The justice system has been one of Britain’s greatest exports, underpinned by the unshakable belief of innocence until there is proof of guilt.

That is unless one is facing trial under the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) rules when the reverse can be applied.

However, today, a BHA appeal panel will hear a case involving trainer Philip Hobbs which may blow open the Authority’s “strict liability” ruling.

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This deals with a racehorse found to have been administered with a prohibited substance, with the trainer having to prove his innocence.

Strict liability is used by other sports bodies but the athletes are humans able to answer for themselves.  In racing it left to the trainers to face the questions, regardless of whether they are in a position to deliver answers.

The BHA has made the unprecedented move of lodging an appeal against a decision of a disciplinary panel.  Hobbs was found to be in breach of the Rules of Racing at a hearing in August after cetirizine, a prohibited substance used to treat allergies, was found in a urine sample taken from Keep Moving following a race at Ludlow on January 25th in which the horse finished third.

The horse was disqualified, but the panel chose not penalise Hobbs accepting that the substance had not been administered intentionally by the trainer or anyone else connected to the yard and that he had taken all reasonable precautions to prevent it.

The BHA, while not seeking a retrospective penalty for Hobbs, desires clarification on the panel’s thinking fearing that, if the original finding is allowed to stand, it would shift the burden of proof on to the BHA.
It is a verdict which Hughie Morrison will follow closely.

Morrison, 56, has been a respected trainer for more than twenty years without a stain on his record and yet has spent most of this year facing a possible ten-year ban without there appearing to be one piece of telling evidence of his guilt.

Morrison’s case revolves around a horse called Our Little Sister who tested positive for the banned substance nandrolone following a race at Wolverhampton on January 14th. Morrison was  charged in May as being in breach of Rule (G) 2.1 “by nature of the fact that nandrolone and its metabolite, both prohibited substances, were found in Our Little Sister’s urine sample”.

The BHA’s stance regarding performance-enhancing drugs was strengthened two years ago in the wake of the Mahmood Al Zarooni case in 2013.

However, while the former Godolphin trainer was found to have operated a programme of administering an anabolic steroid, stanozolol, to 11 Godolphin horses, all 77 horse’s tested at Morrison’s yard by the BHA in February – including Our Little Sister – produced negative results.

That would suggest that the positive test given after the Wolverhampton race was not part of a systematic doping regime. Morrison has always protested that it was instead a wilful act of sabotage but, under BHA rules, it is up to him to prove that while the BHA only needs to show the positive result to prove its case.

Although this case would appear to rule out contamination it is not impossible for a horse to absorb certain chemicals from human contact. 

Given the implications of strict liability must a trainer check staff in case any are taking legally-prescribed medication which could trigger a positive test? If so, would they also have to quiz owners and any others who may come into contact with a horses while on the racecourse – which could include BHA staff who undertake routine dope tests?

Morrison believes that the horse may have been doped at a meeting at Southwell on January 2nd, when the mare was left unattended for a ¬significant time due to an injury to another of his runners.

At this point racing’s integrity services should be in a position to offer some assistance but the CCTV footage from the racecourse stables, which could have proven vital, is not available and it is understood by The Herald that the CCTV equipment at the course may not even cover the entirety of the stable block. Given that racehorses could be vulnerable while on a racecourse should such potentially important evidence not be better maintained?

The BHA, despite a budget for sampling and research which runs to £3.4m for 2017-19 aside from other related spend, makes little attempt to assist trainers in Morrison’s situation even though it is clearly better resourced to mount such an investigation.

There is also the question of disclosure by the BHA. Unlike a police investigation, a trainer is expected to compile their own evidence which gives rise to the question of which is the higher priority for the BHA, the truth or a conviction?

The BHA will argue, strongly, that the strict liability rule is vital to ensure the integrity of racing. However, if threatening a trainer with a possible ten-year suspension through a case so flimsy it would make a house of cards in the path of hurricane look as a more solid structure, perhaps they should look up the word “integrity” in the dictionary.

Integrity may be vital. But so is justice.