The British Horseracing Authority’s zero-tolerance policy on doping with anabolic steroids, which was introduced in the wake of the Mahmoud al-Zarooni scandal at Godolphin in 2013, will be put to the test in London over the next two days when the long-running case involving Hughie Morrison and his filly Our Little Sister is finally heard by the regulator’s disciplinary panel.
The one point in the case that is not in dispute is that Our Little Sister, a four-year-old filly, returned a positive test for nandrolone, an anabolic steroid, after finishing last in an eight-runner race at Wolverhampton on 14 January. The news of the positive result emerged in May, when Morrison offered a £10,000 reward for any information that could help him to clear his name, but seven months later he will arrive at the BHA’s High Holborn offices facing the threat of a ban from racing of at least one year as a result of the authority’s “strict liability” policy on drugs.
The case is the first involving anabolic steroids to be heard by the disciplinary panel since 2013, when al-Zarooni was banned from racing for eight years for doping more than 20 horses at Moulton Paddocks stables in Newmarket with either stanozolol or ethylestrenol. Later the same year, Gerard Butler was banned for five years at the conclusion of the “Sungate” case, when the trainer admitted using a drug containing stanozolol on horses at his stable.
It is also the first high-profile case under the doping rules since the disciplinary panel decided not to impose a penalty on the trainer Philip Hobbs after one of his horses tested positive for a banned antihistamine. The BHA lost a subsequent appeal against the decision.
In the Hobbs case, the panel decided the trainer should not be penalised even though it had not been determined how a banned substance got into his horse’s system, a view which the authority felt could undermine its “strict liability” approach to doping cases. Morrison’s legal team, though, are likely to view it as a possible lifeline as the trainer sets out to clear his name on Tuesday morning.
Among all the drugs with the potential to enhance – or diminish – a racehorse’s performance, steroids are widely seen as the most serious threat to the integrity of racing. Most substances that could improve performance need to be present in a horse’s system on the day of a race to exert any effect – and are therefore likely to be picked up in a post-race dope test.
Steroids, though, work rapidly to promote muscle development and the general wellbeing of a horse while it is in training, and their effects – such as increase in its muscle mass – will endure long after the steroid itself has departed from the horse’s system.
Ethylestrenol, for instance, which al-Zarooni administered to fillies and geldings, can clear a horse’s system in just a few days. The seriousness with which the BHA viewed the threat from steroids in the wake of the al-Zarooni case is demonstrated by the penalties set out in its anti-doping code. The recommended “entry point” for a positive test for a steroid, before mitigating or aggravating factors are considered, is a two-year ban, while the range of penalties open to the panel runs from a 12-month ban to 10 years.
Al-Zarooni, however, admitted doping his horses as the result of what he described as a “catastrophic error”. Morrison insists vehemently he has no idea how nandrolone got into Our Little Sister’s system, yet under the strict liability rules he faces the possible loss of his licence and with it his livelihood.
The case, which is scheduled to last two days, will be followed closely throughout the sport, and the outcome could have far-reaching consequences for racing’s future regulation.
Greg Wood’s tips for Tuesday
12.20 Toarmandowithlove 12.50 Haulani 1.20 Impulsive Star 1.50 Buckle Street 2.20 Espoir De Teillee 2.50 John Williams (nb) 3.20 Return Ticket
12.30 Optimickstickhill 1.00 Muqarred (nap) 1.30 Ladies First 2.00 Tricky Dicky 2.30 Throckley 3.00 Best Tamayuz 3.30 Broadhaven Honey
12.40 Banjo Girl 1.10 Mamoo 1.40 Creep Desbois 2.10 Aza Run 2.40 Mortens Leam 3.10 No Hiding Place