Updated: Jul 17, 2021
On March 14th 2013, all eyes were on Cue Card as he won the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, beating the favourite First Lieutenant. Unbeknown to the racing public, there was something else going on at the same time on the other side of the country that was about to send a shock wave throughout the racing industry.
On that same day at racings HQ, Newmarket, Godolphin trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni made up five unmarked syringes containing Stanozolol, drove to his Moulton Paddocks yard, passed them through the window of his car to Sharif Mahboob (an unqualified veterinary assistant), and asked him to give them to the five horses that were listed on a piece of paper. It later transpired the steroids had been brought to the UK by trainer Al Zarooni via Dubai in his own luggage.
Unluckily for Al Zarooni, just 26 days later on April 9th, the BHA rocked up for a standard visit to carry out some routine testing. Al Zarooni was absent, back in Dubai for the World Cup meeting, while his assistant Charlie Appleby was left to show them round. The testing visit was led by Dr Lynn Hillyer, a Veterinary Officer employed by the BHA as their Veterinary Advisor. The medication logs appeared in good order and the BHA testers left.
However just a week later, on April 16th 2013, everything changed when the HFL Sports Science laboratory confirmed positive test results to the BHA. Shock and panic set in at the ramifications of it all; the very next morning, a hastily-convened meeting took place and by 3.00pm that afternoon there was another urgent meeting, this time with the accused trainer Al Zarooni in attendance.
He immediately confessed, explaining that the drugs came from Dubai and said he believed it could be used legally in the UK if a horse was not racing. However, his argument was immediately dismissed as he had not entered the steroids in the yards medication log book, which he would have if he thought they were legal. Apologetic and remorseful, he claimed to have acted alone and was handed down an 8 year ban.
In all, between April 29th and May 2nd, blood samples were taken from 391 horses and sent for analysis at HFL Sport Science. The BHA confirmed several positive tests for Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid, and a prohibited substance under the Rules of Racing. One of the positive tests included Encke, who had caused a 25/1 shock when winning the St Leger 7 months earlier when beating hot favourite Camelot.
More drama soon followed at Newmarket, when another trainer, Gerard Butler, was also embroiled in a steroid scandal. Butler admitted bypassing vets and administering a banned substance, which contains the steroid Stanozolol, to his horses. This opened a can of worms, as Butler claimed more than 100 horses at other stables would have been given the same treatment and it was common in the industry. He also said he had injected four other horses with Rexogin, which contains Stanozolol, and is used by human bodybuilders.
Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operation quickly distanced itself from it all, but the drugs used in the Zarooni scandal were obtained in Dubai, where they are legal. The racetrack in Dubai is also the training centre for the Godolphin operation. Meydan has been a fortress for them, literally. When you approach the stunning Meydan track, owners, vets, farriers, and trainers are sent off to a guarded checkpoint. Once through that with relevant necessary paperwork, they need to take the 'foreign' international road to the left that leads behind the racecourse. The right turn is strictly for 'home' horses only, where they have their own vast stables, with another guarded checkpoint to pass through. They are segregated from the outside world in effect and the world's eyes. Many European trainers secretly question what goes on behind the military style area.
More recently, a British Court heard tales of abduction, torture, and a campaign of intimidation against Princess Haya, wife of Sheikh Mohammed. But some of the tales heard in the courtroom then became fact when published in Fact Finding Judgement (FFJ) issued by the High Court in London.
The court found in favour of Princess Haya, who fled Dubai, along with her two children, telling her friends she was in real fear of her life.
Sheikh Mohammed tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the judgement out of the public domain, but that appeal was rejected after the case was ruled to be in the public interest. He had, according to the judgement, "not been open and honest with the court".
There can be no doubt that Sheikh Mohammed has been the most loyal of supporters to horse racing, relentless in his quest to support the industry, but sometimes you need to take a step back and ask at what price.
And more recently, the worlds richest race, the $20M Saudi Cup, has been marred in controversy as organisers announced the suspension of winnings after USA trainer Jason Servis was charged with administering banned substances to the Saudi Cup winner Maximum Security, amongst others.
US authorities issued an indictment against the trainer and alleged that Maximum Security was given a performance-enhancing drug. The winner’s $10m share is unrivalled in global racing.
This followed an FBI probe into horse-doping across the US and alleges that Maximum Security was given a 'designer' performance-enhancing drug: SGF-1000. More frightening was the amount of trainers and horses implicated in the scandal. Put simply, it is rife.
There are lots of similarities between this case of doping and that of cycling, as can be seen in the award winning documentary 'Stop At Nothing'. But the biggest scandal to rock the sport was the 'Festina Affair', in the 1998 Tour De France, when a Festina car, loaded with drugs, was intercepted. All 9 team Festina riders confessed to using the banned performance enhancing substance Erythropoietin (EPO). Later, in the same tour, six riders from another team (TVM) were found with illegal substances and soon after all hell broke loose. Strangely though, people often refer to the Festina Affair and Lance Armstrong in the same breath. He was at the Tour De France that year, but not as a rider, just a spectator. He had nothing to do with the Festina Affair whatsoever and therefore was clearly not the instigator. Sounds familiar.