Racing: Jockey Club plans closer scrutiny of sales deals

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The Independent Online

The Jockey Club is to take further steps to tighten if not its control, then at least its vigilance, over the often shady world of horse-trading. The bloodstock industry, the multi-million-any-currency factory floor that services the shop window of the sport on the track, is known to be as riddled with the potential for corruption as a football transfer deal.

Racing's guardian of integrity has no regulatory powers over business deals in horseflesh but, like racing and betting, racing and bloodstock are one hundred per cent symbiotic and in many cases the dramatis personae are the same and those who hold a licence - for instance a trainer - can expect no mercy if they care caught out in wrongdoing.

The catalyst for the Portman Square stewards' declaration of intent has been a civil case held at a London court last month. The dealings of trainer David Elsworth and bloodstock agent Charlie Gordon-Watson in a transaction to sell the smart filly Foodbroker Fancy to US interests came under scrutiny, particularly a £10,000 extra commission payment from agent to trainer. After its legality was questioned and castigated by the judge the matter was rapidly settled out of court.

As well as an already-scheduled meeting with a senior City of London detective, the Jockey Club is to talk to other bodies within both the racing and bloodstock industries, including the Federation of Bloodstock Agents, the Racehorse Owners' Association, National Trainers' Federation, Thoroughbred Breeders' Association as well as representatives of the main equine auction houses.

"We have no regulatory jurisdiction over the bloodstock industry," said Jockey Club executive director Christopher Foster yesterday, "but we are calling a meeting of the relevant organisations to discuss how to increase transparency in sales transactions. Allegations of malpractice in areas which relate to racing can reflect poorly on the sport itself."

Although not all involved in bloodstock dealing are dishonest, like that of betting, the system can be manipulated for financial gain. Both in and out of the auction ring bungs, bribes, sweeteners, kickbacks, backhanders, presents (call them what you will), vested interests and market manipulation are so commonplace as to be almost unworthy of mention.

The most recent instance of malpractice in this area came in March 2000, after a High Court case in which the judge awarded an owner £51,480 after deciding that trainers Oliver Sherwood and Paul Webber (a former bloodstock agent) had colluded in bidding on a horse at the Doncaster Sales. The pair were each fined £4,000 under the Jockey Club rule governing acting 'in a manner prejudicial to the good reputation of horseracing'.

In March last year, the Jockey Club introduced a code of conduct for trainers in relation to the buying and selling of horses, from which (as opposed to training fees) many derive a significant percentage of their income. "It was designed to increase transparency in dealings between trainers and owners," said Foster. "The code made particular reference to the dissatisfaction which can arise from undisclosed commissions or other financial benefits in connection with the purchase or sale of horses. Owners are entitled to ask for full disclosure of the financial details of a purchase or sale."

One recent phenomenon in the sport has been the advent of the big-spending non-horsey owner. That sort may seem ripe for the stitching but given the fact that they are generally highly successful businessmen, it may be that they simply accept or expect practices that, in view of some recent corporate scandals, could be regarded as small financial beer.

Although Elsworth and Gordon-Watson regard the Foodbroker Fancy (whose sale to the US fell though anyway after she was injured in the autumn of 2001) case as now closed, it may not be.

With regard to the remarks made by the judge about the alleged actions of the parties involved in the civil dispute hearing between Foodbrokers Ltd, the filly's owners, and Gordon-Watson, the Jockey Club is awaiting legal advice, having passed a copy of the transcript to its lawyers for their consideration. And the matter will now be added to the agenda of the meeting with the senior detective from the City of London's specialist crime operations group (economic crime unit).

Foster added: "In the light of the outcome of that meeting together with the legal advice we receive, we will determine the appropriate course of action to take in relation to the case. We will have to bear in mind the fact that the sale itself did not take place and the incident does predate the introduction of our Code of Conduct.

"In this day and age all deals should be transparent. Football has had to tackle the question of transfer deals and the roles agents play, now the bloodstock industry needs to take a close look at its agency arrangements."