By: Marcus Armytage

The British Horseracing Authority has launched an investigation amid suspicions a horse was doped to underperform after it was beaten by 22 lengths, when finishing second-last, in a race it had been hot favourite to win.

Ladies First, trained by Mick Easterby, tested positive for a beta-blocking drug after the Flame Bathrooms Fillies Handicap at Newcastle’s floodlit night meeting on Friday, September 21.

Having won at York 12 days earlier, the four-year-old had started as the 6-4 favourite, but came under strong pressure just past halfway and soon weakened to finish a distant eighth of the nine runners. The race was won by 33-1 outsider Alexandrakollontai.

In a post-race report to the Newcastle stewards, apprentice jockey Scott McCullagh stated that Ladies First had never travelled during the race, adding that she had also hung right. The stewards, therefore, ordered a routine test and it is that which has subsequently 
returned a positive result.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the BHA said: “The BHA does not comment on investigations or speculation surrounding possible investigations.”

However, significantly, it added: “Should anyone have any concern or information regarding any integrity matters in British racing we would ask them to contact or call our anonymous ‘Racestraight’ reporting line on 0800 085 2580.”

While all avenues, including cross-contamination, are being investigated by the BHA it is understood racing’s ruling body is not dismissing the possibility that this case is something more sinister and that the horse was ‘got at’.

As part of their investigation, Equine Welfare Integrity Officers will visit Easterby’s Sherriff Hutton yard in North Yorkshire and will have retrieved, and be analysing, CCTV footage from the racecourse stables at Newcastle.

Easterby, 83, is one of racing’s longest-serving trainers. He is highly respected among his northern colleagues and has enjoyed numerous big-race successes both on the Flat and under National Hunt rules, including the 1,000 Guineas with Mrs McCardy in 1977.

In their tablet form, beta blockers are prescribed to humans to reduce blood pressure. They work by blocking the effects of adrenalin, slowing the heart beat and reducing the strength with which it pumps blood around the body.

They are often prescribed to people with heart problems, particularly the elderly. It is not known precisely what effect the drug would have on a horse, but veterinary sources suggest a lack of adrenalin is likely to impair the animal’s ability to race effectively.

There have been previous cases of horses testing positive for beta-blocking drugs owing to cross-contamination, which can occur because of human error, such as if a member of staff feeds the horse having just handled their own tablets. However, it appears nothing obvious has come to light during the present investigation that would suggest that this was the case in this incident.

The last time a horse returned a positive test for a beta-blocking drug – Sky Gypsy at Pontefract in 2016 – it had such minute traces of the drug in its system she still won. Even though it is a ‘stopping’ rather than a ‘go-faster’ drug, she still had the race taken off her, and it was the same with the previous case, 
Imperial State, who was also an easy winner despite testing positive for minuscule traces believed to have been cross-contamination.

Mahmoud Al Zarooni was banned for eight years for trying to boost the performance of 11 horses in his stable in 2013 by administering anabolic steroids and there was the enduring mystery of how, and why, someone should want to give steroids to Hughie Morrison’s lowly-rated Our Little Sister, which eventually ended up with the trainer being exonerated by the BHA’s disciplinary panel last December. These cases apart, British racing has had a clear run on third parties drugging horses maliciously to stop them for some time.

It is almost 30 years since the infamous Dermot Browne, the former jockey dubbed the ‘needle-man’ doped 23 horses including Bravefoot, Hateel, Argentum and Timeless Times by injecting them with a fast-acting sedative in the racecourse stables before they ran. He was banned for 20 years in 2002 after admitting his role in the affair.

Since then, tightened racecourse security, strategically-placed surveillance cameras and a pass system for stable staff all make it difficult for anyone not connected with a runner, on any one day, to get into racecourse stables. However, no system is infallible.