Racing: Down denies writing `humbug'

ALASTAIR DOWN, writer of The Sporting Life article at the centre of a libel action, clashed in the High Court yesterday with counsel representing racehorse trainer Lynda Ramsden, her husband Jack and champion jockey Kieren Fallon.

Down was giving evidence on the 12th day of the case in which the Ramsdens and Fallon are seeking damages over allegations in the Life that they had cheated the racing public. They claim that they were the victims of a "savage verbal onslaught''.

Mirror Group, publishers of the Life, maintain the article was true in substance, fact or fair comment on a matter of public interest.

Down, associate editor of the paper and author of the article headlined: "Contempt for the punter", said people on the racecourse and in betting shops had been furious about the run by the Ramsden-trained Top Cees in the Swaffham Handicap at Newmarket prior to the horse going on to win the 1995 Chester Cup three weeks later.

Richard Hartley QC, for the Life, asked Down: ``What did you think of Kieren Fallon's riding?''

Down: ``I thought the horse was not off.''

Hartley: ``Meaning?''

Down: ``Meaning he did not try.''

Cross-examined by Patrick Milmo QC, for the plaintiffs, Down rejected allegations that his opinions and those of the Life were "humbug''. He stood by every word he had written.

Down explained that he had been present at Newmarket for the Swaffham, watching the race on a television monitor in the press room. Journalist colleagues had questioned the riding of Top Cees by Fallon, maintaining that the 5-1 favourite had not been ridden to its full potential - although a stewards' inquiry accepted an explanation from the trainer and the jockey that Top Cees had been held up for a late run but then failed to get a gap through which to challenge.

On the day of the Chester Cup, Down said he had been in the Life offices and had watched the race with the paper's editor, Tom Clarke, and three or four other colleagues.

Looking at the Chester run, compared with Fallon's riding at Newmarket, he saw them as completely different. At Chester there had been more "aggression'' and more effort to get around horses in front.

Down said: "Fallon was great, and eager to want to get the best ride out of his horse. He is a cracking jockey. We were fully cognisant of what grave allegations the paper was making. I thought the way the horse had been run at Newmarket and in the Chester Cup meant that in a sense the racing public had had their noses rubbed in it."

He saw one of the most parts of his job as being looking after the interests of punters who had no other voice in racing.

Down was asked by Milmo about the National Union of Journalists' code of conduct, which warned against the dangers of presenting comment and conjecture as established fact. Down denied doing this and added: "It gave me no pleasure to write it." He admitted that he had been wrong to include words suggesting that the Chester racecourse switchboard had been jammed with calls complaining about the Cup result.

This information had been passed on to him by a Life reporter on the spot, Geoff Lester, who had said he had been given the information by track officials.

There was no question of the Life accusing Jack Ramsden, a well known gambler, of completing some sort of coup thanks to Top Cees' victory. But Down told the court that Ramsden had tried on occasion to outflank the racing authorities and exploit the system.

Earlier in the case Mr Ramsden had admitted making pounds 100,000 in his best gambling year. Down said: "In that case he would have been pounds 102,000 ahead of me."

Milmo declared that the leading article was "pure humbug'' and referred Down to an article he had written in the Sporting Life's Weekender about the victory of Old Red in the 1995 Cesarewitch at Newmarket, where Top Cees came third.

Down had pointed out that Old Red, trained by Mrs Mary Reveley, had been subject to previous stewards' inquiries when the horse had run "with all the success of a veal butcher at a vegan food festival".

Milmo said: "You were just writing for style." Down replied that it was untrue. There was no comparison between Top Cees and Old Red. Mrs Reveley had broken no rule and achieved a notable training success.

The hearing continues today.

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