Racing: Judge: `treat the evidence of Thompson with caution'

THE JURY in the Top Cees libel case was warned yesterday to "treat with caution" the evidence submitted by Derek Thompson, the Channel 4 Racing presenter, when they retired to consider their verdict.

Mr Justice Morland was summing up the evidence on day 18 of the libel action brought against The Sporting Life newspaper by Jack and Lynda Ramsden and the champion Flat jockey, Kieren Fallon. The plaintiffs are suing over an article headed "Contempt For The Punter", published the day after Top Cees runaway win in the Chester Cup in May 1995. It alleged that they had been "cheating" when Top Cees failed to win the Swaffham Handicap at Newmarket three weeks earlier.

Justice Morland said that the defence "strongly relied" on the evidence of Thompson, who testified that Fallon had told him that he had deliberately stopped Top Cees, the favourite for the Swaffham. "You should treat this evidence with caution," he told the jury. "Only after careful consideration must you act on it, when you are satisfied of its truth and accuracy and that it amounts to a confession."

The reason for his warning, he said, was that the alleged conversation had taken place nearly three years ago, and that Thompson had not made a note of it at the time. Justice Morland also pointed out discrepancies between the reported conversation and that which had been submitted to the court as part of the preparation for the case. "You may well think," he said, "that these inconsistencies throw serious doubt on what he said."

The judge also raised doubts about the evidence of Jim McGrath, a director of Timeform and also a Channel 4 presenter, who appeared as an expert witness for the defence. "He is a professional communicator," he said. "Was he too quick with the ready riposte? Was he already biased against Mr Ramsden before he became an expert witness?"

The judge praised the evidence of a second expert witness. Alan Amies, senior race-reader with Raceform, publishers of the form book, had testified that Top Cees could have won the Swaffham if he had been ridden with "more urgency". The judge said that "his opinion is important, because it was reached before the Chester Cup, and before the article was published."

He went on to say that the "seriousness of the accusation" in the article was "obvious". The jury's first important task, he said, was to decide "whether Mr Fallon deliberately and dishonestly failed to seize" a seven- second gap which appeared during the Swaffham, in order not to obtain the best possible placing for his horse.

If so, they would then have to decide whether "it is conceivable that Mr Fallon would have done so except under the instruction of Mr and Mrs Ramsden."

On the matter of damages if the plaintiffs' case proved successful, Mr Morland offered some guidance to the jury. He said that the amount of any award should reflect the damage to the plaintiffs' reputation, and suggested that "a sum of less than pounds 50,000 for each plaintiff would be niggardly, but more than pounds 125,000 would be extravagant".

The jury retired to consider its verdict at 3.10pm. At 4.30pm, no verdict had been reached, and its deliberations will continue today.