The Sheik’s trainer and anabolic steroids: racing’s biggest doping scandal


Published 30 April 2013

Mahmood Al Zarooni

Everyone in sport knows that anabolic steroids are an absolute no no, don’t they? Apparently not Mahmood al-Zarooni, formerly the retained trainer of over 200 horses in Great Britain for the Godolphin operation of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the constitutional monarch of Dubai.

Al-Zarooni was a man at the very top of his sport. Formerly an assistant trainer in Dubai, he was selected by Godolphin in 2010 at the age of 34 to train the lion’s share of its horses in England and installed at Godolphin’s magnificent Newmarket training facility. He enjoyed outstanding success over 3 seasons, winning Classics such as the 1000 Guineas and the St Leger and, in 2012, the world’s richest race the Dubai World Cup.

Yesterday however al Zarooni pleaded guilty before the Disciplinary Panel of the British Horseracing Association (BHA), chaired by Matthew Lohn, to a systematic, widespread misuse of anabolic steroids at his stables. Graeme McPherson QC of 4 New Square, instructed by Adam Brickell, represented the BHA.

Following an unannounced ‘in training’ visit to his Newmarket stables earlier this month, blood and hair samples taken from 11 of the 45 horses tested were found to contain Stanozolol and Ethylestranol, both anabolic steroids and both prohibited substances under the Rules of Racing. Further investigation identified a further 4 horses to whom such substances had been given in the previous month.

Apologies and expressions of remorse aside, Al Zarooni’s only explanation for his conduct was that he did not know that anabolic steroids were banned substances in British horseracing – he understood their use to be acceptable provided that they were administered not less than 28 days before a race. It was an explanation that the Disciplinary Panel of the British Horseracing Authority found incredible in the true sense of the word. He was disbelieved. The administrations had taken place covertly, without Al Zarooni consulting any of the world-class vets available to him within the Godolphin set up or telling them that the drugs were being administered. No record of the administrations had been made by al Zarooni in the Medication Record maintained for every horse by every licensed trainer – even though other drugs, legitimately administered to the same horses at around the same time, had been properly recorded.

 

The result

For Al Zarooni, an 8 year period of disqualification from racing, effectively ending his career in the sport. For the uninitiated, ‘disqualification’ is a draconian sanction. Not only does the individual lose his licence to train, he is banned from entering all licensed premises such as racecourses or training yards, he cannot work in racing in any capacity without special dispensation and he cannot associate with any licensed individual in connection with racing – trainers, jockeys, owners. In effect, he becomes a pariah from the sport.

For the horses to whom the drugs had been administered, a 6 month suspension from all races. Not long at first blush by comparison with human athletes – a single summer season – but bear in mind that these are top class flat horses, that may only race for 1 or 2 seasons before being retired to stud. CERTIFY, one of the fillies to whom Ethylestranol was administered, was a short price for next weekend’s 1,000 Guineas, and one of the favourites for the Oaks later this season. Success in those races would have guaranteed her value and future as a brood mare; now her 3 year old career will be barren.

 

What does this mean for British racing?

It would be naïve to conclude that confidence in British racing will not be knocked by the revelations that the abuse of anabolic steroids has been discovered in the sport – one needs only look at how the public perception of cycling changed once the widespread misuse of illegal doping agents became known. However, once the headlines have died down and today’s newspapers have become tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, a cooler, calmer head might say that British racing has much to be proud about in relation to this case. Consider the following 3 matters:

  1. The British Horseracing Authority takes and tests samples from approximately 8,000 horses each year. Its reputation within equine sport as a leader in the war on doping is peerless. In this case, its targeted testing in training programme – targeted at trainers whose past record over the administration or documenting of drugs has been found to be less than perfect – showed its worth, with the identification and suspension of 15 horses administered prohibited substances without any of those horses even getting close to a racetrack.
  2. The horses in question were tested in training on 9 April 2013. The positive samples were reported on 16 April 2013, and al-Zarooni was interviewed the following day. By 22 April 2013 charges had been brought and evidence served.. The Disciplinary Panel considered the charges at an expedited hearing – with al-Zarooni’s agreement – on 25 April 2013, and published its findings and penalty, with detailed reasons to follow, the same day. Swift, effective justice, culminating in the removal from the sport of an individual who has no place in it – a lesson which other sports might take on board
  3. The penalty imposed on al-Zarooni sends a clear message – cheats will not be tolerated in the sport of racing.

There is however a sad note of irony in all of this. There are numerous drugs with proven performance-enhancing properties in horses, all of which are of course banned under the Rules of Racing. Although performance-enhancing results have been conclusively demonstrated for anabolic steroids in human athletes, the same is not true in horses – there is anecdotal evidence of increased appetite, of increased muscular development, of improved recovery rate enabling more intensive training to take place, but nothing that one could describe as scientific proof. As the Disciplinary Panel found in a previous Inquiry

‘although the clinical effects of anabolic steroids have been well documented in humans, studies on racehorses have not been conducted to any great extent’ – there is a ‘… paucity of evidence [in the scientific literature] from which firm conclusions [as to the effect of anabolic steroids on the physiology of horses] could be drawn’.

Does that mean al-Zarooni has lost everything for nothing? Far from it, the fact that the effect of anabolic steroids on the physiology of a horse is unproven is not to be equated with there being no such effect. Unless and until it can be proved beyond doubt that anabolic steroids can and do have no short- or long-term performance enhancing effect on a horse, that class of drug should and will rightly remain subject to an absolute prohibition in British racing.

Article by 4 New Square


4 New Square’s barristers have a strong reputation for sports law – both in relation to sports disciplinary law and commercial sporting matters. See a full profile of the 4 New Square Sports Group.

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