For the past 22 months, it has seemed all too apt that the Sword of Damocles should have dangled, of all things, from a horsehair. Since the arrest of Kieren Fallon in September 2004, the racing fraternity has held its breadth as he repeatedly answered bail to police investigating allegations of corruption.
Yesterday Fallon, champion jockey of Britain six times before moving to Ireland last year, was finally charged with conspiracy to defraud customers of the internet betting exchange, Betfair. Two other riders, Fergal Lynch and Darren Williams, face the same charge. Of the two trainers arrested, Karl Burke, walked free but Alan Berry is among those who face a first court hearing on 17 July.
A former racing syndicate director, Miles Rodgers, has also been charged with conspiracy to defraud.
In common with all those arrested, Fallon has resolutely maintained his innocence, but now finds himself at the heart of what is likely to prove a grim saga for the sport. Torn between its determination to eradicate dishonesty and a fragile belief in its probity, racing must now reconcile itself to purging any poison by the most sensational ordeal imaginable.
Throughout the legal limbo of the past 22 months, it has been plain that somebody has been playing with fire - either those under investigation, or the police, whose "form" in racing investigations has tended to be more Blackpool beach than Epsom. Corruption in racing is notoriously difficult for outsiders to identify, and even harder to prove. But the scale and cost of this investigation are without precedent, and the same will be true of the seismic shock it released across the industry yesterday.
The very term "race- fixing" betrays how many different shades there can be on the spectrum of corruption. It baldly suggests that a race has been organised from top to bottom. But the novel menace available since the arrival of betting exchanges is that profit can be made by ensuring that one particular horse does not win.
Police said the charges were in relation to allegations of fixing the outcome of races between 1 December 2002 and 2 September 2004. In a statement, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said its advice to the City of London police had followed a "detailed review" of the evidence by a lawyer from its Special Crime division.
"This was necessarily a protracted investigation in view of the need to obtain crucial evidence from a large number of sources," it said. "Among other material, the CPS has had to examine just under 40,000 pages of paper evidence."
At least 19 addresses have been raided in connection with the investigation, which was prompted by reports of irregular betting on Betfair. The betting exchange passed its records to the Jockey Club, which in turn called in the police.
A special panel of the Horseracing Regulatory Authority will convene today to hear representations from those charged. When jockeys were arrested in 1995, the Jockey Club - which has since passed on responsibility for licensing to the HRA - was heavily criticised for suspending their licences, and ultimately no charges were made.
Even though the situation is now rather different, it would none the less seem equitable to let those facing charges continue business as usual, in deference to the principle that they remain innocent until proven otherwise. After all, nobody is obliged to give them business, and the investigation can hardly have assisted their careers thus far.
Not that Fallon has ever allowed himself to be distracted. Yesterday he won a public vote of confidence from his patrons at Coolmore Stud, and Denis Egan, the chief executive of the Irish Turf Club, confirmed that the jockey will be able to continue riding in Ireland.
The case is likely to be split into three linked trials - the first not likely to start before spring 2007. It looks as though that sword will keep twisting on its horsehair for a long time yet.
The defendants: Others now facing charges
* ALAN BERRY: Took over a successful Lancashire stable from his father, Jack, in 2000. Had 73 winners, a record for a first-season trainer, but fortunes have since dwindled rapidly.
* FERGAL LYNCH: One of the leading northern riders, had his best season in 2005 with 77 winners. His brother, SHAUN LYNCH, also faces a charge of conspiracy to defraud.
* MILES RODGERS: From South Yorkshire, a former racing syndicate director, is charged with conspiracy to defraud and an offence under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
DARREN WILLIAMS, another Flat jockey, has been charged with conspiracy, while JOANNE RICHARDSON, reported to be the partner of Miles Rodgers, is accused of an offence under the Proceeds of Crime Act. Likewise DARREN ARMITAGE and BRIAN PILKINGTON. PHILIP SHERKLE was charged with conspiracy to defraud customers of Betfair as is STEVE O'SULLIVAN, a farrier.
Robert Winston, Paul Bradley and amateur Dale Jewett have been released without charge.
Betfair: How it operates
The advent of betting exchanges has undeniably provided new opportunities for skulduggery. But they have also sharpened the tools available to investigators.
Historically, it was only possible to bet on horses winning. The only people who could benefit from knowing a horse would not win were bookmakers. If a horse was ever "stopped" - by doping or fraudulent riding - it was presumably at the behest of a bookmaker.
Betting exchanges, in contrast, allow punters to bet directly with one another. One party to the wager lays a horse to lose, the other backs it to win. But Betfair argues that exchanges provide an "audit trail" to betting patterns. It has an agreement with the racing authorities to alert them to anything suspicious.Reuse content