What now for Godolphin after doping scandal?

26 Apr 2013 11:17:11

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The big question hanging over the high-profile doping scandal that has hit racing's largest and most well-known stable Godolphin is whether its founder Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum will stay in the sport.

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) on Thursday handed trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni an eight-year ban, after 11 of the horses he trained for the wealthy ruler of Dubai tested positive for anabolic steroids and revelations that four others were given the banned drugs.

In just four days, a racing empire Sheikh Mohammed painstakingly built up over 21 years and which has seen it win 202 Group One races worldwide, including the Epsom Derby and Europe's most prestigious race the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, has had its reputation tarnished.

"It's going to be a lengthy process (to restore faith in Godolphin)," the operation's racing manager Simon Crisford admitted after Al Zarooni's disciplinary hearing in central London.

How the scandal has been seen in the racing world is reflected in the language used, with few willing to speak openly about its impact.

One leading French trainer told AFP it was "racing's Lance Armstrong moment", a reference to the shamed US cyclist who was stripped of his record Tour de France wins for drug use last year.

But unlike the International Cycling Union, which was accused of turning a blind eye to Armstrong's activities for years, the BHA has acted swiftly to mitigate the fall-out from the Al Zarooni case.

BHA chief executive Paul Bittar said the hearing was "the end of the beginning", suggesting that the spotlight is not yet off Godolphin and its high-profile figurehead.

At least three other members of staff -- named by Al Zarooni -- are set to be interviewed and other horses dope-tested, possibly at their other stables headed by long-time trainer Saeed bin Suroor, in the home of English racing, Newmarket.

One of the most searching questions will be how the illegal steroids made their way into the country in the first place and who ordered them.

Crisford commented on Monday that the scandal was a "dark day" for Godolphin, which has prided itself on being a shop window for racing excellence and promoting the United Arab Emirates as a progressive, modern state.

The 63-year-old sheikh has said he was "appalled and angered" by the revelations but racing can ill afford him to walk away from the sport.

The sheikh welcomes leading horses every March to his state-of-the-art course Meydan for the world's richest race, the $10 million (£6.5 million, 7.7 million euro) Dubai World Cup.

Away from the track, racing is also an industry, with top horses raking in millions for owners and breeders.

Godolphin itself is named after one of the three stallions imported to England in the 18th century and which founded the blood-line of modern thoroughbred race horses.

But Sheikh Mohammed will also feel embarrassment as his junior wife, Princess Haya bint Al Hussein of Jordan, is president of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), which governs show jumping, eventing, dressage, combined driving, endurance, reining and vaulting.

Although not responsible for horse-racing, she was elected in 2006 on a platform of promoting a "clean sport".

Sheikh Mohammed was even a victim of that policy himself, as he served a six-month suspension in 2009 after a horse he rode in an endurance race tested positive for two banned drugs, including one of those found in the Al Zarooni-trained horses, stanozolol.

His reaction then was how was he to know what medication was given to the horses he rode.

Al Zarooni's admission was in a similar vein, claiming that he did not realise he was in breach of racing rules by administering the drugs.

Crisford, a former racing journalist, said he recommended Al Zarooni's appointment but admitted that was "very poor judgment".

What could prove key to whether the sheikh continues is when the unbeaten Dawn Approach -- 51-percent-owned by Godolphin and trained in Ireland -- runs in the first classic of the season, the English 2,000 Guineas, next Saturday.

Victory would lift a part of the cloud for Godolphin but how the public reacts to the horse will be telling.

A lukewarm reaction may force the sheikh to conclude that he should walk away from a sport he has revolutionised and globalised.

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