Sheikh Mohammed
Sheikh Mohammed

Sheikh Mohammed

(Photo : Sporting Life)

Latest drugs scandal casts shadow over Sheikh Mohammed

- the most powerful man in racing.

The seizure of a cache of 124 unlicensed veterinary medicines from the Sheikh’s stud is concerning for the sport of racing, writes David Yates.

It was back in June 1977 that the John Dunlop-trained Hatta won Brighton’s Bevendene Maiden Stakes to give Sheikh Mohammed his first victory as a racehorse owner. In the intervening years, the Sheikh, his family and associates have won thousands of races, including hundreds at the highest level and reshaped the landscape of the British turf. The universally accepted way of viewing the Maktoums’ patronage of racing (not once have I heard contrary sentiments expressed in public) is to see it as nearly four decades of beneficence. Racing is needy and the Maktoums are wealthy. We are lucky to have them, but in every relationship there is a tipping point.

On Tuesday, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced the seizure of a cache of 124 unlicensed veterinary medicines at Moorley Farm, part of Sheikh Mohammed’s Dalham Hall Stud estate in Newmarket. Moorley Farm is where endurance horses (who compete in long-distance events of up to 100 miles held in Britain and all over the world), not thoroughbreds, are housed, so the British Horseracing Authority immediately distanced itself from action. On Wednesday, the Maktoums’ endurance trainer Jaume Punti Dachs issued a statement to protest there was “nothing sinister” about the affair - although DEFRA has yet to conclude its report, and a criminal investigation by the police remains a possibility.

Whatever the outcome, clouds of suspicion have once more gathered over the link between unlicensed and therefore illegal substances, and the Maktoums’ interests in equine competition. Nobody should need reminding of the last episode; in April, Godolphin trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni was warned off for eight years for multiple anabolic steroids abuses to thoroughbreds under his care at the operation’s Moulton Paddocks stable in Newmarket.

Among them was Encke, the horse whose 25-1 victory in the 2012 St Leger (the horse’s post-race test at Doncaster was negative) robbed Camelot of a place in history as the first Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky. The Al Zarooni drug scandal was the most infamous in 500 years of horseracing (in this country), but the list of misdemeanours stretches further back. According to the International Equine Federation’s public records, since 2005, no fewer than 20 of Sheikh Mohammed’s endurance horses have been the subject of positive tests.

In 2009, the Sheikh himself was suspended for six months after samples taken from Tahhan, a horse he rode in endurance contests in Bahrain and Dubai, showed traces of the beta blocker guanabenz and the steroid stanozolol. Three years earlier, Ismail Mohammed, who now trains in Newmarket but who previously handled the family’s horses in Dubai, was banned for one year for doping two horses. Mubarak bin Shafya, best known in the thoroughbred world for saddling the Maktoums’ Gladiatorus and Eastern Anthem to a spectacular double on Dubai World Cup night in 2009, as well as employing Al Zarooni as his assistant, has twice been sanctioned for doping endurance horses, including serving a ban of two years.

In cases of transgression, the conclusion reached by both the British Horseracing Authority and the International Equine Federation was to pin the blame on the trainer, portrayed as a rogue employee prepared to break the rules in order to gain success and impress the boss. To many it will sound like heresy, or commercial suicide, to raise a questioning voice. After all, the racing interests of the Maktoum family and its associates are responsible for giving work to thousands within the industry.

It owns the deeds to vast swathes of property in Newmarket and elsewhere, and on these pages, John Berry, the Suffolk town’s erudite trainer, estimated that half of its racing employees would be hit if the Maktoums upped sticks and moved on to football or Formula 1. A Maktoum exodus would, in the short term, inflict severe harm on British horseracing. But a sport puts itself in a perilous place when one single interest becomes a behemoth - and all dissent is snuffed out.

Racing in Britain, like everywhere else, is built on a foundation of punter confidence, but that bedrock will turn to quicksand if the public perceive that some playing the game, by dint of the noughts in their bank account, are beyond the law. In the case of Dubai’s ruling family, the tipping point may not yet have been reached, but (whisper this quietly) it feels significantly closer than it did when Encke won the oldest Classic 12 months ago.

Extract from The Mirror