Chris McGrath: Findlay's betting ban is harsh and fuelled by paranoia
Saturday 12 June 2010
The regulators' obsession with "inside information" and its abuse reflects a paranoid, Reds-under-your-beds mentality and a credulous belief in its value. Combined with an ingenuous streak in one of the most colourful figures in the sport, that has now got them all into a pretty pickle.
Yesterday Harry Findlay, the professional gambler who co-owns Denman, was "warned off" for six months because he laid one of his own horses on Betfair – even though the exchange confirmed him as "overwhelmingly a net backer" of the beast in question. Findlay has vowed that his colours will never again be seen on these shores.
The independent composition of the British Horseracing Authority's disciplinary panel can give it a dangerously capricious aspect. In March, it decided that a three-month ban, and £10,000 fine, sufficed for David Reynolds, who had launched a violent and unprovoked assault on Kieren Fallon as he unsaddled a horse at Lingfield. Apparently Findlay, in laying back a portion of his win bets on Gullible Gordon at Chepstow last October, warranted twice as long a suspension. In both cases, punishment did not especially seem to fit the crime – whether because of the panel's own judgement, or because of the rules it must apply.
Tony Calvin, spokesman for Betfair, was dismayed by what he saw as the literalism of this verdict. "When the rule was introduced the [regulators] made clear that it necessarily had to be applied in spirit as well as in law," he said. "We do not believe the punishment to be proportionate or, for that matter, consistent with similar offences in the past."
At first Findlay was probably speechless, for once in his life. Once retrieving his powers of speech, however, his sadness was obvious. "I'm not going to shout and scream at anyone," he said. "I'm a heartbroken man. I've admitted my guilt. The rules are now much stricter, and any ban should be 18 months. I thank the panel for deliberating as long as they could to give me as short a term as they could. I doubt if I will win the appeal. Win or lose, I will never own horses in Britain again."
He had laid off some bets on Gullible Gordon because he was "a front-runner and a bit of a character". The panel felt he duly manipulated his "inside" knowledge that the horse would lead, and therefore be an attractive back-to-lay proposition. But that much would have been apparent to anyone who can hold a formbook the right way round. As for securing his trading position, then surely more account needs to be taken of establishing mens rea, as well as actus reus.
"When the BHA top-class investigators came down we had a bit of a joke about it," Findlay said. "At the time we saw nothing wrong with it, and the investigators totally agreed. [But] I did not check the rules – and the serious trouble I was in was my own fault. I certainly don't blame the panel."
He hopes that his Flat string may still be able to run in other colours, notably those of Mick Channon or the Sangster family. In the meantime, at least his high-rolling football bets will stop the first month of his prohibition seeming too slow.
Disappointing Derby audience does not mean apocalypse now
What's the matter with everyone? Why all this wringing of hands? Yes, racing has its problems, in these times of austerity. But to listen to the some of the alarmist nonsense poisoning the industry's morale over the past week, you would think the surgeon has handed over to the priest.
A drop in betting turnover and viewing figures has even prompted a surreal campaign to shift the Derby from Saturday – not back to Wednesday, as antediluvians still insist, but to Friday. Some are pretending that a decline in the BBC audience, from 2.8 million to 1.9m, somehow substantiates the specious theory that the Flat "narrative" lacks the coherence of the jumps. They also conclude that racing "cannot compete" with mainstream sports on a Saturday.
It is hard to know whether that particular suggestion owes more to an excess of cynicism or stupidity. The one thing the Saturday Derby did not have to deal with this time was serious distraction elsewhere. On satellite television, England were completing a perfunctory defeat of Bangladesh at cricket and Francesca Schiavone and Samantha Stosur were contesting the women's tennis final at Roland Garros.
Funnily enough, when England's last friendly before the 2006 World Cup was screened immediately afterwards, the Derby was watched by 4.1 million – one of the highest figures of recent years. That captive audience is exactly why the sponsors at the time wanted the Derby moved from Channel 4. There had been a notorious occasion when a huge audience watched a maiden race at Newbury, simply because Grandstand squeezed it in as a bonus, just before the football results.
Grandstand is no more, however, and the coverage must stand on its own feet. Given that the BBC generally shows scandalous contempt for horseracing, how surprised should we be when it fails to build a following? Even its Grand National numbers fell significantly this year, to 7.6m from 8.5m, and 10.1m in 2008.
Last Saturday only troglodytes stayed indoors, randomly watching television. Of these, 21.7 per cent saw the Derby – compared with 26.4 per cent last year. Disappointing, but hardly the apocalyptic collapse depicted by some.
All manner of opportunist bandwagons have since rolled into town. Where we should be pondering how to engage the world with Workforce, a seven-length Derby winner who shattered the course record, we have instead started treating him as a cortege pony.
Nobody is complacent. Many things might extend the reach of racing. But it's too cheap a shot to call anyone resisting a barmy new idea a congenital reactionary.
There are no sacred cows, as everyone agrees. Even 14 years ago, when the race was moved from Wednesday, some of us felt the Derby might go to an evening, with an uncontested peak viewing slot and the Downs crowded with working Londoners, eager for a barbecue, a beer and a bet.
Of course, the Downs were crowded on Saturday, confirming the rehabilitation of a raceday institution. And if bookmakers want to prove their fidelity, perhaps they could start promoting the sport in their shops rather than seduce turnover with cartoon races and slot machines. Since betting exchanges, their market has been all mug money, and that suits them down to the ground.
It is a casual, ignorant market of a different kind that racing needs to crack. By all means, let's engage the intelligent interest of potential converts. Let's get them watching Workforce's next race, for a start. But who joins a party where you are offered only sackcloth and ashes?
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Frognal (5.25 York)
Has come down the weights and seems to be finding his feet for his flourishing new stable – was short of room before finishing well for third at Catterick last time. Every chance if ridden a little more positively over this track.
Elliptical (2.40 York)
Disappointed at Goodwood last time but had been turned out too quickly after a cracking run at Newmarket, just worried out of things after dominating a big field. Freshened up since, and has track and trip that are likely to suit under the in-form Kieren Fallon.
One to watch
Candotoo (J Noseda)
Represents a stable finding a bit of form and is eligible for handicaps after a promising third start in maidens at Haydock during the week, going sweetly for a long way before possibly failing to get home over the longer trip.
Where the money's going
French raider Siyouni is 9-2 from 6-1 with Coral for the St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot on Tuesday, while they have also laid Rip Van Winkle from 5-2 to 2-1 for the Queen Anne Stakes on the same card. Manifest remains 11-4 favourite for Thursday's Gold Cup.
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