Michael Chopra, the footballer whose notorious gambling troubles have now been compounded by corruption charges, today announced that he would not be offering a defence when the British Horseracing Authority convenes its inquiry next week. In a poignant statement, the Ipswich striker claimed that he could not afford the legal costs, as a result of his debts, and that he would be grateful for any prohibition from the racecourse.
Chopra and eight others were charged three months ago in connection with bets on a series of low-grade all-weather races during the winter of 2010-11. The case is scheduled to last 10 to 14 days but Chopra will not be contributing, having been advised by his lawyers that the BHA would not refund their fees, estimated at over £50,000, even if he is found innocent. "I have extensive debts and loans and simply cannot afford the amount necessary to clear my name, with no prospects of recovering my costs," Chopra said.
Stressing that he is not licensed by the BHA, he professed himself likely to welcome any action against him. "I understand that the only sanction the BHA could impose on me is to ban me from racecourses and gambling establishments licensed by it," he said. "It is well publicised that I have a gambling addiction problem and I see any such sanctions as being a useful mechanism in helping me to address these problems. As of this year, I've voluntarily self-excluded myself from all betting institutions where I live in Ipswich to help me fight this illness."
Chopra, 28, entered a rehabilitation clinic in 2008 and again in 2011, soon after joining Ipswich from Cardiff. His new employers loaned him around £250,000 to help pay off debts. Chopra has admitted to gambling as much as £20,000 a day, estimating his total losses as between £1.5m and £2m. "I was playing through injury to cover a debt," he confessed.
Racing and football have discovered a reciprocal glamour through the enthusiasm of men like Michael Owen or Harry Redknapp, but the Chopra case threatens to corroborate popular mistrust of overpaid, irresponsible footballers and of the shady margins of racing. Chopra is charged with offering to bribe Andrew Heffernan, a young jockey who was struggling to establish himself before disappearing to try his luck in Australia in 2011, and "conspiring to commit a corrupt or fraudulent practice".
He is alleged to have conspired with James Coppinger, a midfielder with Doncaster Rovers, 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 regulations on "inside information" can seem credulous, and the disciplinary panel has sometimes seemed satisfied by too modest a level of proof that information has been exchanged for reward. Equally, some of the charges against Heffernan are as serious as they come: notably, receiving or offering to receive a bribe; and, in three of the nine races, deliberately failing to obtain the best possible placing, an offence that carries a maximum suspension of 25 years. All those to have commented, among the men charged, have protested their innocence.