Racing: Betting in chaos as owners stage protest: Paul Hayward reports from Fontwell where dissatisfaction over the level of prize-money inspired disruption of two races

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A boycott by a group of racehorse owners caused severe disruption to yesterday's meeting at Fontwell, with confusion in the betting ring and heated exchanges outside the weighing room. The owners, led by Ken Higson, a pharmaceuticals manufacturer, and Barney Curley, the professional gambler, staged a protest at the poor levels of prize-money by withdrawing runners moments before the off.

Higson began the campaign in race one by instructing his jockey, Gary Moore, not to set off on the 9-4 favourite, Across The Card, who walked away from the rest of the field seconds before the tapes went up. Bookmakers were left with insufficient time to draw up a new market, and with Searcy unseating his rider at the start in an entirely separate incident, 45p in the pound was levied on all winning bets. This deduction was in accordance with the rules governing betting.

From then on the ring was alive with rumours suggesting that this horse or that would be scratched by the same method. Many punters simply gave up, calculating that even if they backed a winner, a swingeing deduction would render the bet worthless. In the third race only six bookmakers quoted Curley's Torwada, but he, too, was detached from the group assembling at the start and led away by his rider, Jason Twomey.

This time the deduction was 30p in the pound and a group of over a hundred punters gathered outside the weighing room to seek an explanation. While Higson, Curley and a cabal of other disaffected owners produced figures to substantiate their case, most punters in the audience expressed support, though one said to Higson: 'If you like it so much in Germany (Higson also has horses there) why don't you go over there and stay.'

A revolt of this nature has long been brewing at the minor jumps tracks in the south. A fortnight ago Higson mounted a fierce attack on Plumpton for offering what he calls 'pathetic' and 'insulting' rewards to owners sending runners to the Sussex tracks. If the plot had been well touted on the course beforehand, it escaped the attention of the racecourse commentator, who confirmed Across The Card's absence only after the race had finished.

'This has never happened before,' Keith Brown, the official starter, said. 'Jockeys refusing to race? It's an absolute disgrace. It's incredible.' Brown's report to the Fontwell stewards resulted in pounds 1,200 fines each for Higson, Moore, Curley and Twomey, and the Jockey Club may now press further charges of bringing the sport into disrepute.

The Siddlesham Selling Race, from which Across The Card was withdrawn, was worth pounds 585 to the winner, pounds 183 to the second and pounds 86 to the third. Yesterday's meeting at Fontwell was 'a non-criteria meeting', which means it received only limted financial support from the Levy Board. Even Cliff Griggs, Fontwell's clerk of the course, conceded: 'I'm embarrassed by the prize-money. If I could put it up I would.'

In a statement, Higson, who claimed to have the support of 500 owners, said: 'This is most certainly the saddest day of my life. I felt I had to do something to bring some sanity into a sport I love.

'Certain tracks and off-course bookmakers realise they are rubbing our noses in the dirt. My main complaint is that third place in today's hurdle race does not even pay the jockey's riding fee ( pounds 78 plus VAT). Off-course betting shops do not contribute one penny to racing. In fact, punters pay the levy.'

Later, Higson said: 'I can send a horse out on the track and see it break down or the jockey break his neck for the chance of earning less than the jockey's fee. I can get pounds 15 at Walthamstow for one of my dogs finishing last. The racecourse gets the product for nothing and the off-course bookmakers get the product for nothing. While prize- money remains like this, I will never, ever have another runner at Plumpton or Fontwell.'

Against the weight of rumour, Torwada was the final horse to be withdrawn, though bookmakers were expecting further action in the final race (it was also suggested that two of the three runners in the Harry Duffey Chase would be taken out, thus producing a walkover). From the minimum of effort, Higson, Curley and their supporters produced the maximum disruption.

Punters in betting shops were probably the main losers, not least because a late rush of money for Across The Card forced his price down to 9-4 and thereby increased the deduction. Also, because six on-course bookmakers decided to quote Torwada at 2-1 - the rest took the view that he would not run and framed a market without him - a starting price was returned for the horse, and again the deduction was high.

Not long ago Higson and Curley would have been warned-off for such defiance. 'I don't want to bring racing into disrepute, so I rest my case,' Higson said, discounting the possibility of further action, though Curley is determined to extend the campaign (he also plans to pay his and Twomey's fines by raising a collection on the racecourses).

Reg Akehurst, one of the most prominent trainers at Fontwell yesterday, said, 'I'm sure 90 per cent of trainers will support them if it goes to Portman Square (the Jockey Club's headquarters).'

'This was just a shot over the bows,' Curley said. 'Montgomery didn't say where he was going to attack next, and nor shall we.'

Across The Card, the first horse withdrawn, is engaged to run in the opening race at Exeter this afternoon. Gary Moore has again been booked for the ride.

(Photograph omitted)