Racing: Winston guilty of corruption charges and banned for year

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The Independent Online

The agonising purge faced by British racing in 2007 began yesterday when Robert Winston was suspended for 12 months by the Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA).

Three other jockeys were also found guilty of corruption charges, and indeed were punished with greater severity. But while his role was peripheral, the obscurity of Robbie Fitzpatrick, Fran Ferris and Luke Fletcher will inevitably cast Winston as the eponymous villain of the latest scandal to shake the Turf. For the talent that has repeatedly brought him back from self-destruction to the brink of fulfilment - Winston fought back from alcoholism to contest the jockeys' championship in 2005, only to suffer serious injury - now faces renewed despair.

Winston's solicitor, Christopher Stewart-Moore, described his client as "shocked and disappointed" and the sentence as "extremely harsh".

The sport is braced for a traumatic year, with several corruption inquiries scheduled for coming months. But it had no anaesthetic against the pain of this first incision.

Winston has long protested his innocence, and his lawyers tried to persuade the HRA that he should be dropped from the case because he had none to answer. In the end, his licence was suspended for a year. He will still be able to work in a racing stable, however, and at 27 is entitled to hope that this banishment need not spell the end of his career. In contrast, Fitzpatrick and Fletcher were "warned off" altogether for three years apiece, while Ferris was disqualified for two years.

Of the other jockeys, only Fitzpatrick has been riding this winter. Fletcher relinquished his licence after the HRA charges were brought, last August. Ferris has been entangled in a number of other disciplinary dramas and was stripped of his licence in October, when found not to be sufficiently "fit and proper" to hold one.

The investigation concerned a total of 37 races between 16 June, 2003, and 29 February, 2004. Five Betfair account holders - including a former racecourse bookmaker, Ian Nicholl - collectively made a profit of £48,000 on these races.

The HRA appears satisfied that a corrupt circle had been exposed, but did not discover any evidence that Winston had shared information with any intention of riding dishonestly. That is why he was treated more leniently than the others. Fletcher and Ferris were found guilty of not riding horses on their merits, in the knowledge they had been laid to lose. Fitzpatrick was identified as the conduit of information to Nicholl.

Stewart-Moore was angered by the panel's interpretation of Winston's role. "The panel's finding is based on their 'inference' that Mr Winston received a reward from Mr Nicholl for providing him with information," he said. "For the avoidance of doubt, Mr Winston received no reward from Mr Nicholl - or anyone else for that matter - in relation to the information he is alleged to have given. No physical evidence of a reward was put to the panel and no such evidence exists. Mr Winston never spoke to Mr Nicholl, and was completely unaware of his existence at the relevant time."

Not all the bets proved profitable. Two horses won - including one ridden by Winston - and another pair were placed, costing the account holders substantial sums. At the same time, heavy sums were risked in the successful bets. For instance when The Gambler, ridden by Fletcher, finished unplaced at 6-1 at Musselburgh on 16 June, 2003, one of the accounts registered a profit of £9,100. Had the horse won, it would have cost over £49,000.

Winston rode 21 of the horses examined, almost all outsiders. Overall his mounts lost money on Nicholl's account. Fletcher rode 10, Ferris four and Fiztpatrick two. The HRA seems to have accepted that neither Winston nor Ferris spoke with Nicholl, alleging information was passed through Fitzpatrick.

The jockeys were accused of providing, for reward, information not in the public domain that would be used for corrupt gain. They were also charged with hindering the HRA security department's investigation.

Winston has, meanwhile, been quoted as planning legal action against a "party who told lies against me".

The HRA charged all four jockeys a month after Winston was released from bail, without charge, by City of London police investigating allegations of race-fixing. Kieren Fallon, the multiple champion jockey, is among those facing trial at the Old Bailey in September.

Fallon, along with all those facing criminal charges, furiously insists he will clear his name. Regardless, it seems poignant to reflect how he and Winston have often seemed to share the same instinct for disaster. Both have confessed to serious drink problems in their time, and neither managed to escape opprobrious scrutiny despite emerging, initially from the northern circuit, as elite riders. Both, ironically, have been loyally supported by Sir Michael Stoute, the champion Flat trainer.

That, of course, is a telling measure of what was at stake for Winston in this ordeal. From one of the toughest Dublin estates, he has always resented cheap inferences that "you can take the boy out of Finglas, but you can't take the Finglas out of the boy". Whenever he has come off the rails, he has spoken with passionate belief that all would ultimately work out well. This time he has been bleakly lamenting the cost of the whole process, both financially and in terms of his career.

It might be argued that Winston has been culpable of little more than naïvete. During the sport's present catharsis, however, it seems he must share a collective loss of innocence.

How the HRA concluded Winston 'supplied inside information'

* "In the light of its decision that Robert Winston was supplying inside information to Mr Nicholl via Fitzpatrick - but that this did not include any indication that he would, if necessary, ride in a way designed to ensure the success of the lay betting - the [HRA] Panel considered carefully whether it was right to conclude that Winston was receiving payment for his information.

"The Panel decided that he was being paid. The sheer scale of the operation, the pattern of regular phone contacts, the heavy betting by Mr Nicholl, and the false denials by Winston about the passing of information to Fitzpatrick and about his knowledge that that information was being used by Mr Nicholl have combined to persuade the Panel that he was receiving substantial payment.

"At the time of the suspect races, Winston was on an upward career path that might indicate he was unlikely to risk that career with involvement in corrupt betting. But he was also a vulnerable character, who was drinking heavily, which led to a falling out with at least one trainer. This vulnerability played its part in causing him to become involved in supplying inside information."