Mandatory sanction the best deterrent in drive for effective doping controls
To celebrate the countdown to Christmas, the Racing Post is giving away one piece of paid content free each day. Here, in his latest weekly column, Julian Muscat reflects on the ramifications of the recent case concerning the BHA and Philip Hobbs
Robert Browning’s celebrated poem, Home Thoughts From Abroad, came to mind while yours truly spent the last three weeks in the Med. Wherever you are in the world, it’s hard to completely detach yourself from what’s happening back in Blighty.
The recent business involving Philip Hobbs, in which the BHA lost its appeal against a disciplinary panel verdict not to sanction the trainer over a positive test returned by one of his horses, Keep Moving, was a case in point. The panel’s original ruling in August had come as a big surprise, since trainers whose horses had failed a test were invariably disciplined as a consequence.
Nobody had any issue with it, either. Breaching doping controls merited disciplinary rebuke on the grounds that trainers were deemed strictly liable. Indeed, that’s the basis around which doping controls in most sports are implemented. It has to be that way.
When a test is failed, it cannot be enough for offenders to escape sanction through the assertion they did not knowingly ingest the substance, and that they had taken all reasonable precautions to prevent a positive test.
Perplexingly, however, that is what happened in the Hobbs case. The relevant BHA law did not stand up to legal scrutiny, and while the horse in question was disqualified, the matter ended there. Hobbs avoided sanction because the law did not make it mandatory in accordance with the BHA’s stated intentions on doping control.
Hobbs’ reputation and disciplinary record require no further endorsement from this quarter, but that is beside the point. Here was a man whose strict liability in respect of his horses had not been enforced by the law’s failure to provide for it. So when the BHA announced it wanted to tighten up the relevant law, you would have thought the rest of the industry would stand squarely behind it.
But no, an axis of learned friends and trainers condemned the BHA in the strongest terms, the former even suggesting the BHA risked a mutiny if it proceeded. More than a week has passed since I read about this on foreign shores. The sense of bewilderment remains as strong now as it was then.
Hobbs’s horse tested positive for cetirizine, a relatively innocuous prohibited substance in the grand scheme of things. However, substitute anabolic steroid for cetirizine and the story takes on a more sinister slant.
Because, as the law stands, it is entirely possible that a disciplinary panel could in future reach a similar conclusion when presiding over an anabolic steroid positive. A precedent has been set. If the panel believed a trainer who maintained that the steroid was unintentionally present, and that the trainer had taken all reasonable measures to prevent a positive test, it may find no requirement to sanction him.
As it happens, the BHA finds itself in this very predicament where Hughie Morrison is concerned. Morrison is scheduled to appear before the disciplinary panel two weeks today over a steroid detected in a sample from one of his horses in January. The trainer has insisted all along he has no idea of the steroid’s origin. The BHA will be on tenterhooks. If Morrison is found to have taken all reasonable measures to prevent a positive test, he may escape sanction.
Of course, trainers have far less control than human athletes over what their horses ingest, or what they come into contact with at racecourses. It is far easier for someone to sabotage one of more than 200 horses in a trainer’s care than to contaminate an individual athlete’s food. But you cannot legislate for exceptions. It would also be unacceptable were nobody held to account for a failed steroid test.
For the BHA, the timing could not be worse. It has had no opportunity to consider the flawed rule ahead of the Morrison hearing, which is worrying to say the least. But the BHA is right to want to tighten the legal screws. No rule is worth the paper it is printed on unless it comes hand in hand with a meaningful deterrent.
Ironically, the BHA knows this very well. The sanction it imposes on whip breaches singularly fails to dissuade jockeys from flaunting those regulations in big races, as Paul Townend did in winning the Ladbrokes Trophy on Saturday.
When it comes to doping control, a failed test has to result in a mandatory sanction. Of course, trainers in that predicament have the opportunity to mitigate that sanction, which takes account of any 'previous'. But sanction there must be. The opportunity to escape it is simply inviting trouble.
A very similar scenario unfolded in tennis 20 years ago, when Petr Korda escaped sanction for returning a positive steroid test on the grounds that he had not knowingly ingested nandrolone. The rules as they stood at the time did not compel the authorities to sanction him.
They were promptly rewritten. The move was seen as a necessary step in the drive towards effective doping controls, for which tennis earned a deserved and tarnished reputation for laxity. It would be a travesty were racing to be seen in a similar light.
Fairyhouse shows small can be beautiful
It is nothing new for good races, in particular valuable novice chases, to be reopened for the lack of sufficient entries. It has almost become the norm; the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown on Saturday is the latest such example.
To this eye, small fields rarely serve to diminish the spectacle even though they are decried by bookmakers and generate less in media rights payments for racecourses that stage them.
However, the caveat is that there is sufficient quality within those small fields. It isn’t particularly edifying to watch what is in effect a match race, much less a long odds-on favourite outclassing three or four others in a Grade 1.
We all know that Cheltenham in March has become the be-all and end-all. And we recognise in consequence that meaningful clashes between promising novices have become few and far between during the preamble. But that doesn’t mean we should shrug our collective shoulders and carry on regardless.
The card at Fairyhouse on Sunday made a perfect example of how small fields do not equate to dull racing. None of the three Grade 1 races attracted more than seven runners, yet each was a little gem.
The Hatton’s Grace Hurdle featured three individual winners from the Cheltenham Festival in March, while the novice hurdle and novice chase were so competitive virtually every runner had some sort of chance.
In contemplating this fabulous turnout, you couldn’t help but wonder why similar races for talented novices in Britain pale by comparison. The big Christmas festival at Kempton is imminent. The prospect of it replicating the quality fare at Fairyhouse is slim.
Marquesa the leader
The plethora of high-class French-bred jumpers doing the rounds on British racecourses is a relatively recent phenomenon. What was once a trickle has become a torrent. So much so that France’s premier jumps races, formerly an impenetrable fortress to British and Irish raiders, are nothing like as competitive as they once were.
The person most responsible for this one-way flow of equine traffic was the Marquesa de Moratalla, who sadly died in France last week. In tandem with her trainer, Francois Doumen, Sol, as she was known to all, introduced many in Britain to the merits of French-bred jumpers through the remarkable exploits of The Fellow.
British racegoers first saw The Fellow when he finished third behind Desert Orchid in the 1980 King George. This auspicious introduction was notable in another respect. The Fellow was just five years old, an age when some British and Irish stores had only just been retrieved from the field in which, to that point, they had spent their entire lives. It was certainly an eye-opener.
The Fellow would subsequently win the King George twice and the 1994 Gold Cup after he’d twice been denied – both times by a short-head – in earlier renewals. There could be no greater advertisement for French-bred jumpers than The Fellow. The Marquesa’s decision to campaign him in Britain’s premier jumps racing established a legacy that will last for many years yet.
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