A scandal of blinkered fools and horses

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The Independent Online
I HALF expected to see masses of punters at Doncaster races yesterday peering intently through their binoculars - not in the direction of the track but at the parade ring looking for needle marks in the horses' arses. I must apologise for that last phrase. I should have said horses' hindquarters. You might have thought I was talking about the Jockey Club.

My fellow punters were looking at nothing of the sort, of course. They were engaged in ordinary punting activities and displaying not the slightest qualm about their presence in surroundings that so many are now regarding with deep suspicion. Those who frequent racecourses or betting shops are already well aware that they are entering a world of mystery and intrigue against which they happily pit their wits and their wallets in grotesquely uneven battle.

Therein lies much of the fascination of a day at the races and which promotes to the undisputed title of daftest quote of the week the Jockey Club statement that they were suspending the three jockeys involved in the race-fixing allegations "in order to maintain the public's confidence in horseracing".

It was a declaration that matched the crassness of the decision itself. This particular governing body's standing is not so high that it can resist an opportunity to display a streak of ruthless discipline. Unfortunately, not only did they choose the wrong vehicle for the demonstration, they did so in terms which reveal they have yet to grasp the difference between even-handedness and high-handedness.

For a start, the public's confidence in horseracing is nowhere near as high as they seem to think it is. The nation's sneaking love for the sport, hugely manifest on big race days, is spiced with suspicion that much of what goes on behind the scenes wouldn't bear close examination. The lurid plots of the successful racing novels of the former jockey Dick Francis are rarely regarded as far-fetched.

But, even if we accept that a respectable level of public confidence exists, what could be more calculated to destroy it than to suspend the jockeys who, despite being dragged from their beds at dawn and subjected to police cell interrogation, appear to be several furlongs away from being accused of anything by the police. The suspensions clearly imply that the Jockey Club are not as reticent to take action.

They are at pains to deny that they are making assumptions but it is difficult to judge their decision otherwise. If nothing else, you will have gathered that their name is of quaint and ancient origin and that their main responsibility is not the welfare of jockeys.

Obviously, both they and the Metropolitan Police's Organised Crime Group know more than we do, or believe they do. But we have witnessed before in other walks of life the drama of dawn raids and heavy hints of darkest deeds without the infallibility of the police being firmly established. Perhaps, the next series of early- morning door-pounding will yield more to shock us. A charge, even... and the thickening of a massive plot.

So far, however, the most revealing aspect of the affair has been the reaction of the horseracing industry which has been one of almost total disbelief that either the people or the incidents involved could be central to a serious disgrace. And this, remember, is a sport more vulnerable to chicanery than any other and in which everybody is so suspicious of everyone else they rarely take their beady eyes off each other.

This is not to say that allegations of doping or race-fixing should not be taken seriously and, if proved, be dealt with harshly, but the abiding feeling is that this particular scandal has got off to an untidy start and that there are uncomfortable parallels with recent happenings in other sports. One can sympathise with governing bodies who preside over sports that are easy prey to villainy. Constant surveillance is a strain and it can sometimes lead to itchy trigger-fingers.

What happened to the athlete Diana Modahl was more of a tragic than a cautionary tale. When a sample taken from her showed traces of testosterone she was dragged out of the 1994 Commonwealth Games and sent home in the sort of ignominy we normally reserve for murderers. The authorities spared her not a trace of sympathy and by the time her innocence was proved her career was ruined and even now she has not been compensated for the costly nightmare of clearing her name.

The case now disturbing the Jockey Club has far closer connections with the bribes accusations against the footballers Bruce Grobbelaar, John Fashanu and Hans Segers. After two years of painful court appearances they, too, were cleared of breaking the law. The main difference was that the Football Association did not suspend them. Unlike the Jockey Club, the FA were prepared to regard them as innocent until proven guilty.

Unless there are further developments, the Jockey Club should lift the suspensions and accord the jockeys their basic rights. Meanwhile, racing has continued with its life. Despite all the sensation, betting turnover has not dropped a penny and, judging by the crowd at Doncaster yesterday, the fans are not deterred.

If it comes to the worst, and notwithstanding the fervent royal connection it still enjoys, we may have to revise racing's proud title of the sport of kings. Anyway, from what we learn about many old kings, they were probably more interested in the sport of presidents.

THERE will be no neutrals watching Newcastle United's FA Cup replay against Stevenage Borough on Wednesday. Anyone not permanently committed to Newcastle's cause will be breathing heavily on behalf of the non-league team whose spirited defiance in the first encounter re-awakened the nation to the magical properties of Cup football.

And if the magic didn't align you solidly behind Stevenage, the boorish behaviour of the Newcastle manager Kenny Dalglish would have certainly swung you over. Dalglish has been decidedly grumpy about this tie since the numbers came out of the bag with Stevenage drawn at home. He wanted them to switch the tie to Newcastle where they could share the riches of a bumper attendance in return for surrendering the small-ground advantage beloved of giant-killers through the ages.

Sensibly, Stevenage played in front of their own small but fervent crowd and thoroughly earned their right to a replay. Having thus gained the transfer of the action to Newcastle, albeit the hard way, you would have thought Dalglish would have spared a morsel of magnanimity for his plucky foe.

No chance. He failed to congratulate his rival manager, refused to be be interviewed on television and rejected a request from the Stevenage captain, Robin Trott, to sign a ball and a programme. His only recorded comment was that the ball was "too bouncy" - an ironic complaint considering it was a brand he endorses.

Even Dalglish's best friends in the media chided him for his churlishness. At least it adds another question to the intrigue of Wednesday's replay. Dare Stevenage risk upsetting him again?