The Big Question: Is horse racing fixed or just a highly competitive sport?


Why is race-fixing in the news?

The former champion Kieren Fallon, venerated by punters as the most dynamic jockey of his generation, is one of 11 people charged this week in connection with a lengthy police investigation into allegations of corruption. Until the details of the case become public, nobody knows what Fallon, first arrested in September 2004, is alleged to have done. But he is charged with conspiracy to defraud customers of the online betting exchange, Betfair. Two other jockeys, Fergal Lynch and Darren Williams, face a similar charge. A trainer, Alan Berry, and a farrier, Steve O'Sullivan, were meanwhile accused of conspiracy to defraud with a horse that was lame when entered for a race at Carlisle in June 2003. Police say that they laid the filly to lose.

All those charged have protested their innocence. But the allegations against Fallon, champion six times in Britain before returning to his native Ireland last year, guarantee a collective trauma for racing. If he is found guilty it would be a source of immense disillusionment.

Have betting exchanges made corruption easier?

Unquestionably - in theory. In practice, however, they have also made it much harder to get away with skulduggery. Before exchanges, it was possible only to back a horse to win. Historically, therefore, a horse would presumably be stopped - whether by "nobbling" or fraudulent riding - only at the instigation of a corrupt bookmaker.

In a betting exchange, one party to the wager offers to lay the horse to lose, the other backs it to win. By cutting out the middle man and allowing punters to trade directly with one another, exchanges have made it possible for anyone to profit from the defeat of a particular horse. Clearly this could present a new opportunity, and temptation, to cheats.

But Betfair, the pioneering exchange and clear market leader, would argue there is now an unprecedented audit trail to those who have made conspicuous profit from suspicious betting patterns. Betfair first alerted the Jockey Club to the races under investigation. If betting exchanges have provided cheats with a new weapon, they have also introduced the ability to take "fingerprints" from the trigger.

How difficult is it to fix a race?

Racing has long suffered from a perception that where there's brass, there's muck, and the history of the Turf has many chapters that illustrate its vulnerability to turpitude. In 1844 the Derby itself was won by a "ringer" - an older, stronger horse running in a race confined to three-year-olds - while a disgraced former jockey, Dermot Browne, claims to have doped 23 horses in two months in 1990.

But it would be wrong to assume that the sport is endemically corrupt. Race-fixing in its baldest terms is impractical. Horses are too unpredictable. Corruption tends to concern a specific runner, and racecourse stewards always look out for horses that start slowly and do not appear to be ridden very earnestly in the finish.

Those who owe their image of racing to Dick Francis should acknowledge a more mundane reality. At every level, British racing is frantically competitive. There are too many trainers, and jockeys, and those who cannot make a legitimate living by winning races will ultimately not make a living at all.

Should the industry do more to stop abuses?

Those who work in the day-to-day business of racing tend to circle the wagons in times of trouble. But the same can no longer be said of the sport's regulators, who have made energetic efforts to grasp the nettle. The Jockey Club recently transferred its responsibilities for integrity issues to a new body, the Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA). It had made several purposeful changes already, hiring a senior policeman as head of security and responding to rapid changes in the betting landscape. Licensed individuals, for instance, have been prohibited from laying their own horses. The HRA, which handed over this week's case to the police, is currently engaged in several other investigations. The Authority's hope is perhaps that the approaching trials should serve as catharsis, an equivalent to the present anguish of the Italian football league.

Have the police intervened in racing before?

It must be said that their previous form would not encourage you to have a bet. In 1995, they gave the sport a comparably turbulent experience by including five jockeys among 15 arrests, but the case collapsed. This time, the scale and cost of their investigation is unprecedented and the advent of betting exchanges has certainly given them more scope. After all, the big problem in such cases has always been the quest for "a smoking gun". Suspicious practice in horseracing is hard enough to identify if you know the business intimately. To others, racing can be an impenetrable maze. Some routine practices might be considered dubious by an outsider, for instance, but are so familiar to punters that anyone who cannot perceive them is frankly beyond protection.

What happens to racing's image now?

Whatever the outcome in the courts, it could be argued that damage has already been done - both to the reputation of the individuals facing charges, who could justifiably complain they have already had a cloud over them for the best part of two years, and to the sport itself.

Racing is torn between the determination to prove its probity, and anxiety about the signals sent out by the self-scrutiny. The industry depends on a share of betting profits, and its share of a booming gambling market is diminishing. It is therefore imperative that punters trust the sport - both those who steer the horses, and those who in turn keep jockeys on the straight and narrow.

Some have always secretly nursed the belief that its immoral adventures give the Turf an agreeably picaresque flavour. But if it is wrong to think of British racing as fundamentally corrupt, then it is equally wrong to persevere with such a convenient delusion. Everyone now accepts that the stakes are far too high.

Is the Sport of Kings plagued by corruption?

Yes...

* Betting exchanges have made it possible for anyone to profit from the defeat of a particular horse

* Racing is too conservative and introspective to apply adequate safeguards

* Cheats know it is hard to prove why a horse has failed to perform, and any connection to their own financial gain

No...

* Betting exchanges have made it much easier to trace those who profit from malpractice

* Despite a crackdown from regulators, proven corruption has so far been only marginal

* Most assumptions about the day-to-day workings of an unsparingly competitive sport are ignorant

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