Racing: Jockey Club criticised over Top Cees

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The Independent Online
TOM CLARKE, editor of The Sporting Life, yesterday defended his newspaper against libel claims levelled at it by the trainer Lynda Ramsden, her husband Jack and the champion jockey Kieren Fallon.

The Ramsdens and Fallon are suing The Sporting Life over an editorial which accused them of ``cheating'' their way to victory in the May 1995 Chester Cup on Top Cees. The horse had just three weeks earlier come fifth in the Swaffham Handicap at Newmarket.

The article, headlined ``Contempt for the Punter'', described the victory as ``seedy and deeply unpopular'' and accused Fallon of deliberately not trying to win on Top Cees at Newmarket.

The Ramsdens and Fallon say the article was libellous and caused grave harm to their reputations, but the newspaper insists it was both true and justified in the public interest.

Clarke told the High Court jury he was ``very surprised'' when stewards who inquired into Top Cees' performance in the Swaffham Handicap decided to give Fallon ``the benefit of the doubt'' and take no action against him.

The horse had been the subject of a full Jockey Club inquiry four months earlier after a race at Edinburgh, the court heard.

Clarke said Fallon's performance on Top Cees at Newmarket at the very least deserved to be reported to the Jockey Club by the stewards. "On this particular horse in this particular race it was almost laughable that, just 20 yards or so from the finish, the whip came out at last," said Clarke, standing by his newspaper's claims that Top Cees had been ``tenderly handled'' at Newmarket.

Clarke said he had also closely monitored reports in the rival newspaper, the Racing Post, to gauge the views of the racing community on Top Cees' performance at Newmarket. The Post's ``Mark your Card'' column on 25 April observed Top Cees had attracted ``much comment, and no wonder''. It went on to express the view that Top Cees ``would surely have won had he been ridden a shade more aggressively''.

Clarke said the Life had given ``substantial coverage'' to the Chester Cup, one of the most prominent races in the early part of the Flat season.

A video of Channel 4's coverage of the Chester Cup was played to the court in which the commentator commented on Top Cees' performance at Newmarket, saying: "If it had happened in Australia, they'd have been off for months."

Clarke said he had watched the television coverage of the race with Life colleague Alastair Down. "Even as Top Cees was passing the post, Alastair and I turned to each other and said: `We must do something about this','' he told the jury.

Asked to substantiate the newspaper's accusations that the horse's win at Chester had been ``seedy and deeply unpopular'', Clarke said: "The reception after the race, I thought it was muted and very modest."

Speaking of his determination to ``do something about'' Top Cees' victory, Clarke added: "This is where we put on our hats as an authoritative and independent voice on racing. We would do one of our occasional comment pieces. I felt it was very much one of those situations where we had to do a leading article because there was something which had obviously caused great concern."

After the victory, numerous telephone calls were received by Life's newsdesk and race officials, he claimed. Asked how he felt about the stewards' decision to take no further action, Clarke said: "I felt that the Jockey Club, by not pursuing the Top Cees case more thoroughly, had not satisfied the natural public demand for a proper inquiry and a proper answer.

"It is the only real role of the Jockey Club to regulate racing and all racing depends on the Jockey Club behaving firmly and consistently. One of The Sporting Life's roles is to monitor and from time to time disagree and to make our feelings known clearly."

Asked how the Life viewed the racing public, Clarke added: "As our best friend. As our principal purchasers. As people who do not have a real voice in racing. They are not represented on the Jockey Club or on the British Horseracing Board.

"It is absolutely essential to the confidence of horse racing. If the punters are to lose confidence in horse racing the game does not have a very good future."

The hearing continues.