How American drugs corrupted England’s Sport of Kings

The Derby was run the first time in 1780 at Epsom Farm. It is England's richest horse race and the most prestigious of the country's five British Classics.
“The Derby at Epsom, 1821” by Jean Louis Theodore Gricault. The Derby was run the first time in 1780 at Epsom Farm. It is England’s richest horse race and the most prestigious of the country’s five British Classics.

Revelations of horse doping at a top British stable have rocked the nation’s racing industry. CuChullaine O’Reilly, the founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, charts the introduction of doping to Britain’s racetracks more than a century ago, revealing that cocaine and other illicit stimulants were introduced from across the Atlantic by unprincipled American trainers.

The drugs scandal following the discovery that 15 horses were doped at a top British stable adds another dramatic chapter to an unprincipled practice that has its roots in the nation’s racing industry more than a century ago.

It was an overseas trainer, Mahmood Al Zarooni, who damaged the image of British racing in the latest scandal, just as, more than 100 years ago, American trainers first opened the eyes of British trainers to doping – at a time when it was not forbidden under the rules of racing.

Early in April, officials from the British Horseracing Authority showed up at the Moulton Paddocks Stables in Newmarket run by Al Zarooni as part of the Godolphin racing empire owned by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Samples were taken from 45 of the horses, with 11 proving positive for the anabolic steroids, ethylestranol and stanozolol.

When confronted with the discovery, Al Zarooni quickly fell on his sword, or in this case his syringe, and admitted that four more valuable horses were also drugged.

In the ensuing weeks a firestorm erupted in Britain’s racing world.

Industry apologists have been loudly proclaiming that the drugs were administered by a renegade – Mahmood himself described it as a “catastrophic error”.

What has been overlooked is that this is only the latest chapter in a sordid equestrian epic.

Nor is it hard to discover how and when racing’s name was originally blackened or who first lifted the curtain covering the corruption. The answers lie just a few miles away, at another training stable now owned by the sheikh.

It was at that facility, the Stanley House Stud, that one of Britain’s greatest trainers recorded how doping originally infected racing.

Nature’s Beauties

Federico Tesio is revered in his native Italy, where he won that country’s most prestigious Derby more than twenty times between 1911 and 1951.

He wrote, “The thoroughbred racehorse is the most perfect of all athletes and the one requiring the most highly tempered physique. Bone muscle, skin, heart, lungs and determination, all must be tested in racing competition.”

The evolution of the thoroughbred horse was encouraged by careful breeding and rigorous training. The breed’s greatest stars are those few animals who win the prestigious races known as the British Classics. Restricted to three-year-old horses, these events traditionally represent the pinnacle of achievement for racehorses against their own age group.

These races date back hundreds of years. The oldest classic is the St. Leger from Doncaster, which was first run in 1776. A victory in any of the five British Classics defines a thoroughbred as being truly exceptional. Triumph in three of the Classics is so rare a feat that it is known as the English Triple Crown. Such a winning horse is accounted the very best of that generation and accorded the instant status of a legend.

Whereas Nature can be accorded the credit for having created the thoroughbred’s blazing speed, the winner of a British Triple Crown represents another type of unique achievement.

Few trainers are blessed with the special perception required to transform a raw yearling into the epitome of equine achievement. Special skills are required to achieve such a unique inter-species relationship.

One of the few trainers blessed with such talents also left behind a warning regarding the dangers of permitting drugs to interfere with racing.

In keeping with local custom, trainer George Lambton would attend the British Classic races beautifully dressed, wearing a carnation in his buttonhole and carrying his binoculars. But Lambton’s dapper appearance could not disguise the fact that he was respected by everyone in the British racing world, from King Edward VII down to the lads who exercised the famous Thoroughbreds in Lord Derby’s stables.
In keeping with local custom, trainer George Lambton would attend the British Classic races beautifully dressed, wearing a carnation in his buttonhole and carrying his binoculars. But Lambton’s dapper appearance could not disguise the fact that he was respected by everyone in the British racing world, from King Edward VII down to the lads who exercised the famous Thoroughbreds in Lord Derby’s stables.

An English Gentleman

Try to picture in your mind a perfect English gentleman. He would have to be tall, eloquent, articulate, witty, intelligent and handsome enough to escort Audrey Hepburn to the Ascot Races in “My Fair Lady.”
George Lambton was such a man. A dashing younger son of the Earl of Durham, Lambton was born in 1861 at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign. He joined the army but his heart resided in the stable.

Lambton was more than a passionate horseman. He was a daredevil in the saddle too. Not being content to merely bet on a race, Lambton was one of those rare English gentlemen who also rode hell-bent-for-leather in England’s famous races, including the notorious Grand National steeplechase. That part of his life came to a painful end in 1892 when he suffered a terrible fall during a steeplechase.

Someone once wrote that God turns every tragic event to a good purpose. Lambton’s injury proves the point. Having been reluctantly forced from the saddle, he re-routed his love of horses towards the training of thoroughbreds. The results were astonishing.

His first great success was Canterbury Pilgrim, a mare whose contribution to racing has been described as “incalculable.” But Lambton, who went on to train 13 British Classic winners and was named England’s leading trainer in 1906, 1911 and 1912, did not achieve this remarkable record alone. He was part of what many consider to be the most powerful team in British racing history. The trainer’s skill was evenly matched with the money and knowledge of horse owner, Edward Stanley, the 17th Earl of Derby.

It was these two who owned, trained, raced and won the British Classics with the legendary Thoroughbred, Hyperion.

Hypocrites and Hyperion

Genetic experts and historians of the turf agree on one thing. Hyperion was one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time. He won the Epsom Derby and St. Leger Stakes, which resulted in tremendous financial rewards for his owner, Lord Derby. Hyperion was also one of the most influential sires of all time.

Lord Derby may have owned Hyperion but it was Lambton the trainer who had first spotted the young thoroughbred’s potential. When discovered as a yearling, Lambton described Hyperion as “the most beautifully made little horse I have ever seen.”

The beautiful stallion Hyperion was a Triple Crown winner trained at Newmarket by George Lambton.
The beautiful stallion Hyperion was a Triple Crown winner trained at Newmarket by George Lambton.

Lambton was an advocate of the hay, oats, water and exercise school of horsemanship. Because he believed in authenticity in his personal life and transparency in his professional affairs, the English gentleman turned trainer made sure that Hyperion ran a clean race.

Yet it would be a mistake to believe that our forefathers were blind to the mischief caused by their fellow man. Lambton was no fool. He was in fact an eyewitness to the dark side of the racing world that introduced dope onto the track, thereby transforming the horses he loved from fleet athletes into drug-crazed disposable commodities.

Though he and Lord Derby were playing by the rules, Lambton knew another type of creature lurked in the shadows of the stable. This type of man lusted for glory and sought money at any price. Eventually Lambton concluded that the formerly clean “sport of kings” had developed two speeds, one for the drug-inducing trainers and one for people like him who would not cheat.

The recent drug bust which took place in Newmarket has its roots in the scandal which George Lambton first witnessed in that town in the early 1900s.

Lambton was no race-track dandy. He wielded a pen with as much courage as he once rode a charging horse. In his book, Men and Horses I Have Known, he recalled spending time with the celebrities of his day, including King Edward VII, another devoted racehorse owner. The rider turned writer also recorded for posterity the day he saw his first doped horse.

Diomed and Damsel

It’s odd that track historians are quick to recall the name of Diomed. He was the colt who won the first Epsom Derby in 1780. But ask a historian who Damsel was and you’ll only draw a blank stare. That’s because history books tend to remember victors and forget the names of victims like Damsel. Lucky for us, Lambton jotted down his fateful meeting with the now forgotten mare.

“I remember at the Newmarket First October Meeting of 1896 running a horse belonging to Sir Horace Farquhar, called East Sheen, in the Trial Selling Stakes. He was a useful runner and anything that beat him was worth buying. In this race he was beaten by a neck by a chestnut mare, Damsel. When she was put up to auction I bought her for £450. She was pouring with sweat, looked very bad and I thought that I could probably improve her. That evening, when I went to my stables, my head man remarked that the mare I had bought was a wild brute, and had been running round her box like a mad thing ever since she came home. I went to look at her, and she certainly was a miserable object, with eyes starting out of her head and flanks heaving. This was the first doped horse I ever saw, although at the time I was quite unaware of what was the matter. I gave the mare a long rest, and got her quiet and looking well, but she was no good.”

Despite what racing industry spokesmen have been telling the press lately, Lambton’s discovery proves that drugs have infected the British turf for at least 117 years.

“In 1896 doping was in its infancy, and it was not until about 1900 that it really began to be a serious menace to horse-racing,” he wrote. Even then there were few people in the British racing community who believed in the existence of such drugs or understood their power to alter the outcome of a race.

With the dawning of the 20th century Lambton realized that the time had come to lay bare how drugs were seriously undermining the sport he loved. Moreover, he was determined to tell the British public about the foreigners who had introduced the pernicious policy of doping English race horses.

The culprits, Lambton wrote, came from America.

Leaders of the American racing community were praised for bringing legendary Thoroughbreds, such as Iroquois, to England. Unfortunately, according to George Lambton, a few nefarious Americans also introduced the concept of drugging horses to the British track.
Leaders of the American racing community were praised for bringing legendary Thoroughbreds, such as Iroquois, to England. Unfortunately, according to George Lambton, a few nefarious Americans also introduced the concept of drugging horses to the British track.

Yankee narcotics

“There is no doubt that the Americans started the practice of doping,” the British trainer revealed without any apology or hesitation in his book. He then went on to list names, races and dates.

Jacob Pincus was “a curious character” who owned two “shockingly bad horses.” The Thoroughbreds “were so bad that they were the despair of the handicapper.” Yet Lambton witnessed both horses win races after being doped by their American trainer.

Another American trainer, Wishard, was described as being a very shrewd man who won a great deal of money by resorting to drugs.

“He was a remarkably clever man with horses. There is no doubt that he supplemented his great skill as a trainer by making use of the dope,” Lambton recalled.

Pierre Lorillard
Pierre Lorillard

But not all the Yankees were bent.

An American millionaire named Pierre Lorillard kept a large string of horses in England. His horse, Iroquois, was the first American-bred horse to win the prestigious Epsom Derby and the St. Leger Stakes.

Because his family owned America’s oldest tobacco company, Lorillard could afford to employ his country’s best trainer. That’s why he brought John Huggins over to England.

The American press adored Huggins. The New York Times patriotically described him as, “one of the most successful trainers in America” and decried any hints that the ex-Texan had been influenced by his British hosts. Other stories claimed Huggins introduced the concept of providing a high-strung Thoroughbred with a quiet companion animal.

Regardless of where Huggins originated, he despised cheats on the track.

“It must not be supposed that all the Americans doped their horses. Huggins detested it and it was he who told me how it originated,” wrote Lambton.

According to Huggins, “In America they used to race eight or nine days in one particular place, and would then move on to some other district, where the same thing would take place. The consequence was that towards the end of these meetings most of the horses had run several times and were played out. In fact, it became a survival of the fittest, and every dodge and device was used to keep the poor devils up to the mark, and some man hit on the marvellous properties of cocaine for the jaded horse.”

Drugs and death

The highest speed recorded by a racehorse was a blistering 70.76 km/h (43.97 miles per hour).

Even if you’ve never ridden that fast, anyone who has ever been on a runaway horse can recall the heart-stopping terror of trying to restrain a massive beast who refuses to respond to the bit. You can pull on the reins until doomsday, but an insane horse bent on running is a saddle-wetting proposition.

Now take the idea of a runaway horse, add in a big dose of potent and poisonous drugs, place a tiny jockey atop the maddened animal, spice up the situation by having a hundred thousand people screaming from the grandstand, and try to make sense of what George Lambton observed at the British track.

“Then there occurred the case when a horse, after winning a race, dashed madly into a stone wall and killed itself,” he wrote.

Stop and let that sentence sink in.

The horse was so insanely high on drugs that it ran into a stone wall with enough power to kill itself!

What legitimate horseman would not object to the creeping influence of such a corruption on his beloved English race course?

George Lambton decided to take action.

“I intend to dope my horses”

Lambton had no doubt that British racing was being corrupted by outside influences.

In his book, George Lambton documented how the practice of drugging racehorses with cocaine and other illicit stimulants was introduced onto the British track by unprincipled foreign trainers from the United States.
In his book, George Lambton documented how the practice of drugging racehorses with cocaine and other illicit stimulants was introduced onto the British track by unprincipled foreign trainers from the United States.

“I myself was still sceptical about any dope making a bad horse into a good one. But very strange things occurred, and one constantly saw horses who were notorious rogues running and winning as if they were possessed of the devil, with eyes starting out of their heads and the sweat pouring off them. Because these horses were running in low-class races, they did not attract a very great deal of attention, but three veterinary surgeons told me that the practice was increasing very much, that it would be the ruin of horse-breeding, and ought to be stopped.”

He admitted that the discovery offended him.

“I frankly confess that I hated it for it upset so many of my old theories and ideas.”

By 1900 the horrible practice had increased rapidly on the British track.

“After the Americans brought the dope over here, many Englishmen took it up, but they were not very successful, as they did not really understand enough about it.”

By 1903 the situation had degenerated into an open scandal but the British trainer couldn’t hope to resolve the problem because, “In those days there was no law against this pernicious practice and those people who made a study of it were perfectly within their rights.”

The frustrated Lambton decided to draw attention to the problem via extraordinary methods. He announced he would drug his horses to prove the point.

“I thought it was about time that something was done, so I told one of the Stewards of the Jockey Club what my three friends, the veterinary surgeons, had said. He was as sceptical as I had been and declared he did not believe there was anything in it. At that time I had in my stable some of the biggest rogues in training, and I told the Stewards that I intended to dope these horses. They could then see for themselves what the result was.”

Lambton did not try to disguise his intentions or hide his plan. In fact he made a point of telling his brother, Lord Durham, who had been a Steward of the Jockey Club.

“So much did he dislike this doping that he was inclined to object to my having anything to do with it. But when I explained that my object was to open the eyes of the Stewards, he withdrew his objection, but begged me not to bet a shilling on any horse with a dope in him. To this I agreed,” Lambton explained in his book.

Astonishing results

Having decided to drug his horses, Lambton needed to obtain the dope. This was easily done thanks to the aid of “a well-known veterinary surgeon.” The drug was not injected. A single dose taken from the bottle produced “astonishing results.”

“The first horse I doped was a chestnut gelding called Folkestone. This horse had refused to do anything in a trial or a race. He was always last and would come in neighing. I first of all doped him in a trial. He fairly astonished me, for he jumped off in front and won in a canter. I sent him to Pontefract, where he beat a field of fourteen very easily, and nearly went round the course a second time before his jockey could pull him up. He won a race again the next day, was sold and never won again.”

Lambton had obtained enough of the illicit dope to drug a total of six horses. After dosing his animals, he got four wins and a second place. These five victories, Lambton believed, could only have been achieved by the help of the powerful stimulant.

“Not one of these horses had shown any form throughout the year. One of them, Ruy Lopez, who had previously entirely defeated the efforts of the best jockeys in England, ran away with the Lincoln Autumn Handicap with a stable boy up, racing like the most honest horse in the world.”

Lambton never revealed what the dope was composed of. However in 1901 the New York Times documented how unethical American doctors were administering a cocktail of nitro-glycerine, cocaine, carbolic acid, and rose water to Thoroughbreds. Another deadly American prescription contained strychnine, capsicum and ginger.

No matter what Lambton used, his experiences prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a horse high on drugs will fly past an honest competitor.

“I had made no secret of what I had been doing,” he wrote.

Thanks to Lambton’s public display of cheating, “the following year doping was made a criminal offence, the penalty being ‘warning off’.”

Having exposed the sordid practice of drugging racehorses, Lambton mistakenly concluded that such public exposure, as well as the imposition of a new rule forbidding the practice, would inspire a clean up on the race track.

“Some people think there is a great deal going on now. I don’t believe it: the penalty is too severe, although it is possible there are trainers who will take the risk.”

But American trainer John Huggins was not so optimistic. He warned Lambton that England’s famous race tracks continued to attract the ethically corrupt.

“The crowd that came over to England was a pretty tough one,” Lambton wrote. “I remember saying to Huggins one day that I supposed there were still a good many rogues and thieves racing in America, and he replied, “There is not one, they have all come over here.”

As the most recent drug bust proves, Lambton and Huggins, those paragons of equestrian honesty, would be disappointed to learn that the “Sport of Kings” is still the abode of some intent on breaking the rules.


George Lambton was the type of ethical equestrian who would have approved of this English verse written in 1857. 

“A man of kindness, to his beast is kind,

But brutal actions show a brutal mind:

Remember, He, who made thee, made the brute,

Who gave thee speech and reason, formed him mute;

He can’t complain, but God’s omniscient eye

Beholds thy cruelty – He hears his cry!

He was designed thy servant, not thy drudge,

But know – that his Creator is thy judge.”



CuChullaine O’Reilly is the Founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, the world’s international association of equestrian explorers and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers’ Club. The Guild maintains a strict policy of zero-tolerance towards ethical violations. Incidents involving corruption and cruelty are detailed in the Hall of Shame






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