Talking Horses: why BHA will be in a tricky position if Zarooni returns

Had things turned out differently for Mahmood al-Zarooni – had he not made what he described last week as his “big mistake” – he might well have woken up on Monday morning as one of the most famous and successful trainers in the business, with not one, but two recent Derby winners at Godolphin’s stable near Newmarket.

Instead of fame and fortune, of course, Zarooni earned only notoriety, as the trainer who masterminded the most extensive steroid-doping operation in British turf history. And he left the sport in April 2013 with another unwanted record to his name, having been banned for eight years just three days after the British Horseracing Authority announced that 11 of 45 horses sampled at Moulton Paddocks earlier in the month had tested positive for steroids.

The time between the discovery of such a serious offence and the disciplinary hearing to resolve the case would normally be measured in months or even years, not days and hours. This light-speed turning of the BHA’s wheels of justice may be why some reports last week, following Zarooni’s announcement that he has been granted a licence by the Emirates Racing Authority, suggested that in total, 15 horses at his stable were doped with either stanozolol, if they were male, or ethylestranol (under the brand name Nitrotain) if they were fillies or geldings.

Fifteen is indeed the number if you Google the reports of Zarooni’s disciplinary hearing on 25 April 2013. The trainer himself supplied the names in a handwritten note, adding four to the 11 which had initially tested positive and making the claim – accepted by the panel – that this was a full and complete list of the horses which had been doped.

The truth of it, though, is that no one – including the BHA and quite possibly even Zarooni himself – can be certain just how many of his horses were given steroids in late winter and early spring of 2013. Zarooni, after all, was in Dubai for much of that time, overseeing a big team of Godolphin runners for the Spring Carnival at Meydan.

The main reason for the uncertainty, though, is the BHA’s decision to accept Zarooni’s personal account of the affair and then convene a disciplinary panel to ban him, before it knew the results of dope tests on the other 150 or so horses at his stable that had not been sampled already.

When those results came back, there were seven more positives – including Encke, the 2012 St Leger winner, who was not on Zarooni’s initial list. This raised two possibilities. The first was that Zarooni had completely forgotten about one of the most high-profile and successful horses in his yard – the colt that denied Camelot a Triple Crown, no less. The second was that – understandably, perhaps, as he was probably 3,000 miles away at the time – he did not know that Encke had been doped.

The length of time it took for the BHA to test the fillies and geldings in Zarooni’s string raises yet more questions because Nitrotain, the drug used at Moulton Paddocks, leaves a horse’s system much more rapidly, in as little as 24 hours, in fact, according to Caroline Garvan, a vet from Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, who gave evidence to a court case in 2014 after 1kg of Nitrotain was found at Philip Fenton’s stable in 2012. So it is impossible to know how many more horses might have tested positive if tested earlier.

If Nitrotain rings a more recent bell, incidentally, that is because it has featured prominently in Jim Bolger’s claims over the last few months that drugs – and steroids in particular – are the “No 1 problem” in Irish racing. John Hughes, a former vet, was banned from racing for life in 2014 after he was found to have imported 250kg of Nitrotain in Ireland and as Bolger has pointed out, no one imports such an immense quantity of a banned drug unless they are confident of finding a buyer. Bolger has been asked to expand on his claims in front of an Irish parliamentary committee on 6 July, which could make for riveting viewing.

For Nitrotain to have any significant effect on a horse, it needs to be administered orally on a daily basis and 1kg is enough for about 250 doses. We can only speculate as to how much would have been needed for Zarooni’s operation – again, as a result of the complete lack of a proper BHA investigation – but his claim to have imported all the drugs he required in his luggage, on his very occasional trips back to Newmarket would have required a lot of room.

In fact, the BHA’s entire “rogue male acting alone” theory was effectively shot to pieces when the seven “extra” positives came back from the lab in 2013, but all the many questions this raised remain unanswered because by that point, Zarooni was unavailable to answer them.

The BHA’s response to the doping scandal was undoubtedly a masterclass in crisis and image management, which allowed the affair to slip off the mainstream news radar with relative speed. But when it came to uncovering the full extent of the doping activities at Moulton Paddocks – who knew what, did what and when – it was woefully inadequate. This will put the BHA in a tricky position if Zarooni ever wants to run a horse in Britain or even, at some point in the future, applies for a licence to set up a stable here.

Will the regulator finally insist that he gives a complete – and credible – account of what went on at his stable in 2013? Or will it decide that it was all a long time ago, that Zarooni has served his ban and that this is one sleeping dog that is best left to snore? I know where my money will be going.

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