Michael Chopra, the Ipswich Town footballer with a notorious history of gambling problems, was today banned from British racecourses for 10 years after being found guilty of a key role in a race-fixing conspiracy that has ruined the career of a young jockey. Andrew Heffernan was himself disqualified for 15 years by the British Horseracing Authority while seven others, including two lesser-known professional footballers, were also punished for their involvement.
Chopra did not defend himself at the inquiry, claiming that debts made it impossible for him to pay legal fees that could reach £50,000. In a statement before it opened, he indicated that he would welcome any prohibition from the temptations of racing.
The inquiry focused on nine all-weather races in 2010-11, in which Heffernan's mounts were laid to lose on betting exchanges. In threecases, he was accused of "intentionally" failing to ensure the horses ran on their merits. He was also charged with passing information for reward, and offering to receive, or receiving, a bribe.
He had since left to try his luck in Australia, but his licence there was suspended in October, and his disqualification is set to be reciprocated worldwide.
The BHA has sometimes seemed too credulous about the value of "inside information", or to settle for too low a standard of evidence about reward. This case, however, appears to feature something fairly close to a smoking gun. Though several of the accused gave conflicting accounts, sometimes implicating each other, the BHA is satisfied that a luridly compromising sequence of text messages had been sent between Heffernan and Chopra. These include details of a bank account in the name of Heffernan's brother, and a specific commitment to pay £2,000. (In the event, it appears that only £800 was paid.) One of the accused also testified to witnessing payments received at service stations and outside pubs.
Though Chopra's involvement will inevitably amplify the scandal, the BHA argues that the case reiterates its vigilance. "Investigations of this scale are extremely complex, especially when we are faced with a lack of cooperation, evasion, and untruthful accounts from many of those being investigated," it said in a statement. "It is as a result of significant hard work that a successful conclusion has been achieved, and further evidence that the BHA is prepared to properly investigate cases involving unlicensed as well as licensed individuals."
Chopra was warned off for 10 years for conspiring to commit a corrupt and fraudulent practice. Mark Wilson, recently reduced to non-league football, was also disqualified for 10 years, while James Coppinger, of Doncaster Rovers, was banned for three. Two former stable employees, Paul Garner and Kelly Inglis, were banned for 12 and four years respectively. Three others took the aggregate suspensions to 70 years between nine conspirators.
A statement from Ipswich Town described the case as "a private matter" between Chopra and the BHA.
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