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Drugs in British horseracing: Dopey

April 30, 2013

My blog for The Economist

THE news, at the very start of a new flat-racing season, that anabolic steroids have been found in 11 horses belonging to a leading owner has shocked many inside the sport and many more who follow it. When millions of pounds are at stake in prize money and betting, there is always a risk that people will behave badly.

But British horseracing has, by and large, shaken off the reputation it once had for dodgy dealing. Save one or two incidents in the last couple of decades, such as low level trainers instructing jockeys to lose races, the sport has been fairly free of corruption. Unlike racing in America, the reputation of which has been blighted by doping, the sport in Britain has strict policies on drug use.

It is in large part thanks to these rules that horseracing is the second-largest spectator sport in the country. Only football is more popular. People trust that they are watching a fair contest, which is why they turn up in their droves (at least for important meetings) and spend millions of pounds betting.

The saddest and most shocking aspect of the scandal is that it has struck the very pinnacle of British racing. Godolphin, to which the 11 horses belong, is one of the biggest operators in the racing world. It is owned by Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, who has invested many millions in the sport.

The trainer at the centre of the scandal, Mahmood Al Zarooni, was one of his two British-based trainers, at the heart of his operation. The horses involved are of the highest class. Certify (pictured) is unbeaten: she was among the favourites for the 1,000 Guineas, one of the two most important races for three-year-old fillies, at Newmarket on May 5th. Opinion Poll came second at Royal Ascot in last year’s Gold Cup, another of the best races on the calendar.

There is no implication that Sheikh Mohammed had any knowledge of what was going on. Even so, this is hugely embarrassing for him. He takes a close interest in his racing business, and even ships his horses over from Britain to Dubai every winter so they can enjoy the sun. The news will hit him hard. On April 24th the sheikh, “appalled and angered”, closed Mr Al Zarooni’s yard and said that no horse from there would run until he is satisfied that every one is clean.

Sheikh Mohammed’s response is one silver lining in this dark cloud. However, there are others. First, it shows that the rules do work. However late in the day, the British Horseracing Authority found out a cheat. Mr Al Zarooni should be dealt with harshly when he faces a disciplinary hearing on April 25th. A life ban from the sport may deter other would-be dopers.

Second, in the “sport of kings” money and influence are no barrier against prosecution. Sheikh Mohammed is one of the two most powerful men in racing—his only challenger is John Magnier, an Irish magnate—yet the authorities were prepared to pursue his stable despite the embarrassment it would cause.

Of course, the horses are not the only participants in racing to be found with banned substances in their systems. In recent years two of the sport’s most famous jockeys, Keiron Fallon and Frankie Dettori, have both been suspended after testing positive for cocaine.

Update (April 25th, 19:30 BST): On April 25th the British Horseracing Authority said it had banned Mr Al Zarooni for eight years and suspended 15 of Godolphin’s horses, including Certify and Opinion Poll, from running for six months.

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