The failure of one of the horses beaten in the latest spate of doping to hit racing, Lively Knight, almost caused an exodus of horses from Josh Gifford's Findon yard. The bay gelding was a 1-7 favourite for a three- runner novice chase at Plumpton in late March, but was a beaten horse from three fences out.
The good to firm ground was forwarded as an explanation by some for Lively Knight's capitulation, even though he had won on good going earlier in the campaign. Gifford, though, had no idea why his runner, 50lb clear of the winner, Stormhill Pilgrim, on the official ratings, should have run so badly.
Gifford's biggest problem transpired to be the riding arrangements. Lively Knight was partnered by Leighton Aspell, his yard's conditional jockey, while Stormhill Pilgrim was a spare ride for Philip Hide, the stable's retained jockey.
This coincidence upset Alan Weller, the owner of the runner-up and, in the immediate aftermath, he threatened to remove all his horses from Gifford, including the promising Boardroom Shuffle. Gifford said yesterday: "He now says he never talked about taking his horses away, but I can assure you he did. All this tells us what really happened that day."
For much of this year the Jockey Club has been conducting a covert operation in West Sussex and only recently has Gifford considered the magnifying glass has lifted from him and his team.
The trainer added: "It's very worrying. We have been investigated, or interrogated if you like, for the last six months. We were told to keep quiet and they would be doing undercover work to find out who did this. I am 100 per cent behind my staff and, as far as I am concerned, they have got nothing whatsoever to do with this."
Gifford's disbelief about the culprits is matched by his incredulity at the race they tried to fix. He said: "I can't believe that anyone can make so much money on a little, three-runner race at Plumpton. I'm not a gambling man myself, but I can't believe there are that many people around who want to back a 1-7 shot. And, if anyone had tried to get on any of the other two with serious money, the bookmakers would have squealed immediately. So I don't understand it, though they must have found something."
The Jockey Club have yet to confirm that the same substance was found in Lively Knight as Charlie Egerton's Avanti Express, who was drugged when pulled up at Exeter three weeks earlier. Even the greatest believers in coincidence will struggle to deduce that the incidents are unconnected, however.
Certainly the two cases are linked by betting patterns. In Lively Knight's case, Cruise Control was backed from 12-1 to 6-1, though ironically he was not the outsider to benefit from the favourite's strange effort. Avanti Express weakened badly in the market, and was eventually overtaken in the betting by Give And Take, who was the subject of some thick bets before succeeding. Avanti Express was struggling from some way out and was eventually pulled up with three 100-1 shots in front of him.
Jamie Osborne, who rode Avanti Express, said yesterday: "He was lifeless after a couple of furlongs and walking around at the start he was lifeless."
The Jockey Club confirmed yesterday that both horses tested positive for drugs, but after that there was little further confirmation or information on any level. "We can confirm that a security department investigation is under way and they have been investigating since the horses tested positive, between two weeks and a month after the race," David Pipe, a spokesman, said. "But the name of the drug used will not be released until after the investigation is completed and I can't confirm the two cases are linked."
It seems, however, that they must be and it could be the incidents are also knotted to Britain's last great doping cases of 1990. Bravefoot and Norwich were both beaten at Doncaster's St Leger meeting and Flying Diva at Yarmouth the following week, all three the victims of the sedative Acetylpromazine. The perpetrators are still at large.