The irony is not lost on Darren Williams that his first instinct, on the most bewildering morning of his life, was to call the police.
"I was fast asleep," he recalls. "Suddenly there was this banging on the front door. It was first light, five in the morning. I peered down from behind the curtain and saw these two burly men. One of them was a huge guy, a skinhead. 'Jesus,' I thought. 'Who have I upset?' Then I heard one of them say: 'If he doesn't open up, we'll break down the door.' I thought I'd better ring the police. But by this stage some others had arrived, including a couple of women. So I opened the window and asked what was going on."
Their answer changed his life forever. Yes, the race-fixing charges brought against Williams and five other men – including the friend and rival he considers "perhaps the greatest jockey ever to walk this land", Kieren Fallon – would ultimately be dismissed. But when they walked out of the Old Bailey last month, into a rolling maul of flashbulbs and microphones, they could not really be described, without qualification, as free men.
Some time over the next few days, Williams will ride his first race since July 2006, when he was charged with conspiracy to defraud and had his licence suspended by the Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA). But a noxious cloud had settled above him from the moment of his arrest in August 2004, midway through the best season of his career. He blames his estrangement from the mother of his child on the stress of the whole saga. And he accepts that even his exoneration in the Old Bailey – where Mr Justic Forbes listened to the prosecution before, sensationally if predictably, directing the jury that the defendants had no case to answer – will not easily rinse his name of contamination.
"I know they say it's news one day, chip wrappings the next," he says, relaxing in a working-men's club deep in the Yorkshire Dales. "But without a shadow of doubt, it will mark us. There will always be that element of doubt in some people's minds. I hope that once I start riding a few winners, people will move on. But that might not be until the summer, when racing gets really busy.
"Not for one minute do I think it's going to be easy. Trainers are going to have to persuade their owners to put up a jockey that hasn't ridden in 18 months. All I know is that I will not be squandering the opportunities that do come my way. If I have to go to the other end of the country – if I have to go to Brighton for one ride – I'll go. It will be like being an apprentice all over again. Only without a claim [weight allowance] to help me. But at 29 I'm still young, I'm fresh, and I'm hungrier than ever."
Even though the porous quality of the allegations was soon apparent during the trial Williams already dreaded lazy misapprehensions afterwards. After all, the judge's objection was ultimately to the relevance of evidence offered by the prosecution's star witness, an Australian racing steward. If this very nearly qualified as a technicality, then nobody should mistake the intellectual clumsiness required to discover a sinister conspiracy in the 27 races ridden by Fallon, Williams and Fergal Lynch. At the same time, some of the disclosures made in court might well have sustained a charge of naïveté, in varying degrees. Hardly a criminal offence, of course, but there were those who wondered if the HRA, not content with having lit the tinderbox in the first place, might now pursue possible breaches of its rules.
For instance, surveillance of the man accused of organising a plot between them, Miles Rodgers, seemed to yield an allusion to Williams that might be awkward to explain. Rodgers was recorded saying that he was meeting "Darren" to bung him a few quid. The trial never proceeded far enough for the defence to explain that this was a reference to Darren Armitage, an associate of Rodgers.
Williams does not reproach himself over anything that emerged in the trial, other than an ingenuous relationship with Rodgers after he had been declared a disqualified person by the HRA. "At its height, his syndicate had 20 horses with Karl Burke, and I was stable jockey, so of course we would speak," Williams says. "He wanted to know chapter and verse for his syndicate telephone line. Even after he was warned off, I never thought I could be getting myself into trouble by taking his calls. When I went to London to have my licence returned, they explained how some of the rules have changed over the last couple of years, and that you should avoid putting yourself in an awkward situation.
"But it's sometimes hard to know where you draw the line. Tony Culhane's brother-in-law has been warned off. Is he no longer allowed to talk to his own brother-in-law? I never told Miles Rodgers anything I wouldn't say on At The Races [the specialist television channel]. After all, I don't believe you can ever tell anyone whether a horse will win, or won't win. They have chances, that's all."
Unfortunately, the police took a rather more melodramatic view of the liaison, and in the same spirit mounted that theatrical, plainclothes, dawn raid. "When I opened the door, they burst in and arrested me," Williams says. "They started talking about Betfair, about laying horses. I didn't have a clue what they were talking about. I just didn't understand what was going on. And for the next five hours I had to watch them turn my house upside down. We had the telly on, and by 9am I was already being named in the news. Then they drove me to Harrogate police station. That evening, when they let me go home, I only had seven miles of petrol in the car. They had taken every penny in the house, all my bank cards, my phone. All my numbers were in the phone, but luckily I could remember my dad's, and was able to get him to pay for some petrol."
During the trial Williams maintained a cheerful, composed demeanour and proved easy company as he spoke this week, watching football on the big screen, snooker balls clicking their soothing rhythm in the background. But he was briefly inflamed when revealing that his belongings have still to be returned. "Including my computer, and 520 quid," he says. Then the wry smile returns. "I bet I don't get any interest."
When he finally got home on the night of the police interrogation, he found several jockeys waiting for him. Williams lives in Leyburn, just down the road from Middleham, the training capital of northern racing, and was grateful for this show of solidarity as they shared a few beers. He told his friends of his misgivings over the reception he might get at Carlisle races the next day.
"I was very apprehensive," he says. "I had six rides but wasn't going to go. I was glad I did. Kieren was riding down at Salisbury, and their first race was before ours, so we sat in the weighing room and watched on the television as he went out. It was a great comfort to see the public cheering and clapping as Kieren went out. And to be fair, the public have been 95 per cent supportive. I remember going into the bar of the golf club one day and a couple of old fellas were nudging each other, saying: 'There's the jockey that's being done for race-fixing.' That hurts. But now I suppose the same people would be saying: 'There's the jockey that got stitched up'."
The only benefit in what happened next was that Williams cut his golf handicap from 24 to 12. As soon as he was charged – a development that left Williams "shell-shocked" – the HRA suspended his licence, pending the trial. Unlike Fallon, who was still able to ride in Ireland, both Williams and Lynch would be paid compensation in the meantime. For 15 months, Williams was marooned in a surreal, affluent purgatory.
"Maybe I should have carried on riding out," he says. "But it would have killed me, getting horses ready for other people to win on. I never watched a race for seven months. I was very, very angry."
His career, after all, had only just begun to gain momentum. Son of a Mansfield caretaker, he had no background with horses and tried his luck at the British Racing School only after a teacher suggested that he was the right size for a jockey. Though he is now relatively tall, at that stage he was barely 5ft and weighed just 6st. "I hadn't even stroked a horse," he says. "When I left the Racing School I got a job with Stuart Williams in Newmarket. I fell off every day for six months. I hated it. I just wanted to go home."
Having broken his wrist on the eve of his first ride, Williams built slowly on these flimsy foundations. "I had four winners in my first season, four the next, 12 the next," he says. "But I was really flying by the time this all started. I had 50-odd winners that year. I felt my career was really progressing."
Somehow Williams had cultivated the cool of a natural horseman, though that may well have been one of the things that immersed him in such hot water. "I always like to ride with confidence," he explains. "I watch riders like Richard Hughes and Jamie Spencer, who sit nice and quietly. It's not showboating. It's about trying to get your horse balanced and travelling sweetly. I get very critical when I see riders caught deep, five horses wide the whole way. And then they put the gun to a horse's head too early. You see so many races won or lost that way. I like to get cover, and save ground. And that was one of the things they tried to criticise in the Old Bailey."
He had to adjust quickly to the reality that his actions would now be presented in a different light. He remembers running upstairs at the courthouse with Fallon, late for a resumption, only to be sprung upon by armed guards, deployed for a case dealing with some enormous heist. Fallon turned to Williams. "Can you believe this?" he said. "We're in a place where they deal with £50m robberies, with paedophiles and murderers." And Williams replied: "Our case shouldn't even be in Hull Crown Court. It's crazy."
He recalls the first day of the trial, in October, as perhaps the hardest of all. "I don't think it had really sunk in, before then," he says. "Going down on the train, I was reconciled to the fact that this would simply be part of our lives for the coming months. Even in the taxi, we were in good spirits. Then we turned the corner, and there were cameras chasing us all the way up the street."
To the objective observer, the case promised an instructive test of the legal system. Once it became clear that the police had misunderstood much of the evidence before them, it simply became a question of whether the jury could be steered by the defence lawyers from any misconstructions of their own.
From the outset, Williams and Fallon agreed that they would have faith in the system. "If justice were done, we knew we'd be all right," Williams says. "The one worry was that 12 people in a jury box were listening to things being blatantly twisted. Whenever the true facts emerged, of course, the police would say: 'Sorry, my lord, I must have made a mistake. Human error.' But if I make a mistake, all that can happen is that a horse loses a race. If these people make a mistake, it might result in you being sent to jail.
"One thing does amaze me. Every single defendant came away from that courtroom with dignity, none of us stood there and started slagging people off. Yet the CPS had the nerve to say that they had no regrets, that they would do exactly the same again. If they can react like that after wasting £13m of taxpayers' money, then this country must be in a bad way."
In general, however, Williams is determined to avoid the corrosion of resentment. "It is embarrassing, having to ask people you respect to get the train to London and testify," he says. "It's degrading. I could sit here and be really bitter – about the CPS, the police, the HRA, the whole lot. But I don't want to do that. I just want to get back to what I love, back to what I do best. I want to get back the buzz of riding at big meetings. You don't get anywhere, being bitter. Bitter people die lonely people."
The two-month ordeal they shared at the Old Bailey forged a strong bond between Kieren Fallon and Darren Williams, who fortified each other as best they could until the dramatic collapse of the race-fixing trial last month.
The two jockeys lodged with friends of Fallon in Hendon, North London. “They looked after us beautifully, and Kieren and I would set off in the morning like a couple of commuters,” Williams said. “Then, at the end of the day in court, we made a point of never talking about the case. You couldn’t let it eat you up. Instead, we actually ended up having some good nights out. Both of us won poker tournaments during the trial!”
The involvement of the six-times champion jockey ensured that the other five defendants were overshadowed. “At one point the judge referred to ‘the Fallon trial’ and I felt like standing up and asking, if this was the Fallon trial, did that mean I could get up and go home?” Williams said. “But I knew from the beginning that having Kieren there would mean two things. It would mean that the media interest would be mega. But it would also mean that we were more likely to get a fair trial.”
Williams admitted there were days when even the terrifying stakes of an Old Bailey prosecution could not stifle a sense of tedium. As a rule, however, he maintained an attentive, positive bearing. Only occasionally did Williams succumb to impotent fury. “That did make my blood boil, having to sit there and listen to lies, and not be able to stand up and say what really happened,” he said. “Even when it was your turn, you had to leave it to someone else. But the defence lawyers soon began telling us that it shouldn’t get beyond half-time. It was embarrassing. Each time the prosecution called a witness, they came across as a witness for the defence.”
Having since had his licence restored, Williams is looking forward to resuming his career during the next few days. “I’m as fit as I can get myself without race-riding,” he said. “I’d like to come back on something with a chance, though. I’ve waited a year and a half. I can wait another week if I have to.”Reuse content