The day after winning one of the greatest races of his brilliant career Kieren Fallon, the six times champion jockey, was yesterday seated behind a glass screen before a jury at the Old Bailey and charged with corruption.
The case has promised anguish for British horseracing ever since Fallon, one of the most charismatic figures in British sport, was among several men charged 15 months ago by police investigating accusations of race-fixing. Yesterday the Crown at last began to specify the allegations against the Irishman and five other defendants. They are accused of conspiring to defraud customers of the online betting exchange Betfair, in a scam involving 27 races between December 2002 and August 2004.
The case outlined by the prosecution revealed that there had been a huge police operation to monitor what was seen as a systematic conspiracy to defraud punters and that Fallon, widely regarded as the greatest jockey of his generation, was a central figure in it.
The essence of it was fixing races so that specific horses did not win races, and in presenting its case the prosecution painted a picture of bugged Mercedes, £100,000 bets and a Mr Big figure. All the defendants deny the charges.
The scene provided a shocking contrast to the extraordinary drama in Paris the previous afternoon, when Fallon had won the greatest prize on the European Turf, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, on Dylan Thomas. Those golden moments seemed a lifetime away as Fallon emerged from a grey London morning to face an ordeal that menaces him with ruin.
His performance on Sunday had confirmed him as one of the great jockeys in racing history. Now he stands accused of betraying that status, that heritage, with a central role in a plot to cheat the very people who have come to revere him as a colossus.
The defendants include two lesser jockeys, Fergal Lynch and Darren Williams. Miles Rodgers, a gambler and businessman, is also accused of concealing the proceeds of crime.
Jonathan Caplan, QC, opened the case for the Crown, by alleging that the jockeys had agreed to ride dishonestly in a series of races. "The prosecution case is that there was an unlawful agreement or conspiracy between these defendants and other persons that those races should be fixed," he said. "The defendants ... did not fix races to ensure a particular horse won. On the contrary, they fixed the races to ensure that the horses in question lost. The object of the conspiracy was to wager large amounts of money on a particular horse to lose in each of those races whilst knowing that the jockey was prepared, if necessary, to cheat by stopping the horse."
He told the jury that there had been occasions when things had not worked out as intended. Indeed, five of the 17 horses ridden by Fallon had won their races. But those that lost allowed a syndicate, orchestrated by Rodgers, to make money through a variety of different accounts with Betfair, the online betting exchange. Rodgers's total bets on the 27 races amounted to £2.12m, and usually represented 50 per cent of the Betfair market on a race.
The police's covert surveillance operation had involved planting bugs in Rodgers's Mercedes and in the car park of an Italian restaurant he owned. The jury listened to sample recordings of telephone conversations between Rodgers and some of the other defendants. He said that Fallon had been "more cautious", avoiding direct contact with Rodgers. It was instead claimed that Lynch, his brother Shaun, and Philip Sherkle had served as intermediaries.
The jury were offered evidence of financial reward from Rodgers for Lynch and Williams for their dishonest riding. In one recording he is heard to tell a Betfair account holder that "little Fergal's coming to play today".
Fallon had not received any reward, Caplan said, because his winners had cost the conspirators nearly £500,000. "It is the prosecution case that he would have to earn that money back for the conspirators by stopping horses before he would receive any benefit himself," Caplan told the jury. "The inference is and must be drawn, if you find that he was involved, is that he clearly must have been involved for reward."
At the time of their arrest, on 1 September 2004, Fallon had made a net loss for the conspiracy of £338,000. "The plan was not foolproof because you could not always stop the horse if, in the particular circumstances, it would look too obvious," Caplan said. "A horse race is a dynamic event and anything can happen. But the plan worked most of the time."
Caplan claimed that Fallon's relationship with Rodgers and the others went through different stages, saying: "When he unexpectedly won, and in consequence cost the conspirators sizeable sums of money, they clearly felt that this was contrary to his agreement with them and sometimes they took steps to deal with it."
On one occasion, Rodgers had gone to Leicester racecourse to meet Fallon for a few minutes at the end of evening racing. On another occasion there was a more concerted effort to meet or confront Fallon at his home.
It is alleged that Rodgers, under surveillance, suggested that Fallon had sought to find a method of squaring the losses he had caused. In due course, according to Caplan, Rodgers resolved to stick with just Fergal Lynch and Fallon as the jockeys for the conspiracy. Rodgers is heard to say: "When you've got someone as big as Fallon you don't need anybody else in your own mind, do you?"
Caplan suggested that a clear pattern would emerge from the evidence presented to the jury. Extensive contact by mobile phone and text messages took place on the relevant racedays.
The police had found some of these messages, and there would also be charts showing text traffic, but not what the messages said. Shortly after being called, Rodgers would risk large sums of money "to achieve a small return by comparison". He would frequently bet over £100,000 to win around £20,000.
"This indicated a knowledge about the outcome of the race that was not shared by the rest of the market," Caplan said. "That knowledge was that the jockey concerned was prepared to assist in making the lay bet successful."
During the trial the jury was told that it would hear from an independent Australian racing steward, Ray Murrihy, who had been shown videos of the races and asked for his opinion. He had expressed concern about riding in 13 of them, though the jury was warned that interference by a jockey "is usually very subtle and difficult to detect".
Caplan said that while the defendants denied any conspiracy, some had agreed that they had phoned each other for the innocent purpose of passing on tips or information. "Fallon's position appears to be that he would discuss the prospects of his own rides with Fergal and Shaun Lynch but was completely unaware if they passed this information on to Rodgers," Caplan said.
"Fallon says that he also gave some tips to Sherkle, whom he thought was having 'his own couple of quid' on them. He was completely unaware if Sherkle passed these tips to Rodgers."
But Caplan added: "Whilst they may well have exchanged tips and information at various times, there was something far more sinister and unlawful going on." He claimed that it was "inconceivable" for Fallon to have given information to the Lynch brothers and Sherkle, and for them all to have passed it on to Rodgers without his knowledge.
He resumes his opening statement today.
The six charged with conspiracy to defraud punters
Kieren Fallon, Jockey
One of the world's leading riders, champion of Britain six times and retained by John Magnier and his partners at Coolmore Stud in Ireland.
Miles Rodgers, professional Gambler and former racehorse owner
Described in court as a professional gambler with business interests in South Yorkshire. Formerly a director of Platinum Racing Club Limited, which owned 32 horses in training.
Fergal Lynch, Jockey
Was one of the leading riders on the northern circuit prior to the suspension of his licence when first charged, 15 months ago. Until the end of 2003 he had been stable jockey to Kevin Ryan.
Darren Williams, Jockey
The third licensed jockey, like Lynch based in the north until his suspension pending this trial.
Shaun Lynch, Former Bookmaker employee
Fergal Lynch's older brother and had worked for a number of bookmakers. The brothers, who have known Fallon since their childhood in Co Clare, shared a cottage within a stable complex in North Yorkshire.
Philip Sherkle, Barman
Said to describe himself as a barman and a former employee in a furniture shop in Dublin. He told police he met some of the others in early 2004, and said he met Fallon through the owner of a pub in Newmarket.
The prosecution team
* JONATHAN CAPLAN QC leads the prosecution team. He is a Turf aficionado and represented rider Philip Robinson in his fight against Jockey Club restrictions on the use of mobile phones. He was called to the bar in 1973 and appointed QC 16 years ago. His ownership of racehorses includes a share in the top-class sprinter, Tamarisk. Recreations include collecting historical newspapers and manuscripts, and Manchester United. He has practised extensively in the Far East, and defended P&O Ferries after the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. His clients in defamation cases have included John Cleese.
* MR JUSTICE THAYNE FORBES won praise for his sensitive handling of the harrowing trial of Harold Shipman, the GP jailed for life for murdering 15 patients. Has a reputation for a meticulous approach. Called to the bar in 1966. His career as a barrister has largely focused on civil cases demanding technical insight.
The defence team
* JOHN KELSEY-FRY QC leads the defence of Kieren Fallon. (The other five defendants are all represented by other counsel.) Kelsey-Fry is a racing enthusiast with plenty of experience of disciplinary cases in the sport. Has bred and owned horses with plenty of success, many of them bearing names with legal connotations, including Silken Brief, Golden Brief, Split Briefs, Legal Set and Spider Silk. His courtroom background embraces cases dealing with war crimes, spying and police corruption. He has also been instructed in libel actions involving David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, among others.