BHA too quick to insist drug seizure has nothing to do with racing | Greg Wood

Sheikh Mohammed's endurance horse operation comes under scrutiny after drugs seized from Dubai government jet

When it emerged earlier this month that 124 illegally imported veterinary products had been seized in a raid at a property in Newmarket owned by the world's most powerful racehorse owner, the British Horseracing Authority appeared adamant it had nothing to do with them.

"This is a matter for Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which conducted the raid]," a BHA spokesman said. "In the view of Defra, there is no link between the seizure and the racing industry and the products were not intended for use on thoroughbreds."

Even then, it seemed quite casual, not least in the context of the Godolphin doping scandal which broke in April.

The horses which were found to have been doped with anabolic steroids by Mahmood al-Zarooni, including Encke, a Classic winner, are still serving their six-month bans from the sport. The account given by the BHA, which ejected Zarooni from racing with what felt like extraordinary speed a few days after the first positive tests at his stable, offers a vague and scarcely credible account of how he could have acquired industrial quantities of banned steroids.

Nor has it produced a satisfactory explanation of how he then managed, with the help of three junior staff, to dope at least 22 of his horses, and probably more, on a near-daily basis without anyone else realising what was happening. Zarooni did all this, apparently, while also spending all but a few days of the winter in Dubai.

Now, as it becomes clear that the structures and accountability in Sheikh Mohammed's endurance horse operation leave a lot to be desired, the BHA's breezy dismissal of any possible link with the racing side of the Sheikh's equine interests appears unwise at best. If, to quote a spokesman for Princess Haya, the International Federation of Equestrian Sports president, "nobody seems to know in the organisation who is buying what or where", then is it not at least possible that Sheikh Mohammed and his senior employees might have taken their eyes off the ball in the much larger thoroughbred operation too?

It is surely a possibility which any regulator should have considered before making what feels like a snap judgment about whether or not such a major seizure of unlicensed drugs at a Sheikh Mohammed-owned property and, as revealed by the Guardian on Monday, a second large seizure of similar drugs from a Dubai government jet, really has "nothing to do with racing". There are obvious echoes here of the situation at Moulton Paddocks after all, where nobody noticed or suspected what Zarooni was up to.

There have been crossing-points between endurance racing and thoroughbred racing before, the most obvious being a man called Mubarak bin Shafya, who trained two big winners on the Dubai World Cup card in 2009 and was subsequently banned for two years from endurance racing after one of his horses tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. Zarooni spent a year as Shafya's assistant before taking over at Moulton Paddocks, where he subsequently used stanozolol to dope the male horses in the stable, including Encke.

As evidence of lax procedures and management failure in Sheikh Mohammed's global operations grows, it seems ever more bizarre that the BHA conducted its inquiry into Zarooni backwards: ban him first, then investigate.

The BHA did not seek to take evidence from the Sheikh but relied instead on Godolphin's racing manager, Simon Crisford. It also tried to track down Zarooni for a further interview, not least because seven of the dopings, including Encke, emerged only after he had been banned for eight years for the initial 15 offences. Since his career was already in ruins and he had nothing – a reduced penalty, for instance – to gain by co-operating, Zarooni declined to pick up the phone.

So far the only person from outside Godolphin who is known to have addressed Sheikh Mohammed directly on the subject is Clare Balding, whose conversation with the ruler of Dubai on Guineas day at Newmarket was terminated the instant she mentioned Moulton Paddocks.

The BHA's apparent reluctance to get any formal input into its investigation from Sheikh Mohammed himself leaves it open to criticism that it is scared of approaching him. He has, after all, invested more money in British racing than any owner in history and the Newmarket economy might well collapse if he took offence and moved his bloodstock elsewhere, much as the Aga Khan did when Aliysa, his 1989 Oaks winner, failed a dope test. No ruler likes to have his authority undermined by potentially embarrassing questions.

Unelected rulers tend to like it least of all. Sheikh Mohammed, the monarch and prime minister of Dubai, is a man who gives orders rather than following them.

Yet something seems to have gone very wrong in the Sheikh's endurance racing programme if a large consignment of unlicensed, powerful drugs can arrive marked as "horse tack" on a private flight from Dubai. And we know for certain that something was very wrong on the racing side of his operation at Moulton Paddocks earlier this year but precious little detail about how Zarooni acquired and stored his drugs. The implication that he essentially went about his cheating alone, however, seems ever more difficult to believe.


Greg Wood

The GuardianTramp

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