To an extent these doubters are bound to think this way, bombarded as they are by fictional images - not just from novels, but also from films and television dramas - that must feed off the worst aspects of their narrative source in order to generate plot and suspense. Far better to believe in the worlds of Damon Runyon and Sergeant Bilko, or to call up scenes from Stephen Frears' The Grifters, or Stanley Kubrick's The Killing than, say, the saccharine heroics on show in National Velvet or Champions. Horse-racing is - no other word will do - saddled with a reputation for being a sleazy, low-life arena, where gullible, weak-willed men are rooked of their money by rapacious bookmakers, while a hard core of professional gamblers are always trying to bet on races where they already know the result.
And for those of us who love the sport, and who have even invested money into horse ownership as well as the usual portfolio of hopeless bets, defending the integrity of the game, not to mention our sanity, has been an uphill struggle over the past 12 months. In that time, 15 people connected with racing - including five jockeys, one former trainer, a bookmaker and several professional punters - have been arrested. Although two of these jockeys, Jamie Osborne and Leighton Aspell, have been totally exonerated, and nobody has actually been charged with any offences, the mud is beginning to stick to the sport of racing as comprehensively as it would in a three- mile chase at Plumpton in heavy going.
Over the past week, the British Horseracing Board (BHB) has tried to put pressure on the police investigation in order to try and lift the clouds of suspicion. The BHB's chief executive, Tristram Ricketts, said that: "The health of British racing, both as a sport and as a betting medium, depends on public confidence in its integrity. In the BHB's view, the overwhelming priority is that such investigations should be both independent and thorough, thereby ensuring that everything possible is done to safeguard British racing as a sport with a reputation for integrity which is second to none."
Fine words. Unfortunately, the police who have British racing up against the wall at the moment are not bicycling old buffers on the village beat, but Scotland Yard's Organised Crime Squad (OCS) whose agenda, by all accounts, is to link some of the race-fixing allegations to the money-laundering activities of major London drugs gangs. One of the few areas of public life where great wads of cash raise no eyebrows is the betting-ring at any of Britain's 59 race courses. Even at the remote country tracks in midweek, large cash bets are commonplace and, with both wagers and winnings being free of tax, it's no wonder that dirty money should find its way there. The difference between these wedged-up geezers and the ordinary punter, though, is that we are taking a guess at what the horses' form and the condition of the course might mean for our bets, while they already know that a certain fancied horse isn't going to win.
Indeed, this current investigation sprang from two shock results at small jump-racing tracks in the spring of 1997. Both Avanti Express, ridden by Osborne at Exeter, and Lively Knight, ridden by Aspell at Plumpton, were, in racing parlance "turned over" at short-price odds. The public's money may have been on these nags, but the "smart" money wasn't. When tests were taken, it was found that both horses had been doped using ACP, a tranquilliser sprayed into the horses' nasal passages. While Aspell and Osborne have been cleared of any possible involvement - what jockey would get on a racehorse knowing that it had been doped? - those who fixed the two races have yet to be apprehended or charged.
But there are other ways of both fixing a race, and taking advantage of this knowledge, without doping a horse. It has been common practice in both codes of racing for jockeys to be told not to "try too hard" on certain horses, by trainers who want to disguise the true form until such time as they can find a race that the horse can win. One old-time trainer, well-known for landing gambles, used to signal his intentions with a different coloured cross-band on his horses' bridles, with one shade indicating that the horse was "not off" (unlikely to win) while another announced it as a definite contender. This was all part of the roguish rough and tumble of racing, in which stables supplemented their fee incomes by having a touch on their own horses. The ready compliance of a jockey with a trainer's instructions was part of the unwritten rules of racing - if the jockey disobeyed, or suffered moral panic, he wouldn't ride for the stable again.
With more vigorous policing from the Jockey Club and its race-patrol cameras, and much heavier punishments for "non-triers", such practices are on the wane. But the possibilities still remain that jockeys, offered money or "presents" by those that don't want a horse to win, will "pull" or "hook" their mount, in order to supplement their fairly meagre riding fee. Even if they are suspected of such malpractice, there are dozens of excuses available - the horse "ran too free", or it "didn't like the going", or "found trouble in racing", or "it gurgled". This isn't so in every race, but only a complete naif would say it never happens.
The OCS is believed to be looking at three more races in which "unusual betting patterns" were allegedly noted, which might explain why the jockey Dean Gallagher is still on bail since his arrest a year ago, despite not having being charged with any offence - and also its recent questioning of the flat jockey, Ray Cochrane. A jockey, rightly or wrongly, is presumed to be the obvious accomplice because he has most chance of affecting a result. "I know what the poor sods are going through," Jamie Osborne said of his colleagues, after his own nine months under suspicion last year.
So now, the attention has been focused on Gallagher's mount in a chase at Newbury in February 1997, and on two of Ray Cochrane's rides in September 1996, and in the same month last year. Gallagher's High Alltitude opened in the race-course betting-ring at odds of 6-4, but then drifted out to 9-4. Possibly a sign that somebody - punter or bookmaker - "knew". Both this horse, and the 4-5 favourite, Mister Oddy, were beaten, with the 11-2 chance, Kings Cherry, winning. Something in the order of pounds 15,000 in on-course bets was lost on both horses. In theory, this was "a result" for the bookies. But now it emerges that one of Britain's most fearless, on-course bookmakers, Stephen Little, reported his unease about the race to the Jockey Club. "There was plenty of money for the favourite but virtually nothing for the second favourite, which worried me," Little explained to the racing press this weekend. "In the old days, second favourites sometimes won. Nowadays, there are too many occasions when nobody wants [to back] them."
In Ray Cochrane's case, both of his rides being investigated were horses that drifted in the betting-ring, Double Leaf and Fantastic Light, and both were beaten. Bookmaker Colin Webster says: "I expected Double Leaf to be favourite but all the money on the day was for the winner, Magellan. I half-ducked the race because I was uneasy, but the race still cost me pounds 5,000 and I was incensed by it."
Yet if the police had actual evidence of malpractice by any jockey, there would surely have been charges by now. Looking at the wider picture, I suspect that horse-racing, and a few jockeys, may well have been unwittingly used for more serious criminal activity, an act of "entryism" far more sinister than anything Militant Tendency planned for Old Labour.
Stephen Little, who cuts an exotic figure on the racetrack in his ankle- length fur coat, is a public school and Cambridge educated turf accountant who lives at one of the best addresses in Georgian Bath. His image is far removed from the shiny-suit-and-Old-Spice aura that the general public traditionally places around the bookmaking profession. He is famed for standing up to big bets at such intense meetings as the Cheltenham Festival. But now, partly due to meddlesome changes in the rules that govern bookmakers' pitches, partly out of unease, he is walking away from racing.
"I have always tried to avoid having suspicions," he says. "It's easy to think that when you lose, you've been robbed, and there are plenty of straight races that I've lost on. But sometimes you can't escape the conclusion."
British racing is a multimillion pound industry but, as it stands, it is left to its various constituent bodies to supervise its integrity, with the Jockey Club's rather antiquated squad of ex-policemen and ex- army majors as the front line. One well-known trainer and fabled gambler, Barney Curley, has always called for racing "to have its own version of the Gaming Commission, just like the casino industry has. It has to happen".
Until such time as the police report their findings, or make charges, racing remains in a half-lit limbo, with its many thousands of participants forced on to the defensive both by past images and popular perception. None of us can pretend that racing is completely clean, but nor is it as bent as some other sports, which are wracked by drugs and gambling scams. "What about cycling, or cricket or boxing?" we can shout with justification. Nor, indeed, is it any more corrupt than the financial services industry, whose various disgraces over the last decade far outstrip anything that racing has so far produced.
So, weather permitting, I'll be taking my horse, Deadly Doris, to Southwell today, letting her take her chance in the four o'clock. And I'll have 20 each way on her, in the belief, not just that she's got a chance, but also that the race will be a clean one. Racing may have its problems, but its stables are nowhere near as dirty as some of those in other areas of our public life.
Stan Hey is the author of `An Arm and Four Legs: a Journey into Racehorse Ownership' (Yellow Jersey Press, pounds 15)Reuse content