Racing in crisis: Punters perceive it to be just another hazard in finding winners

Click to follow
The Independent Online
An old joke that still gets a laugh at sporting lunches and testimonial dinners features a fictional exchange between a racing trainer and the Duke of Norfolk. It's told this way.

Confronted by the Duke when slipping something to a horse of no great reputation, the trainer says: "It's nothing your Grace, just a lump of sugar. Look, I'll have one, why don't you?" Suspicion allayed, the trainer then takes his jockey aside and says: "Stay with them until two furlongs out. Then kick on. If anything passes you it will either be me or the effing Duke of Norfolk."

How close does such humour get to the truth about racing and every other branch of the sporting industry? In maintaining the power and duties of government can the authorities be relied on to protect the public?

As put on these pages yesterday by my colleague, Richard Edmondson, anybody who mixes with racing people on a regular basis is sure to hear tales of deliberate lethargy in running, and attempts to set up betting coups in future assignments.

That this week's allegations of race-fixing did not come as a great shock to any of the regular punters with whom I have since spoken (they include a peer of the realm, a football manager and one of the waiters at my favourite restaurant) suggests that people perceive it to be just another hazard in the process of finding winners.

Even though the Jockey Club sets aside pounds 14m each year to set up defences against criminal activity the fact that it chooses to deal with most matters internally causes the betting public to suspect that there is often more to the outcome of a race than meets the untrained eye. While nobody should assume that racing is in the grip of widespread corruption (proof would bring the industry down) there is a case for protecting punters from tricky training manoeuvres.

Of course, racing is not alone with thoughts of dishonesty. For example, bad movies, or at least the sensation pedlars who made them, have lumbered professional boxing with a perception, that logic cannot disperse, of fights fixed for betting purposes.

When Mike Tyson was about to make a second defence of the heavyweight championship one of the popular Sunday papers carried a ludicrous story that a Japanese gambler had offered him $40m (pounds 25m) to throw the contest. It was printed in ignorance of the fact that nobody would have accepted the bet.

I ought to say that in more than 30 years at ringside only a couple of fights have given rise to suspicion. One involved an up-and-coming British heavyweight with whom no chances were being taken and a pacifist who was at first reluctant to take up the opportunity. "Look," he was told, "I'm so sure you can beat this guy that if you don't, I'll pay you twice the money." The thought behind this didn't register fully until he'd shipped some punishment. "If I lose I'll get double..." Over he went.

Paradoxically, the more people earn from sport the safer the sport becomes from corruption. Charges of match rigging that led to the suspension of David Layne, Tony Kay, Peter Swann and others (Kay was imprisoned) were brought when the imposition of the maximum wage in English football left players open to temptation.

As I discovered from a document that had been carelessly mislaid by an official of the Football Association, other players of equal stature were implicated. Doubtless because of difficulties in obtaining evidence and the effect of their guilt on the game the FA chose not to take further action.

The reluctance of sporting organisations to act on embarrassing information was best exemplified when the International Olympic Committee claimed to be unaware that competitors at the 1992 Games in Atlanta had access to a pamphlet that showed how to get around dope testing procedures.

At the 1994 World Cup finals, Fifa, the game's international governing body, chose not to investigate suspicions that Colombia threw a match against the USA because of threats made by drug barons in their homeland.

You can go on and on like this because it has become the habit of sporting bodies to select the expedient option. The cloud over racing didn't arrive in the shape of this week's allegations. It's been there long enough to justify more positive action.