Out of the saddle and into the dock

The sport has something of an image problem, and the Old Bailey race-fixing trial won't help

The image of three jockeys – including six-times champion Kieran Fallon – a professional gambler and a racehorse owner in the dock at the Old Bailey charged with a race-fixing and betting conspiracy will have had the sport's detractors champing at the bit last week. "Knew it all along," they say, and will cling to this view whatever the trial's verdict. For horse-racing, as Keith Waterhouse said about Brighton, "gives the permanent impression of assisting the police with their inquiries".

Why did racing end up with such a lousy image, when over-charging banks, rampaging supermarkets, private equity and opaque hedge funds flit in and out of our pantheon of modern ogres?

Part of the reason may be that racing has a fictional world to back up its vivid actuality. Ever since Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, when razor gangs fought for book-makers' pitches at the town's racecourse, the sport has occupied a shady corner. Two of the most popular authors of racing thrillers are ex-jockeys – Dick Francis and John Francome. And because of who they were, readers believe their plots are based on reality.

Nor does it help that racing's occasional capers have had larger-than-life qualities. In 1973, a horse called Gay Future was in fact a better horse imported to race at Cartmel. To increase the horse's on-course price, soap was rubbed on its body to make punters think it was sweating profusely, but it won by 15 lengths at 10-1. The plotters were convicted and fined.

A 1982 horse that was not the two-year-old Flockton Grey, but a three-year-old called Good Hand, won a race for two-year-olds at Leicester. Unfortunately it won by 20 lengths, immediately arousing suspicions, which led to arrests and a court case.

As supervision and regulation at racecourses improved, plotters ruthlessly resorted to doping to "stop" a favourite.

With enhanced racecourse security and a Jockey Club investigation unit beefed up by former police detectives, the days of the racing scam seemed over. Until the first computer-based betting exchanges opened early this century. You could still back horses to win, but you could also "lay" horses, betting on them to lose.

The people in the shadows of racing could hardly believe their luck – anyone with a smidgeon of inside information about a horse or a trainer's intentions could turn an instant profit. And the quest for that information became feverish.

As the exchanges and racing realised their laxity, audit trails were established and jockeys' mobile phones were registered. So now, when there are irregular betting patterns, the exchanges notify the sport's ruling body and immediate surveillance is imposed.

The aggressive policing has caught several owners and jockeys swapping "presents" for "information". But many jockeys and trainers are now paranoid because the only question they get asked when they're out socially is "got any tips?". One wrong word and they could be down the Bailey.