Michael Chopra, the Ipswich Town striker, has been charged by the British Horseracing Authority with offering to bribe Andrew Heffernan, a jockey confined to the sport's margins, and "conspiring to commit a corrupt or fraudulent practice", following an investigation into betting on nine races between November 2010 and March 2011.
He is alleged to have conspired with James Coppinger, a midfielder with Nottingham Forest, and Mark Wilson, once of Manchester United but recently released by Oxford United. Along with five others, these are charged with laying Heffernan's mounts on betting exchanges – or causing others to do so – after receiving information from the jockey. Wilson is also among those charged with offering him a bribe.
The Football Association is aware of the charges, but is understood to be awaiting the outcome of the BHA inquest – for which no date has yet been set – before considering any disciplinary action of its own.
At the best of times, the racing authorities announce corruption charges with due ambivalence about the effect on perceptions of their sport. In yesterday accusing three professional footballers of involvement in a race-fixing conspiracy, they duly braced themselves for a fairly sensational journey to the facts.
Few laymen, certainly, will ponder the BHA's vigilance in raising its concerns about Heffernan. Most will doubtless prefer to view allegations against Chopra, formerly of Cardiff City and Sunderland, in a tradition of venality in those who ride horses, as well as those who bet on them.
Chopra, 28, has a history of gambling problems, entering rehabilitation clinics in 2008 and again last autumn. That summer he had joined Ipswich from Cardiff, and his new employers loaned him around £250,000 to help pay off debts. Last November, he admitted to gambling as much as £20,000 a day, estimating his total losses between £1.5m and £2m. "I was playing through injury to cover a debt," he said.
Heffernan, 24, was struggling to establish himself as a rider and few noticed his disappearance from the British scene after August 2011. Only two of his previous 92 mounts had won. Now licensed to ride in Australia, he is understood to be working for a leading stable in New South Wales.
Some racing professionals view BHA regulations on "inside information" as too credulous, and have been concerned by the levels of proof that have satisfied its disciplinary panel in previous cases, notably in assuming that information has been exchanged for reward. But the various charges against Heffernan include some at the gravest end of the spectrum: receiving or offering to receive a bribe; and, in three of the nine races, deliberately failing to obtain the best possible placing. That offence carries a maximum suspension of 25 years.
After one of those three races, the respected Timeform organisation found that Wanchai Whisper had been "set plenty to do" despite "travelling smoothly" and let the winner "get first run". In another, Heffernan reported that Gallantry had lost its action – Timeform recorded that he had been "free to post" before running "flat" – while the third horse suffered a heart attack after the race.
The various unlicensed individuals, including the three footballers, meanwhile face charges that could see them excluded from the sport for up to 10 years. None have made any comment and all are likely to plead not guilty. It is vital, on behalf of all those charged, to stress that riders have been cleared of "inside information" breaches in recent cases, even when the BHA was certain it had powerful evidence against them.
Regardless of the outcome, however, many in the sport will be depressed by the unsurprising profile of the races under review: each contested on all-weather tracks, by mediocre horses, for worse prize-money.
Paul Scotney, the BHA director of integrity services, said that the charges followed a "long and complicated" investigation. "We encountered difficulties in obtaining telephone records from certain individuals who refused to co-operate," he said. "This resulted in us having to make a number of applications to the High Court. We hope that today's announcement demonstrates our commitment to deterring and detecting wrong-doing and taking action against those we believe to have breached the rules," he said.
Races under review
Andrew Heffernan is accused of deliberately failing to obtain the best possible placing in three races:
Wanchai Whisper Lingfield, 28 January 2011. Odds: 9-2; Finished second of nine.
Gallantry Kempton, 2 February 2011 Odds: 11-1; Finished sixth of eight.
Silver Guest Lingfield, 9 February 2011 Odds: 6-1; Finished last of nine, beaten over 20 lengths.