Racing: Godolphin doping scandal puts racing in dock

The powerful Godolphin stable may have described the doping scandal that has engulfed them as a "dark day" in their illustrious history but the same could be said for the whole of racing.

The sport that thrives on its historical status as "The Sport of Kings" has made great play over the years about how integrity is crucial to a sport that derives the vast majority of its income for prize money on cash investments by ordinary punters.

Despite several race-fixing scandals, those punters and sponsors have stayed loyal to racing because they have largely believed that the sport was honest, with horses running on their merits.

But the revelation on Monday that 11 horses of one of Godolphin's trainers Mahmood Al Zarooni had tested positive for banned anabolic steroids has put a huge dent in that perception, even if such cases are rare.

Racing, though, has had its issues with doping over the years.

In Australia, pre-race testing was introduced in the 1970s when a Sydney-based gang was caught after they doped several horses to stop them from winning.

Western Australia had a spate of doping cases in the following decade when several horses were tested positive for the stimulant etorphine, sometimes referred to as "elephant juice".

Its use only came to light when one horse powered from last to first in a flash of the eye, all but refused to be pulled up and then dropped dead when it returned to the winner's enclosure.

The United States, too, has come in for criticism from European rivals for allowing horses to run on the diuretic furosemide, marketed as Lasix, which prevents them from bleeding, a common occurrence among horses when under stress.

European trainers taking horses to the United States have said the use of furosemide was an unfair advantage.

The use of the drug will be banned at the prestigious end of season Breeders' Cup this year, despite protests from US trainers.

"There's no doubt that Lasix improves a horse's performance," reigning English champion trainer John Gosden, who had a successful spell training in California, told The Guardian newspaper before the last edition of the race.

"One basic reason is that it reduces body weight (via fluid loss). It also reduces pressure on the capillaries, so there's no doubt that as a drug, it helps horses to run faster.

"If you're having a so-called world championship, from that point of view you probably need to have it drug-free."

The irony of the Godolphin case is that the stable's supremo, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum fought hard for doping rules to be reviewed in the United States.

Now he finds Godolphin -- who have recorded over 2,000 winners in 14 countries including 200 Group One winners since his brainchild came to fruition in 1992 -- in the spotlight for different reasons.

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) formally charged 37-year-old Al Zarooni on Wednesday, warning that he could be stripped of his training licence if found guilty at a disciplinary hearing on Thursday.

He has described his administration of the drug to the 11 horses -- and four others who were not tested -- as a "catastrophic error".

It will also dent the public perception of Godolphin's famous blue silks and Sheikh Mohammed, who once famously stayed in the stable with his superstar Dubai Millennium as he lay dying from colic.

"Sheikh Mohammed is an incredibly proud man, the horse to him is almost like family and this scandal will have hurt him very deeply," a racing manager for a leading owner told AFP under condition of anonymity.

"Racing is a huge part of his life. His (own maroon and white) silks and those of Godolphin racing abroad are like a statement about Dubai and its international status and prestige and this scandal will to him have shamed both him and his country but through no fault of his own.

"The stigma that will attach itself to those of his horses running in the future is unquantifiable and it will be interesting to see how the crowd reacts when his first winner returns to the enclosure."

National Trainers Federation chief executive Rupert Arnold said the Al Zarooni affair was not a reflection of the overall use of drugs in British racing.

"The Godolphin management, for whom Mr Al Zarooni trains, is a byword for the highest levels of professionalism, integrity and sportsmanship.

"We fully endorse the British Horseracing Authority's testing in training regime and all efforts to prevent the use of any prohibited substance to gain an unfair advantage.

"Without wanting to diminish the seriousness of this case, in some ways it is a positive message that the presence of these substances was detected so the sport is kept clean."