There is no hope for great stories, no place for the magic of the unexpected victory. At least this must be the thinking by all the people who got a thrill from Achtung’s surprise win 20 days ago at the Madrid racetrack, Hipódromo de La Zarzuela, where the thoroughbred staged one of the most moving victories in Spanish horse racing history.
Now, this tale of a longshot who defeated the odds to win Spain’s most important race for his trainer, who had passed away from leukemia just hours earlier, has been tarnished with the revelation that Achtung tested positive for phenylbutazone, a painkiller that is banned from racing.
Now, relatives of Roberto López, the deceased trainer, and Federico Riopérez, the owner, are asking themselves how this could be. “We’re devastated. We weren’t prepared for this,” said one relative.
After the horse-racing watchdog, Sociedad de Fomento de la Cría Caballar de España (SFCCE), informed the owner of the results, a five-day period began in which further testing can be requested. But because the chances of this second result turning out any different are very low, the trainer’s family and the owner have instead requested DNA testing to ensure that the sample that tested positive really belongs to Achtung. They have also filed a collective complaint with the police to clear up the matter.
“We have more to gain than anybody else from clearing up this case. We have no explanation for it,” says Riopérez.
We have more to gain than anybody else from clearing up this case”
Sources at SFCCE said there is only one precedent for this request, which is not contemplated in the watchdog’s guidelines. A colt named Proud Side tested positive for hidroxy-mepivacaine, an anesthetic. His trainer, Francisco Rodríguez, requested a DNA test, which is carried out by the Agriculture Ministry. The analysis confirmed that the genetic material belonged to his horse, and Rodríguez was fined 1,000 euros and had his license revoked for one month.
Achtung’s case is different on several levels. Typically, when a horse tests positive for a banned substance, the trainer is immediately targeted. But Roberto López’s fragile health had kept him away from his charge for several days prior to the race, making it “absolutely impossible” for him to have had a hand in any potential tampering, explains Fabián Barreiro, technical director for SFCCE. The 42-year-old López died in a Madrid hospital just a few hours before the running of the Gran Premio.
The presence of phenylbutazone is one of the least serious of doping infractions. The fine is 500 euros and disqualification from the race. “That’s the least of it,” says owner Riopérez. “Nobody likes to run with a doped horse.” Whatever the outcome, it will not affect the punters who profited from backing Achtung.
Phenylbutazone is historically the most common painkiller used on horses and was permitted in racing until 1997, writes Manuel Rodríguez, a SFCCE member and the only Spanish representative in the international equestrian medication control program, in a publication called Doping.
“This medication does not make a horse run above its capability, but it does make it run as fast as it will go,” explains Julio Díaz, a member of the Veterinary Association of Madrid and contributing writer to the horse magazine A galopar. “I am ruling out any connection with betting,” he adds.
Achtung’s odds going into the Gran Premio de Madrid were 42 to 1, with only 120 euros placed on the eventual winner. This is due to the fact that the horse is better on soft surfaces, but that day the track was dry and fast. Díaz saw the race, and witnessed “the four-minute ovation” that had everyone’s hair standing on end. The television commentator, clearly emotional, called it “the hand of God,” and the jockey, Marino Gomes, cried uncontrollably in the winner’s circle, saying he had felt like an invisible hand was pushing him along.
The fact is, Achtung has a great record. He won six out of his last 14 starts, and in the eight races where he competed with Entre Copas, his great rival in the Gran Premio de Madrid, each horse beat the other an equal number of times. But recent events suggest that what was described as “a miracle” 20 days ago will ultimately be remembered more like a nightmare.