By Justin Palmer
LONDON (Reuters) - The royal blue silks of Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin stables have become synonymous with two decades of elite racing success but the reputation of the Dubai ruler's global operation has come under a doping cloud.
Trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni, who last year won the world's richest horse race - the Dubai World Cup - could lose his licence after admitting using banned steroids to dope thoroughbred horses in Britain.
Eleven horses under Al Zarooni's care in Newmarket, southern England - the headquarters of British flat racing - tested positive with samples found to contain traces of anabolic steroids, including leading 1,000 Guineas hope Certify (ethylestranol) and Ascot Gold Cup runner-up Opinion Poll (stanozolol).
Emirati Al Zarooni has admitted making a "catastrophic error" while Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, United Arab Emirates Prime Minister and Dubai ruler was said to be "absolutely appalled" when told.
The Sheikh, whose passion for horses helped transform Dubai into a world power in flat racing, has not yet commented on the doping allegations on his official Twitter page, which he often uses to tweet his thoughts and government decisions.
Godolphin, which takes its name from The Godolphin Arabian, one of the three foundation stallions imported into England nearly 300 years ago, have won 202 Group One races in 12 different countries since Sheikh Mohammed established training operations in Dubai and England in 1992.
From the Al Quoz stable complex, with the gleaming high-rise skyline of Dubai as its backdrop, to the rolling gallops of Newmarket Heath, Godolphin have produced illustrious names such as Balanchine, Lammtarra, Daylami, Swain, Halling, Fantastic Light and Dubai Millennium.
Leading British horse racing pundit and broadcaster Jim McGrath said it was "astonishing" that Al Zarooni had not realised he was in breach of Britain's rules of racing.
Al Zarooni, training for Godolphin since 2010, has said because the horses involved were not racing at the time, he did not realise he was breaking rules.
"Even allowing for the fact that in terms of years, he's not been training for that long, but given his background and success he's had already, that he claims he didn't know the rules about the use of anabolic steroids - two words that are incredibly provocative in the field of any sport - is astonishing," McGrath told Reuters.
"It's bad for the sport. From Sheikh Mohammed's perspective, he's someone who withdrew his representative from the Breeders' Cup committee because of their stance on masking drugs.
"When they refused to bring in a zero tolerance rule to the Breeders' Cup he took his man away so when you take a hard and fast rule on drugs and then your own horses are found - 11 of them - to have tested positive for the one drug that people raise their eyebrows at, then it's obviously very embarrassing for him."
The race-day use of anti-bleeder medication Lasix in the United States is highly controversial in the sport and last month the Breeders' Cup announced it was rescinding its plan to bar the use of it in all of its 2013 races.
The U.S. is the only major racing jurisdiction that permits the use of raceday medication and the move prompted Oliver Tait, chief operating officer of Sheikh Mohammed's Darley breeding operation, to resign from the Breeders' Cup board.
McGrath said not every racing country banned the use of anabolic steroids in "spelling" - when horses are out of training.
"They certainly do here (in Britain) but in Australia, for example, they are probably saying so what?", he said.
"If your horse is out of training and you want to give it a tonic, in effect a boost, provided it's out of training you can do so."
Al Zarooni's lapse of judgement is all the more surprising given that the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) had warned that his Moulton Paddocks stable could be visited for spot tests this year after he was fined 1,000 pounds in 2012 after two of his horses tested positive for the painkiller propoxyphene.
BHA figures reveal a picture of isolated incidents of doping racehorses in Britain.
In 2011, 7,619 samples were analysed from just short of 95,000 raceday runners and from those, 13 horses tested positive for a prohibited substance. None of the 13 revealed a performance enhancing drug.
National Trainers Federation chief executive Rupert Arnold said the organisation was "stunned by the revelation of these positive tests".
"Godolphin's reputation has been damaged but British horseracing should take confidence from the detection of this wrongful use of prohibited substances," Arnold told Reuters.
"The BHA has a stringent policy for testing horses in training, fully supported by the National Trainers Federation, to ensure everyone competes on an equal footing.
"Trainers in Britain are well used to unannounced visits by BHA officials to test their horses. This testing happens regularly and this incident is extremely unusual."
(Additional reporting by Martin Dokoupil in Dubai, Editing by Mark Meadows)