F alling attendances, decreasing betting turnover, reduced terrestrial TV coverage, race-fixing probes, dramatic funding cuts -- and now drugs. As the adage goes ". . . but apart from that Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?"
At the very time when horseracing needs to celebrate its stars and publicise its attraction, we instead stumble over one high-profile trainer and another high-profile horse hogging the headlines because of the discovery by the authorities of a prohibited substance.
The timing of the BHA's announcement of the verdict in Nicky Henderson's Moonlit Path case could have been more astute (given its commitment to re-branding racing) instead of coinciding to cloud over in the national media the Eclipse win of Sea The Stars, the hottest thoroughbred property on the European circuit.
But time aside, the crime remains. The news last week that Philip Fenton's champion bumper performer Dunguib may be stripped of his Paddy Power Champion Bumper laurels at Punchestown after testing positive for a prohibited substance only brings the drugs question into even sharper focus. Drugs have contributed to destroying the credibility and reputation of other sports (like cycling and athletics) and fortunately, at this point, horseracing in this jurisdiction is a long way from there. But like an icy black Alpine slope -- one slip at the top and there is no way back.
Many have attested in this whole affair to the good character and impeccable record of Nicky Henderson and how that may have influenced the force of the ban handed down -- three months and a fine of £40,000. Some have even pleaded for greater lenience in light of Henderson's lilywhite track record. However, two things are plainly evident from the very intelligible, transparent 37-point report from the BHA disciplinary panel.
Firstly, the panel accepted that the trainer's "over-riding concern" in arranging for the administration of the prohibited tranexamic acid (TA) was "for the welfare of Moonlit Path". However, in addition, the panel is unflinchingly clear in its evidence that Henderson attempted to wilfully conceal the fact that he had administered a known prohibited substance to his horse on the day of the race. Meaning that he knowingly cheated. Interestingly, in an interview with the Independent as far back as 1999, former neighbouring trainer Charlie Brooks made the controversial assertion that "there are trainers in Britain who are giving their horses drugs to get an edge, and it is easy to understand why." He quoted EPO (used extensively by professional cyclists) and EST (a growth hormone) as examples of just two performance-enhancers but concluded "there are a lot of other things around, probably new things every year, and the users are always ahead of the testers in life." Now just think of how far science has advanced in the last 10 years. Time will tell us more about the Dunguib case, although his trainer and former champion amateur Philip Fenton said last week that "it happened innocently enough".
And there are many documented cases of innocence, such as the traces of morphine found in the Red Mills feed that led to the automatic disqualification of Willie Mullins' 2002 Hennessy winner Be My Royal.
But innocents notwithstanding, if it is within the temptation on this occasion of one so professionally successful and socially upstanding as Nicky Henderson to cheat with drugs, then what about the trainers of more dubious character shuffling the angles to scrap for the odd winner? Racing has never really aspired to Olympian purity. Race-fixing sensations only serve to reinforce the already suspicious attitude the general public have about horseracing. But there is a tacit tolerance to some extent of the insider knowledge and skullduggery that in many ways outsiders deem part of the charming character of the sport and in some ways even make it more attractive. This lovable roguery the public can indulge. Drugs is different. Meddle with it at your peril.
Parallels can be drawn with cycling where trying to gain advantage was always part of the charm of the Tour de France. However, when Belgian sports physiotherapist Willy Voet was discovered by police in 1998 with a car full of drugs that included cocaine, heroin and amphetamines -- it was all downhill from there with scandal following scandal repulsing especially the newer and less tolerant audiences in Germany, the US and Japan. To use drugs was now seen as getting a lift up the Mont Ventoux. This year girls with bare midriffs ironically line the route with the letters E-P-O painted on their bellies. Soon they won't even bother to show. Average TV audiences in the important markets have halved since 1998.
The Tour's final stage in 2003 drew a global audience of 22 million -- that had dropped to 14 million last year. The French sports paper L'Equipe was central in establishing the Tour de France in 1903 yet it didn't even headline the start of the Tour this month. Instead it preferred sentences like: "Since 1998 the tours have been fraudulent, the results cooked up with the use of EPO, and nobody does anything." When L'Equipe says so, you know that drugs are killing cycling.
If we wish to see what racing's Dorian Gray drug-fuelled picture-in-the-attic might look like, we only have to look across the water. In horseracing, the US, compared with this side of the Atlantic, has played fast and loose with drugs with different States applying different rules for what substance is or isn't permissible. It is one of the reasons why horseracing hardly registers at all on the nation's sporting radar in terms of media coverage or public interest. It was reinforced this April when on the eve of the Kentucky Derby (when racing might be inclined to gain some coverage) only three of the 20 contenders' connections were prepared when asked to share with the
New York Times the details of their horse's veterinary records. The 17 who declined were described by the paper as "a who's who of thoroughbred racing".
Things have descended so far in the States that Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg told a congressional subcommittee in June last year that training horses had become "chemical warfare". Arthur Hancock, a fourth generation owner/breeder, said that after routinely receiving medical bills for more than $1,000 per horse he told his vet to give his horses drugs only when they were sick. "You want to win races, don't you, Arthur?" Hancock said the vet replied.
Let Henderson be a warning shot, or else admission prices will be the least of our worries in getting people to go racing -- unless it's to Steepledowns.