The doping scandal that led to the downfall of Godolphin trainer Mahmood al-Zarooni could ultimately lead to a global ban on anabolic steroids in horse racing.
Days after Al-Zarooni was banned for eight years for using steroids on his horses in Britain, the Australian and American industries are discussing something that a few years ago seemed inconceivable. Currently, only most of Europe has such a ban. Steroids are allowed in training in Australia, the U.S. and United Arab Emirates but banned on race day.
The International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, which includes the world's top racing bodies, is expected to consider a global ban at its annual meeting in October.
"That situation in England will of course be a good wave to surf to reach harmonization around the world," said Roland Devolz, a veterinarian and technical adviser for the IFHA.
"There will be discussion to reach a consensus ... to get anabolics out of training everywhere. As a vet, I believe that racing must be a fair game. If people don't apply the same rule, it is an unfair game."
Many view this as a turning point in the sport, like in 2008 when trainer Rick Dutrow said he injected 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown with anabolic steroids. Even though, the trainer did not break any rules, his admission sparked outrage and contributed to the drug ban on race days in the United States, which until then had lagged behind much of the world.
Several jurisdictions, including Kentucky, moved swiftly to ban race day use of anabolic steroids. The Kentucky Derby, to be run Saturday, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., has barred their use since the 2009 race.
Graham Motion, the trainer of 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, supports a global ban on anabolics and dismissed any concerns about the ban from the United States.
"Look, in this day in age, any movement to a medication-free sport is what we need to do," Motion said. "There is so much scrutiny in the sport so that is the way it will have to be in the future. People in America are making excuses why they need medication. I don't buy it. I don't buy the excuses. In America in general, we are constantly looking for a crutch."
Supporters of steroids argue they have their place: to help a sick horse regain its appetite, allow a speedy recovery from a grueling race and especially with geldings that lose natural steroids when they are castrated. But they are also the ultimate performance-enhancing drug, helping horses build muscle mass to gain an unfair advantage on the track even though it distorts their breeding potential.
The use of steroids in training dates back to the 1950s and was quietly accepted in many places, since top trainers are experienced enough to navigate the myriad rules and regulations of racing internationally. It can take up to several months for the substances to clear a horse's system, and trainers know they have to meet set limits before they are allowed to race.
Those who were caught blamed inconsistencies in testing standards across the world. Takeover Target, an Australian horse which won several top races in Japan and Britain, was withdrawn from the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sprint in 2006 after testing positive for steroids and its trainer Joe Janiak was fined 200,000 Hong Kong dollars ($25,771.) The horse would have been allowed to race in Australia with the same test outcome.
Al-Zarooni's case was worse, however, and showed the extent some trainers will go to gain an advantage.
When caught, he feigned ignorance of the BHA rules and insisted he was only following what is commonplace in Dubai. But it was revealed at the BHA hearing that the trainer did plenty to hide his actions. He carried the steroids in his luggage to Britain and passed some in unmarked syringes to an unlicensed veterinary assistant at Godolphin's Moulton Paddocks stables.
He also didn't record anything about the steroids as required in the stable's medication book — a decision which the BHA said showed he was "simply not truthful" when he argued he was unaware of the ban.
"The Panel concluded that al-Zarooni sought to confer an unfair advantage on his horses by the underhand administration of illegal medication," according the BHA hearing transcript. "His attempt at cheating was uncovered by the regulatory inspection and he had no justifiable excuse for his behavior."
Sheikh Mohammad moved quickly after the scandal, ordering a review of its internal procedures and vowing that no horse from the stables will run this year until assurances they are all clean. But the Ruler of Dubai, who has campaigned against the diuretic Lasix at the Breeders' Cup, has yet to say anything about anabolic steroids.
The Emirates Racing Authority, which regulates racing in the United Arab Emirates, also has not indicated there will be any policy change.
The push for a global ban is coming from Asia.
Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and an IFHA vice chairman, said he saw no place for anabolic steroids in training and expects a "robust discussion" at the next IFHA meeting on their removal from the sport. Describing them as having a "detrimental effect" on racing, he is troubled from an ethical and "animal welfare" point of view with their use.
"For me, this is not what racing is all about," Engelbrecht-Bresges said. "You should not justify these arguments that the horse eats better afterward. That is not, for me, a reason why you would risk a significant negative influence on the integrity of the sport and the competition."
Dr. Brian Stewart, head of Equine Welfare & Veterinary Service for Racing Victoria, acknowledged there is a "long history and culture" of anabolic steroid use in Australian racing and that it wasn't viewed as "cheating as such since everyone has equal access to it."
But Stewart said the Godolphin scandal has sparked a debate in Australia and has prompted a review of the country's steroid policy.
"There are a lot of people in Australia who think what Australia is doing is perfectly reasonable and suitable for Australian conditions," Stewart said. "But I think it's inevitable that there will be zero tolerance for anabolics in racing."
An outright ban may not eliminate them altogether, causing problems of consistency. There may be a push to allow their use for treatment in certain circumstances — but some labs, like those in Hong Kong, are able to detect steroids from several months ago while the limit is only a month for others. That would make it easier for a trainer to circumvent the system.
And then there is the United States.
It remains doubtful whether North American racing, including the U.S. and its 38 racing authorities, would go along with a ban. The U.S. has long been out of step with Europe, and to some degree Asia, on doping controls. It allows Lasix and the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone during races while most other racing authorities don't.
Dr. Dionne Benson, the executive director of Racing Medication & Testing Consortium, which develops and promote uniform rules, policies and testing standards at American tracks, said anabolic steroids do have legitimate uses in treating sick horses and for that reason "we would have a hard time banning them altogether."
She argued that post-race testing at nearly all American tracks was sufficient to catch anyone training a horse on steroids.
"To say you train a horse on anabolic steroids, it isn't really accurate because the withdrawal time to get those thresholds are so long," Benson said of the limits allowed on race day. "It's in excess of 30 days. They aren't the kind of medications used on a regular basis to get a horse from race to race. The withdrawal times are too long and they would eventually get caught."
The U.S. could refuse to sign an IFHA ban like it does on the IFHA's regulation regarding medications allowed during races. But Devolz and others said that could make it even more difficult for American horses to race abroad.
"The Americans will have to move their position on all the medication policies," Devolz said. "Otherwise, there are some places that will not accept any horses trained in USA for competition in their country. The public opinion will push them anyhow. They are not going to stick their heads in sand like ostriches, they will have to move."