is not the truth.
If that is the situation, it prompts the question what other untruths surrounding the Godolphin case have not been made public. Has one man taken the fall for the failings of many others within a worldwide multi-million pound organisation?
One thing we do know for certain is that Godolphin's racing manger Simon Crisford had previously warned Al Zarooni about maintaining proper medical records for each horse under his care following confirmation that two horses from Al Zarooni's stables failed tests for painkillers in April 2012.
Confirmation that the operation had received this serious warning almost a year ago suggests that more than Al Zarooni within the Godolphin camp are guilty of incompetence.
The BHA administered justice to Al Zarooni three days after the case was reported. The trainer appeared without legal representation and was warned off for eight years as the BHA accused him of an "attempt at cheating" and "underhand administration of illegal medication". Godolphin condemned and distanced themselves from their employee as quickly as Crisford could usher the words from his mouth.
However questions remain unanswered, questions we can only hope an ongoing BHA investigation will answer.
The sordid events at Godolphin now appear to be just the beginning.
Days after Al Zarooni received his sentence, news emerged of an investigation surrounding Newmarket-based trainer Gerard Butler and his use of stanozolol, the same substance found in four of Al Zarooni's horses. Butler claims the use of steroids was for therapeutic rather than performance-enhancing motives. Furthermore, he said the substance was used after veterinary advice and he estimates that over 100 horses in Newmarket had received it.
The BHA can't be happy with Butler's decision to go public. Should his claims be substantiated, the fallout is potentially horrific. For a moment, assume Butler's suggestions are correct. Will the BHA see fit to warn off every trainer who allegedly ever used the substance? What are the consequences for any veterinary practice administering the substances?
And bizarrely, Butler insists the use of the substance was documented on horses' medical records signed off by the BHA. The efforts of the BHA to paint Al Zarooni as a rogue operator within the sport are also undermined by Butler. Conscious of moving forward while not looking back, did the BHA deal with Al Zarooni's case so swiftly to try and close the chapter as quickly as possible? Butler's assertions have changed everything; the option of moving on so quickly has been erased.
Racing has a massive battle on its hands – pathetically, a battle all of its own making. The game's credibility is damaged, perception among its public is not healthy.
There are many questions and right now no apparent answers. How widespread is the issue? How many horses have been affected? Does the fact Al Zarooni's results were not extraordinary suggest his competitors were using similar products to enhance performance?
At a time when cutbacks in funding are evident across the board, how stringent are testing procedures?
A shadow of doubt has been cast – anyone who believes otherwise is living in a fool's paradise.
Earlier this week, in response to suggestions emanating from the UK, Peter Moody, trainer of Australia's wonder mare Black Caviar, strongly refuted doubts about the use of steroids on his horse. He went further to question the view of "lily-white" British trainers by saying: "They bang on about steroids, but they are the first to use Lasix when they campaign horses in the United Sates. Maybe the Poms might start looking at themselves rather than looking at us."
UK-based trainer Frank Sheridan was also outspoken, saying, "I have been training for years all over Europe. Soon realised that British racing's image of squeaky clean is all bull***t and we have the most corrupt racing in the world. Feel a bit sorry for Al Zarooni as he has taken the rap."
Hardly a sentiment to stem an ever-increasing tide.
There is clearly a huge issue in British racing, with potentially fatal effects for the sport. The extent to which the issue is addressed will have massive fallout for those within the industry and the racing public who prop up the sport.
Without credibility, the sport is in tatters, meaningless and hollow to its public. Racing's vested interests and lofty opinions may be well served to remember that without the confidence of a betting public, their world will be a poorer place. The sport of kings or a sport rife with roguery and cheats? We await the ending.