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Trainer Howard Johnson banned from racing for four years 12/08/2011
Chris Cook
• Licence revoked after British Horseracing Authority inquiry • Handler ran horse following denerving operation

Howard Johnson has been banned from racing for four years after being found in breach of the sport's welfare rules. Three years of the ban were imposed in respect of his having raced a horse eight times after it had undergone a denerving operation that left it with impaired sensation in a lower limb, while the fourth year will be his punishment for administering steroids to other horses.

Johnson was not immediately available for comment but has the option to appeal. His ban will not start until next Friday.

The news, issued by the British Horseracing Authority, comes one day after Johnson's 58th birthday and may very well prove the end to his career, 25 years after he first got a licence to train. Even if he wished to resume training after the ban, he would have to pass a "fit and proper person" test, which would be no formality in light of this verdict.

The BHA's disciplinary panel said Johnson had shown a "cavalier indifference" to the rules of racing. Johnson admitted instructing a vet to perform a neurectomy operation on Striking Article but denied knowing that horses are not allowed to be raced after such a procedure.

"Johnson has shown a reckless disregard for the rules so as to jeopardise the future welfare of a gelding in training and the safety of those jockeys and stable staff who were engaged to ride it," the panel concluded. A three-year ban would "reflect the need to remove Johnson's right to train horses for a period of time which is more than a mere suspension of his business".

Johnson was also found to have ordered the administration of nandrolone to two horses, Whisky Magic and Montoya's Son, while they were in training. A third charge, relating to Mintaka Pass, was not found proven as the panel were not persuaded he had been in training when the drug was administered. Johnson argued that the other two horses had not been in training at the relevant time but was not believed.

Johnson's career has been buoyed and sustained in recent years by the patronage of Graham Wylie, owner of Inglis Drever and many other horses, all of which were trained at Johnson's yard near Durham. Last week Wylie sent six of his better horses to the Somerset yard of Paul Nicholls, the champion jumps trainer. He has been quoted as saying he would not keep any horses in training in the north if Johnson were banned for more than six months, but would instead disperse his string, some horses being sold and others sent to yards in the south and in Ireland.

The panel said it had reached its verdict while taking account of the likelihood "that any significant period of disqualification may lead to the break-up of Johnson's yard and the immediate redundancy of his stable staff".

The news of Johnson's ban was welcomed by the charity World Horse Welfare, whose chief executive, Roly Owers, said it was "proportionate to the seriousness of his crime".

"When we use horses in sport, that places a significant burden of responsibility on our shoulders for their welfare, and Howard Johnson simply did not live up to that responsibility," Owers added. "He showed a callous disregard for the wellbeing of the horse when he made the decision – not once but eight times – to run Striking Article without any feeling in one of his forefeet. This was a reprehensible act that clearly crossed the line between the acceptable and unacceptable use of horses in sport.

"We are also dismayed that a trainer of Johnson's experience and stature is pleading ignorance of the rules. Ignorance is no excuse for not knowing the rules but more importantly it's no excuse for cruelty. Looked at another way, we just need to apply a little simple common sense: how could anyone think it was acceptable to race a horse that was in so much pain it needed a neurectomy in the first place?

"This case should send out a clear message to everyone involved in racing that the welfare of the horse has to come first, not the need to win at any cost."
Late News In
Howard Johnson has said he has retired from the sport. He has a stable near Crook, County Durham. This afternoon Johnson said: “I am retiring from racing for good now and I won’t be appealing this decision. I am sick with the way I have been treated - it’s a bloody joke. I have been banned for four years. I am 58 now and there’s no way I am going to come back when I am 62."