OUR resident expert, RICHARD SILVERWOOD (Scoop Racing), looks back on the two-day Guineas Festival at Newmarket, which helped to draw a line under the anabolic steroids controversy that hit Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin training empire.
AFTER the steroids scandal that engulfed the Godolphin operation, and Newmarket as a whole, Flat racing’s headquarters badly needed a Guineas weekend to remember.
And I reckon it got it -- thanks to a couple of top-class Classics, rich in talent and loaded with future winners, highlighting a two-day festival that attracted a crowd increase of 9% on the previous year.
The weekend also provided a perfect antidote to the pain of the previous fortnight inflicted on the esteemed head of Godolphin, Sheikh Mohammed.
For not only did he land the 2,000 Guineas with Godolphin’s new purchase, DAWN APPROACH, he also saw the 1,000 Guineas won by a filly, SKY LANTERN, that had been comfortably beaten by his own, unbeaten charge, CERTIFY, in the Sweet Solera Stakes on Newmarket’s July course last summer.
It was form that suggested Certify might well have won the Guineas. Instead she was one of the 15 horses who tested positive for anabolic steroids in the case that led to trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni receiving an eight-year ban -- and so she is unlikely to be seen again until next season.
But what a relief for Sheikh Mohammed that Dawn Approach did not end up with Al Zarooni when he brokered his deal with Irish owner/trainer last year to buy the magnificent, undefeated colt.
Instead he agreed that the horse should remain in the yard of Bolger, who responded by demonstrating again his expert knack for readying an animal for the big occasion.
The 71-year-old freely admits that the son of his brilliant 2008 Derby winner, New Approach, is lazy at home and that, in the build-up to the Guineas, he needed to start work on him sooner than any other horse he can remember.
But he not only produced Dawn Approach to win. It was also a career-best performance as the colt powered away from a deep field, with not a hint of the idle flat spot that he tended to show when landing his six juvenile prizes and that made some doubt whether he could truly reach the top of the tree.
Now he has been installed a short favourite to follow up at Epsom and emulate his sire. And we face almost a month of arguments, as so often happens at this fascinating time of year, as to whether he’ll stay the extra half-mile.
Personally, I don’t think he has a cat in hell’s chance, based on the female side of his pedigree, which suggests 1m should be his optimum trip. The way he races, and finds, might enable him to step up to 10f. But 12f? The influence of his dad would have to be considerable.
Even Bolger himself might secretly admit to harbouring the same view. Back in the autumn, this is what he said: “It would only be his class and temperament that would enable him to get 10f. I think the horse will probably achieve enough at 1m and possibly 10f to keep everyone happy.”
So who is to be kept happy by gunning for the Derby? Maybe we come back to Sheikh Mohammed again.
The Godolphin guru has never been afraid to shirk a challenge. Remember he was not afraid to risk the apple of his eye, DUBAI MILLENNIUM, on the unique Epsom slopes and slides in 1999 when serious question-marks hovered over his stamina and experience. He was duly beaten into ninth by OATH, but never lost another race en route to immortality.
If, as seems likely, the Sheikh packs Dawn Approach on the open-top bus to the Downs on June 1, at the very least he should be praised for lending Britain’s greatest race its dramatic narrative.
But then again, isn’t that typical of the man? Indeed of the whole Godolphin operation since it launched way back in 1992.
There is little doubt its reputation has been tainted by the behaviour of Al Zarooni, a ‘black sheep of the family’ if ever there was one.
But equally, there is little doubt that the clinical manner in which Al Zarooni was dealt with also reflects great credit on both Godolphin and the BHA, particularly the latter’s drug-testing techniques and intelligence systems which, I suspect, have been beefed up considerably since the appointment last year of new chief executive Paul Bittar.
It is encouraging that the BHA have vowed to work with Godolphin and, indeed, with Newmarket to minimise the risk of such a scandal tarnishing racing’s image again.
And it is doubly encouraging that Bittar has vowed to work towards all racing jurisdictions across the world administering the same rules regarding the treatment of horses by steroids. It is not hard to empathise with the view of leading trainer Roger Charlton that, in these days of increased international competition, “a level playing field” is required.
I strongly suspect this is where this story is heading. Towards a debate on whether anabolic steroids should be banned worldwide, even when horses are out of training. And towards more robust co-operation with vets to prevent breaches of the regulations, similar to that which appears to have snared another HQ handler, Gerard Butler.
What a pity then that one or two racing scribes, plus an ugly posse of cynics and conspiracy theorists on Twitter, seem intent on prolonging the original angle and casting further aspersions on Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin.
Within hours of Al Zarooni’s deeds coming to light, the Sheikh issued an unequivocal, condemnatory statement, making his and Godolphin’s position and reaction perfectly clear. One sentence stood out. It read: “I have been involved in British horseracing for 30 years and have deep respect for its traditions and rules. I built my country based on the same solid principles. There can be no excuse for deliberate violation.”
It’s a sentence that reflects the views of everyone in racing who knows the Sheikh well. That here is a man of deepest integrity and sportsmanship. To inflict damage on British racing would be to inflict damage on principles that form the bedrock of his country.
There is not a shred of evidence to suggest Al Zarooni’s actions were anything but a one-off misdemeanour by a rogue employee within the Godolphin camp.
Yet the critics won’t have it. The Sheikh’s word is not enough. The reassurances of the admirable Bittar are not enough. Racing’s name, it seems, is not worth protecting.
Instead they trot out diabolical, muck-raking pieces, based entirely on hypothesis and speculation. Tawdry stuff, the likes of which Lord Leveson would have been within his rights to get his teeth into.
Yes, they have a right to ask questions. But questions based on evidence, not assumptions and innuendo that would embarrass even the most corrupt of crooked tipsters.