Racing: Battle lines drawn in jockeys' rights issue

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The Independent Online
The supply of questions has far outstripped the demand for answers in the six days since three jockeys were arrested amid allegations of race-fixing. One debate, though, has emerged from the pack to dominate discussion in recent days - does the Jockey Club have either the legal or moral right to stop the wages of three people who have not even been charged with any misdemeanour, far less found guilty?

The argument has been lively and impassioned, but it teetered towards hysteria on Saturday, when Charlie Brooks, trainer and frequent employer of Jamie Osborne, one of the three jockeys concerned, appeared to call for an all-out strike by their fellow riders if the suspensions are not lifted at a hearing on Wednesday.

The thought of the foppish, old Etonian Brooks screaming "scab" at anyone who dared cross his weighing-room picket line is admittedly an entertaining one. What should also be remembered, though, is that his gilt-edged owners would no doubt continue to settle their bills, whereas most jump jockeys are freelances, paid by the ride. Brooks would also, you suspect, react rather differently if stable staff proposed similar action to improve their breadline wages.

Until now, the debate has largely been one-way traffic, with the Jockey Club's decision criticised from every quarter. Yesterday, though, the Club received support from an unlikely source in Declan Murphy, who in his riding days held a season ticket for meetings of the Disciplinary Committee.

There was support for the suspensions too from Jenny Pitman. "I think that, looking from the outside, that a week for the dust to settle has probably been in the interests of these jockeys," she said. "Philip Blacker was on the panel of stewards last week. He is a former jockey and would be totally aware of the effect this is going to have on these jockeys mentally."

The argument will continue up to and after Wednesday's hearing, not least because of the understandable reluctance of Jockey Club and police to release details of the allegations against the riders. There are other questions, however, which are just as relevant, the most obvious being - where's the money?

We know for a fact that two horses, both well-fancied, were doped in March last year. Doping horses is an extremely risky business, with severe penalties for anyone caught in the act and, where a well-known drug such as ACP is used, the near-certainty that it will be detected in a post- race test. Anyone planning to pull off such a scam would have to be very sure of a substantial return.

The betting returns from both races, however, do not show any evidence of a coup, either on-course or off. The Plumpton contest, in particular, was a non-starter in the ring, with an unbackable favourite (the doped 1-7 chance, Lively Knight) and just two opponents.

"There was just no money there at all," one on-course bookie recalled. There were, it is true, good bets for the winner of the Exeter event, but no more than would be expected for any runner saddled by Martin Pipe at his local track.

Off-course too, there were no blips on the bookmakers' radar, which seems to leave two possibilities: that the coup was landed in the illegal market, or that it took place somewhere else.

It is the latter explanation which is most disturbing. There have been doping scandals throughout racing history, and so long as they are fairly infrequent, punters do not mind too much. What has changed completely in the last 10 years, though, is British racing's global appeal.

SIS pictures are now transmitted to more than 60 countries, including Russia and most of the Far East. Backers in these countries like to bet on our racing for much the same reason that they enjoy a punt on our Premiership football - they think it is straight.

In many respects, this is good for the racing industry. Racecourses receive healthy sums for broadcasting rights, and the quality of our sport is advertised around the globe.

There is also, however, a clear potential threat in the appearance of robust betting markets on British racing in locations which are well beyond the reach of justice, be it that of the Jockey Club or the courts.

The discovery, just half a dozen years ago, that so many foreign countries would pay serious money to watch ordinary novice chases from Plumpton and Hexham seemed too good to be true. The lesson of last week's events may yet turn out to be that it was.