Racing's heartland tries to rein in the drug pushers

In a quiet Berkshire village, stable lads fall victim to urban heroin dealers. Jojo Moyes reports
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The Independent Online
The racing village of Lambourn, in Berkshire, has become the unlikely setting for large-scale police raids, following indications that inner- city drugs dealers are targeting the racing community.

The series of raids, codenamed Operation Robin, are in response to a growing heroin problem which has led to a registered 51 addicts in the 4,000 strong village, as well as record levels of associated crime.

"We've had two large-scale raids involving over 40 police . . . We've put extra police patrols out at nights to combat the increase [in associated crime] and it has to some degree stemmed the flow. We will stamp it out," said a police spokesman.

Police will meet racing trainers and parish councillors early in October to discuss the problem, which was highlighted last Thursday when an apprentice jockey, Robert Wainwright, 23, was found guilty at Reading Crown Court of possessing heroin.

Further charges of supplying heroin, which he admitted, were adjourned until 25 October for pre-sentence reports to be prepared. Wainwright, a jockey with the Lambourn-based trainer Mick Channon, was found not guilty of a further charge of smoking the drug opium. According to police, the sudden upsurge in hard drug use in the sleepy Berkshire village has been caused by dealers moving in to target the large population of young people employed by the industry.

"We've noticed a number of people moved down from places like Liverpool and Manchester where the problem is apparent all the time. They've introduced the problem into our area," said a police spokesman.

He said that the nearby town of Hungerford was experiencing "nothing like the same problem", fuelling police concerns that dealers are attracted to the racing community because of the high proportion of young stable lads with a weekly wage to burn.

"I wouldn't connect it solely with racing but it's a young people's problem, and there are a lot of young people mixing in pubs in Lambourn. It's a very cosmopolitan population . . . you've got Irish lads, Scottish lads, Liverpudlian lads." He added that despite the success of recent raids, intelligence services had said there was still a problem in the village.

"We can base that on a previous operation regarding ecstasy, which was rife around 18 months ago. We had eight drugs raids in one go. We took out a main dealer of ecstasy and a couple of local dealers," he said. The problem then subsided, until police became aware that there was a "significant problem" with heroin use among the 17-25 age group.

He said the racing industry took the problem "very seriously" and that police had worked in conjunction with the Jockey Club to address it. Trainers and community leaders are privately said to be watching carefully for signs of drug abuse among stable lads, but are publicly keen to play down suggestions that there might be a problem. Peter Penfold, a Lambourn parish councillor, said that while there was a "core" of young people that used drugs in Lambourn, "we are advised by police that it is no more a problem than any other area".

But suggestions of drug use in racing are not new - and are not confined to horse-doping. A spokesman for Newmarket police said last week that there had "always been a bit of a problem" and said there was a "suggestion" that there was "a preponderance of drugs in the racing fraternity". One racing source said last week that there were "always stable lads who you knew you could get drugs off if you wanted to".

He said drug use among lads - traditionally amphetamine based - occurred mainly because of the long, hard hours involved. "It's pretty exhausting work. In some yards you start at 5am, work till midday, try and get some sleep until 4 then do evening stables.

"At the end of the week they've got cash and it's just a relief from what is a fairly miserable existence. [Lads] all blow their money on drink and drugs on Fridays and most of them are penniless by Monday," he said. "They're the perfect people to aim at."

He believed that the problem was largely confined to the lower echelons of racing as "very few of the jockeys do it since drug testing [was introduced]."

Random testing of jockeys began in 1994, after advice from police in the Newmarket and Lambourn areas suggested that there might be a drug problem. This followed the arrest in 1993 of the leading jockey Frankie Dettori, who was officially cautioned after being found in possession of a quantity of cocaine.

Shortly afterwards, Billy Ellison, the stable lad who looked after the Grand National winner Red Rum, claimed he ran a drugs ring at Newmarket, selling amphetamines to a string of well-known riders. According to Ellison, jockeys took the drug because it suppressed appetite, helping them to keep their weight down, while giving them excess energy.

Weight and stamina are the key issues in racing; a more recent survey of 500 jockeys showed that more than 70 per cent had attempted to lose more than 5 lb in 24 hours and that many resorted to drugs, diuretics and slimming pills.

Following the introduction of testing in Britain, two other apprentice jockeys, Darren Salter and Sean McCarthy, have been the subject of temporary bans following failed drugs tests and, according to the source, there have been "a lot of changed personalities in the weighing- room".

In February, still insisting that drugs were less of a problem in racing than in society at large, the Jockey Club launched a programme for jockeys on drug awareness and a booklet produced by the charity Lifeline was sent to all apprentice and conditional jockeys.

Police in Lambourn are confident that they are attacking the root of the latest problem. But according to the racing source, as long as weight and stamina are the key issues in racing then drug abuse will continue. He added: "It's always been there - if it's increasing it's just reflecting the rest of society really."