Last Instalment challenges integrity

British Horseracing Authority faces an anxious wait for jump racing's most prestigious race

Paul Bittar, the chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, will know just how the punters feel as Last Instalment is circling here at the three-and-a-quarter-mile start at 19 minutes past three on Friday afternoon. The tension, the anticipation, the butterflies in the stomach. Will it be the horse that you want that gallops up the hill at the end of the Gold Cup? Or will it be the one that you don't?

About 70,000 people will be here for the final day, and most prestigious event, of the National Hunt Festival, and few will not be aware of the cloud that hangs over Last Instalment and his trainer, Philip Fenton. Win or lose on Friday afternoon, he will return to his leading role in a more serious and significant drama next week, when he is due to appear in court charged with the illegal possession of veterinary products, including ethylestranol, a powerful anabolic steroid. In a word: dope.

Most of the spectators will be well aware too that the drugs were allegedly found in January 2012 during a raid conducted by Ireland's Ministry of Agriculture, and not the Irish Turf Club, the country's equivalent of the BHA, which apparently remained ignorant of the pending case against Fenton until a few weeks ago. And also that the BHA sent a drug-testing team on to the Turf Club's territory to take blood and hair samples from Fenton's three intended runners at the Cheltenham Festival. All three tested negative.

BHA investigators also interviewed Fenton, though for legal reasons the Authority will not say what he was asked or how he responded. "Why did you have a banned, powerful performance-enhancing drug at your yard if you did not intend to use it on your horses?" would have been one obvious way to start, but however the interview went, the BHA decided that there was no reason why it should stop Fenton's horses travelling to Cheltenham.

Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair and Last Instalment's owner, is adamant his horse should run. He told BBC Sport on Thursday: "People are desperate to make a controversy out of nothing."

He added: "The basis of any judgment system in the UK or Ireland is that you are innocent until proven otherwise. I'm very comfortable with it. The issue with Philip is more than two years old. It should have been prosecuted long before now."

Bittar declined to offer any further comment on Thursday, but any idea that the decision to let Fenton's horses run here was a gamble is dismissed out of hand.

"BHA would not have allowed the horse to run if we had any concerns regarding his involvement in the race based on evidence of having been administered with performance-enhancing substances," Robin Mounsey, the Authority's spokesman, said. "The fact of the matter is that this was not the case and therefore the racing public should be reassured that none of the Fenton-trained horses entered for Cheltenham have been administered with performance-enhancing substances. It is on this basis that we sought to protect the reputation of the sport."

Yet they have taken a punt. In fact, they may have bet the house on the outcome of a single race.

All racing depends absolutely on the public's belief in its integrity, that the horses are trying, are running on their merits, that the winners have not been doped and the losers have not been stopped. It sells the tickets and keeps people both watching and betting.

A highlight of the racing calendar such as the Festival, which showcases the sport to the wider public, would wither without it. Steroids, which can improve a horse's performance long after the drug itself has cleared the system, challenge that belief like nothing else.

There are some, perhaps many, inside the racing bubble who still do not fully appreciate the damage that could be done to the sport's public image by the coverage and headlines that would follow a Gold Cup success for a trainer facing criminal charges involving steroids. Nor, for that matter, how difficult it would be to repair. Once the association is made, as cycling has discovered, it can be almost impossible to break. That is the stake that the racing's regulator has pushed across the counter before Friday's Gold Cup, and the odds appear to be on their side. Last Instalment could yet be withdrawn on Friday morning due to concerns about the quick ground and, even if he does go to post, his form, including a front-running success in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month, suggests he is best with some cut in the ground.

The BHA has last year's winner Bobs Worth on its side too, and Silviniaco Conti, who was going every bit as well as Bobs Worth until he fell three out. Triolo D'Alene, with Tony McCoy in the saddle, is another solid candidate along with First Lieutenant, who is also owned by O'Leary. Last Instalment is, after all, an 8-1 shot, which suggests that he is about eight times more likely to lose than he is to come home in front. But the fact that he is in the race at all will mean that the gamble with racing's public image is alive, and the horse with a cloud over its head is in the mix.

The BHA stopped Kieren Fallon riding here when he faced corruption charges in a high-profile case which eventually proved groundless. Could it really find no reason to keep Fenton's horses out of the country until his case has concluded one way or another? The question is futile. The time for action has passed. Chance takes over from here.

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