RACING BECOMES WHIPPING BOY

16 June 2002

Eventful week in which the Sport of Kings and its reputation was rocked by a television expose and alleged links to crime and corruption

Should racing be in this section at all? Last week’s four-legged news was mostly about criminals and corruption. Next week, Ascot will generate half its coverage in the fashion pages? On Thursday the British Horseracing Board promised a “far-reaching and all-encompassing review” of the “racing product.” It can’t come soon enough.

What with a major link to Britain’s biggest ever cocaine bust, with on-going arguments about betting funds and with a prime time BBC documentary making grubby allegations of race-fixing, it’s high time “the sport” took on board how easy it is to believe the worst of its present, past and future.

For that alone we can give thanks to the otherwise shoddy and facile allegations which the Kenyon Confronts programme trotted out on Tuesday night at 9.30. It’s uncompromising title `They Fix Races Don’t They’ suggested it would show that worst of all racing crimes, a rigged result with horses pulled and jockeys paid. It showed us no such thing but that didn’t stop headlines and phone-ins all sounding off as if the programme’s title had been proven.

All that was proven was that if you disguise yourself (without much difficulty in Paul Kenyon’s case) as a ridiculous looking twot with too much money and then approach some trainers to see if they might break the rules to land a gamble you might manage to get three of them to say stupid things for which they should certainly face a degree of official censure.

But that, in reality, was the end of it.

The supposed scam with the selling plater `Seattle Alley’ was as ludicrous as it was naive because any easy research, or reference to Clare Balding and Jim McGrath at the BBC sports department, would have shown the producers that if there was any naughtiness perpertrated it was on them, not on the punters. In short, they were duped.

Let’s not waste too much time over this but here are the facts. Seattle Alley was foaled in 1993, cost 65,000gns as yearling and 64 races later has declined from a career peak rating of 118 (when he showed a bit of promise as a twice winning hurdler) to a present mark of 71.

In the last two seasons he has won three very bad selling races but they have all been over 2 miles at Hereford and, according to the programme, he was now bought for just £4,000.

If the presenter really did give the trainer £750 each-way to bet on Seattle Alley before it mysteriously pulled up at Uttoxeter over 2½ miles, he was even more stupid than his dodgy coat and flash car made him look and the BBC should be charged with a serious waste of public money.

Yet the programme did have a point which Matthew Maynard Jones, the assistant producer, kept reiterating to me in two long conversations over the last month, that racing people often give the impression that they will turn a blind eye to corruption. On Friday that got proven a thousand fold with the full disclosure of racing’s intricate links with the huge £300 million drugs racket allegedly masterminded by the now Northern Cyprus-sheltered punter Brian Wright.

What Brian Wright allegedly was up to was the nightmare scenario for anyone who cares for the sport and jockeys’ welfare. A free spending “entrepreneur” comes on the scene, wines and dines the jocks, starts paying some of them for “tips,” and builds up his network and his bets until he is using racing as a full scale operation for laundering drug money with doping and real race-fixing among the scams he does it with.

An undercover programme investigating Brian Wright and race fixing would have been worth every penny of the licence money. Here was this man with a box at Ascot, criminal associates and unhealthily close links with a lot of Lambourn jockeys. To be fair to the Jockey Club and their then Head of Security Roger Buffham, they did try, but the police investigation was botched and a lot of racing people said things which now sound very silly.

For a racing lover, and in my case as a former jockey and vice president of their association, it has been a miserable week made even worse by the death on Thursday of the wonderfully irreverent and unredeemable life force that was Charles Benson.

No time in his company could ever pass without submitting to his wicked mix of wit and charm; a man of millionaire tastes, millionaire friends never daunted by also having few fixed means and an incurable betting habit. St Peter better be alert when “Bence” pitches up at the pearly gates.

Some relief came on Friday night at Goodwood where John Dunlop had taken a box to entertain the nurses and doctors from Chichester hospital who saved his life last winter.

It’s time to look forward so let’s go into Royal Ascot week remembering a man who died and blessed by a man who didn’t.

Dunlop says Millenary in Thursday’s Harwicke Stakes is his best bet of the week. Up above (or maybe even temporarily down below) Benson will be punting as we speak.

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