The plaintiffs claim that they were libelled in a leading article in the Life in May 1995, after the easy success of Top Cees, trained by Lynda Ramsden and ridden by Fallon, in the Chester Cup. They believe that the article accused them of "cheating". The Mirror Group, publishers of The Sporting Life, denies libel and maintains that the article was true in substance or fact, and fair comment on a matter of public interest.
The proceedings have not made the impact in the national news pages of such recent libel action as those involving Ian Botham and Imran Khan, or Gillian Taylforth and the layby, but in the racing press, any talk of such trifling matters as the imminent Cheltenham Festival or the first Classics of the Flat season has been firmly relegated by the latest reports from The Strand.
All three of the plaintiffs have already taken the stand, and refuted allegations concerning the running and riding of Top Cees in the Swaffham Handicap at Newmarket three weeks before the Chester Cup. Top Cees finished fifth at Newmarket, but won the Chester Cup by eight lengths. Other witnesses have included Russ Garritty, who rode Top Cees over hurdles, and Jim McGrath, the pundit for Channel 4 Racing and a senior executive of the Timeform organisation.
Yesterday the proceedings took something of a pull before the appearance, expected today, of Tom Clarke, the editor of The Sporting Life, but even so, the cut and thrust in Court 13 was surely the best free show in town. Free, that is, for the public, but not for those involved, who are watching two of the most expensive QCs in the business, Richard Hartley and Patrick Milmo, plus their teams, accumulate charges at what is estimated to be a grand total of almost pounds 50,000 a day.
Giving evidence yesterday was Alan Amies, the senior race-reader with Raceform, publishers of the official form book, for more than 30 years. It is his job to analyse the running of every horse in a race, and he was cross-examined by Milmo, representing the plaintiffs, on his opinion of Top Cees' performance in both the Swaffham Handicap and Chester Cup. Amies had reported that in the Swaffham, Top Cees was "never placed to challenge," and he said that this was a phrase he used to indicate that a horse had not been trying.
Milmo offered Amies other examples of horses whose performances he had described in the same way, including one which had been ridden by Lanfranco Dettori, and another which was ridden by John Reid and trained by Mark Johnston. "Sometimes stables have what I'd call sympathetic runners," Amies said.
Milmo also invited him to compare the finish of the Swaffham Handicap to the closing stages of the Cesarewitch later the same season, in which Top Cees finished third. Earlier witnesses had given evidence that a gap appeared between other runners in the Swaffham Handicap which Fallon seemed slow to exploit. In the Cesarewitch, Milmo said, it had taken Top Cees a similar amount of time to get going. Amies, however, replied that "in the Cesarewitch, the other horses were staying on. In the other race, they were going up and down on the spot."
It was a tussle which proceeded in tiny footsteps, a inch gained here but then given there, and battle will be rejoined again this morning, with evidence from Clarke. Derek Thompson, from Channel 4 Racing, is also rumoured to be taking the stand at some stage this week, while Alistair Down, the Life's deputy editor and the author of the disputed article, will also be called before the respective QCs exchange their closing addresses. A verdict is anticipated within the next seven days.