Bohemian Rhapsody

Robyn's racing rambles

Race Day Drugs

Race Day Drugs

Most people who are involved with horses also know the inside of their car pretty well. This is because few of us are lucky enough to keep our horses at home anymore and it’s one of those ironies of life that where we used to use horses for transport, we now need transport in order to use our horses. Of course, if you need to move a horse from one place to another, that means even more time in a vehicle, usually moving at the kind of speeds that make horseboxes nearly as popular on the road as cyclists. And so I’ve come to know my local radio stations quite well.

On the advice of a good friend I recently switched from 5FM (sorry Gareth and Fresh) to Talk Radio which this week hosted an interesting debate on whether parents should be allowed to discipline their children by smacking them or not. One listener wrote in to comment “parents who don’t hit their children don’t love them.”

It was a rather inflammatory comment, no-doubt designed to irritate fans of the ‘naughty corner’, but it was an interesting one nonetheless. I confess to finding half a ton of muscle with a mind of its own far less intimidating than 3kgs of something that doesn’t stop drooling till it’s 3. Cheaper too (well, for the most part anyway). But there are similarities between the two in terms of raising a nice baby.


While there is a bohemian part of me that wishes life could be free and unstructured, the irritating fact is that the freer and more creative things are, the more likely they are to be based on some fairly sound and usually rather boring ground rules. In the same way that great symphonies are built on those boring old piano scales, good horsemanship is also built on observing some basic rules.

Horse rules start before you even get on the damn things. You mount from the left and most of the work you do with a horse is done from the left (this is a legacy from old cavalry days when gentlemen wore swords on their left hips).

You hold your reins a certain way (to allow for maximum range of motion and ‘feel’ on the other end), you don’t walk behind a horse without keeping a hand on it to let it know where you are and you never approach a horse from behind (horses have a blind spot directly behind them and, like humans, are easily frightened or upset when things creep up on them from behind and likely to kick). Wear gloves (to protect your hands) and sturdy shoes with a heel (to prevent your toes being squashed and your foot slipping through a stirrup).

All good, practical rules based on common sense, which then make it easier and safer for you to enjoy your ride. Rules make sense of the world. They make sure that everyone has their place and knows how to behave and they keep you safe. When you’re dealing with something that is dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle, this is pretty sensible really!

But it turns out that we now need to write common sense advice into rules, because it turns out that common sense is not as common as one might assume. And of course assumption is generally the mother of most er, misunderstandings.

Sheikh, Rattle and Roll

So, where am I going with all this? Well, we are in the death throes of the Sheikh Mohammed / Mahmood al-Zarooni debacle. In April, a number of the horses in Mr al-Zarooni’s care at Godolphin’s Moulton Paddocks facility tested positive for banned substances. Anabolic steroids, in fact.

A disciplinary hearing was hastily arranged and on 25 April 2013 the Sheikh’s conditioner was banned from racing for 8 years. Which is a little like blaming the nanny when the children behave badly if you ask me, but that’s the way things go. In a further twist, Mr Zarooni appealed the BHA’s decision in early May, but then chose to withdraw his appeal later that month.

The Sheikh, said to be ‘beside himself with fury’, has launched an investigation into his Godolphin set-up as well as going so far as announcing plans to criminalise the use of steroids in horse sports across the UAE. This may have additional repercussions as Sheikh Mohammed, current FEI World Endurance Riding Champion, has a string of drug positives attached to his endurance racing string, dating as far back as 2005.

In fact, in 2009 under the rules of the International Equestrian Federation, the Sheikh’s horse Tahhan tested positive for guanabenz and stanozolol in two competitions that year, earning the ruler of Dubai a 6 month ban from competition while his trainer received a year’s suspension.

At the time the Sheikh also promised a thorough investigation into his endurance stable operation. But getting back to the current matter, the British Horseracing Authority launched an inquiry and published their findings last week. It has prompted a host of commentary and recriminations in the British press.

Not least of all because the blame was neatly heaped on the trainer and then the case was closed while the owner got off scott free. In fact, Sheikh Mohammed somewhat infamously declined to even be questioned on the matter by Clare Balding after Dawn Approach’s triumph in the 2000 Guineas.

The Sheik’s accountability in the matter (or as it turns out, lack of it) has naturally sparked a certain amount of speculation as to the Sheikh’s position at the Jockey Club and the relationship between the Jockey Club and the BHA.

If the regulators are shackled to the very people they need to regulate, and the biggest doping scandal in recent history, involving one of the most prominent members of the Jockey Club, is handled so tamely, it makes things look a little, well, odd. The USA also saw a media-storm last week over a horse called Monzante, once a Gr1 winner who broke down during a claiming race at Evangeline Downs in Louisiana and was subsequently euthanized.

Not to be too sensationalist about it (race day meds are legal in the US), the horse did have a number of substances in his system at the time. Again, the trainer has been roundly vilified with barely a reference to the current owner(s) of the horse. At a time when racing is haemorrhaging ground in terms of revenue and support, we don’t need to give the outside world any additional reason to doubt our integrity and yet we only seem able to generate outside press interest for the wrong reasons.

Why do I care?

These things are happening far away and in entirely different racing jurisdictions, so why should I worry about it? Well, I worry because ideas are pervasive and have a habit of spreading. And if something is permissible in one part of the world, you can be pretty sure that it won’t be long before other parts of the world are asking why they can’t do it too (anyone with kids will be well versed in this argument!).

The USA permits raced day medication and the rules and regulations governing their use differs from State to State. The UAE seems to allow (or used to anyway) the use of steroids on racehorses based in Dubai, provided they had cleared the animal’s system by race day. This is more or less in line with common practice in South Africa. And there are already talks about adjusting local threshold testing levels.

As I’m often told that I moan about things without offering any sensible solutions, I’d like to have a go at this one. It is mainly focused on the race-day medication issue, but really is applicable across the board. And it is this – we need a cohesive and uniform approach. Preferably on an international scale. If racing is an international game, then surely there should be an international set of rules?

Better yet, how about giving our regulators some actual power and then permitting them to use it? As the old joke goes, once you’ve appointed an accountant, you then need a second one to check on the first, but that’s an argument for another day. An industry standard (and the means to uphold it) would seem to be the only effective way to create a level playing field across the board.

Of course build a set of rules and someone will argue that it will simply create a more creative crook, but a chat with Barry Irwin a few months ago delivered an interesting idea. I think it is a given that our testing methods are probably always going to lag behind our transgressors, so he suggested the idea of periodic retrospective testing as testing methodologies became more advanced. Food for thought.

I do know that racing could do with some positive press for a change and I think that seeing racing succeed is something that we all want. So getting back to the issue of whether to smack the kids or not, they say a good trainer can make a horse do what he wants. A great trainer can make him want to.  Perhaps we’ve been looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. Instead of trying to stop people doing the wrong thing, we should be trying to encourage them to do the right one.

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