Why was trainer Howard Johnson banned for four years?

By Joe WilsonBBC Sport
Howard Johnson
Howard Johnson has been banned for four years over welfare breaches

After racehorse trainer Howard Johnson is banned for four years over welfare breaches, BBC Sport looks at the background to the case.

Howard Johnson ran a horse eight times after the animal underwent a palmar neurectomy, which involves severing nervous connection to the lower leg to cause numbness - something that is banned on welfare grounds.

Ask the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) about welfare and they will tell you it is a responsibility they take seriously and act upon daily.

And there is hard work to back up that claim.

I have been with the BHA as they dope test horses after a race and the regulations in regard to simple painkillers are far more stringent here than in the US for example.

The logic being that if a horse is prevented from feeling pain it cannot stop itself from doing serious damage. And exactly the same thing applies to a neurectomy.

The only problem is, of course, that you cannot simply test to see if a horse has had nerves removed. In the case of Striking Article it was revealed in a post mortem that would not typically have taken place.

To keep track of the sheer volume of races that go on in Britain the BHA depends on intelligence, a network of information from stables to target their welfare enquiries at certain horses and trainers.

They also rely on a high-profile case to send a message, and that's one reason why Howard Johnson's actions have gained such significance.

The case has also raised key questions about what constitutes "cruelty". When I spoke to Howard Johnson he justified his actions by pointing out Striking Article ran eight times after the operation, thus proving the horse was "okay".

But racing a horse which cannot properly feel the impact it makes with the turf is bound to do it serious damage eventually. Remember Striking Article was put down.

Letting a horse plod around a field, pain-free, after a neurectomy may actually be classed as "kind". Running at 25mph, jumping 5ft fences is a different matter entirely.

So are there other horses racing now which have also been "de-nerved"? The short answer is that it's probably impossible to know.

The BHA must rely on their network of intelligence, and the hope that other trainers will have watched Howard Johnson's case with close attention.