5 September 2004

This latest shock to the Sport of Kings’ system will serve to frighten the wrongdoers and should be welcomed.

Racing is in denial this weekend. Too many of us want to close ranks and moan that the police swoop and arrest of champion jockey Kieren Fallon and 15 others on Wednesday morning after allegations of race-fixing were “bad for racing”. The truth is quite the opposite.

Racing is not in crisis, it is in “clean up” mode. No activity that has been through the scams and accusations of the past six years could sit around and say all was well. No sport that is unable to outlaw the self-confessed “good friend” of the biggest on-the-run criminal around can claim to have credible regulatory powers. No business that is closed down, as racing was at Sandown Park last year, by a group of its participants (the jockeys) striking for the dubious human right of ringing their punters from the weighing room, can see itself as very far from a laughing stock.

So now the authorities are getting tough and plenty of us feel uncomfortable. The police may well have got some of the wrong people and, from the sound of it, they have not always asked the right questions. But don’t let’s pretend for a second that “we don’t know what this is all about.” We know exactly what it is about. It is about reclaiming for racing the ideals that have brought millions of us into it over the years.

In his new autobiography, Off The Record, Michael Owen writes compellingly of his fascination for all parts of racing from breeding to betting, from watching horses galloping out of the mist in the early morning to the unbelievable first moment that a horse of yours comes home in front. Nearly 60 years in and just back from the Olympic Games, I am still hooked on the Sport of Kings as the greatest sport of all. But that doesn’t mean I have to be soft about it.

It doesn’t mean we have to tolerate thieves and villains being bare-faced in their attempt to bend racing to their advantage. Eight years ago we had our biggest warning yet when the first arrests were made in the Brian Wright case. Instead of recoiling in horror there was a widespread sense of ridicule that the initial police investigation was so flawed that only one arrest led to charges and that was soon dropped.

The revelation that former jockey Graham Bradley admitted in court that he would phone betting plans to Wright and his associates from the weighing room led to a police recommendation that, as in most other racing territories, their use in weighing rooms should be banned. Instead of accepting the inevitable, the riders kicked up an enormous fuss about “intolerable restrictions”. Pull the other one.

Whatever happened before mobile phones? What are agents for? How come Kevin Darley, the much respected Jockeys’ Association vice-president told me two years ago that “most calls you get in the weighing room are from people you don’t want to talk to?” It is my experience that the vast majority of people in racing are hard working, committed, brave, skilful, and honest too. Not for nothing is the motto of Mark Johnston, the most consistently successful trainer of the past decade, “Always Trying”.

The fascination of racing is just how multi-faceted its challenges are, from breeders’ books to betting schemes, from training mornings to racecourse days, from mid-race tactics to last-minute tips. During the same week some time before the pits were all closed, I went down a mine and to Buckingham Palace. In both places the conversation was easy. We shared the same obsession.

But racing is two games in one. It is equine athletics with a gambling game ingrained. The latter has always, will always, lead to problems. It puts pressure on jockeys quite unlike any other frontline performer in sport. Only a jockey has money, often very large amounts of money, hanging on his every move every time he goes out to play. People, from boardroom to betting shop, want to know whether he thinks he will win or, dodgy punters wanted to know this long before the betting exchanges, whether he reckons he will lose. No wonder they want to talk.

You would be amazed how much people in racing talk. For this is a daily competition in a small incestuous world followed by millions of outsiders, everyone hooked on the daily fight of hope against experience.

We are trying to win, to beat the other team, and half the fun is in the scheming. But over the years most of us have a clear line of the difference between cunning and crookedness, between well-laid strategy and downright cheating. Most of the time the cheats get found out.

Corruption in racing is like a snake that will always slither in if it gets the chance. It is much easier to scotch it than to kill it. Historically it has been simpler to unofficially frighten the miscreants into behaving themselves than prove their criminality in a court of law. But after recent warnings our racing authorities have decided that only the police can cut the bigger poppies down to size. As ever, lawyers will have difficulty trying to place black and white rules on to things that often happen in shades of grey. “There won’t be any convictions,” scoffed bookmaker Barry Dennis on television yesterday. He should not be so sure.

Of course this is a shock to the system but it should be welcomed. If there are accusations of wrongdoing, let’s finally put up or shut up. All of us are smeared by the innuendo. Let the police do their worst. Racing will be better for it.

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