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The need to remove racing uncertainty

It reads like the synopsis for a Dick Francis novel. A relatively modest racehorse, burdened with the name Bo Knows Nigel, is suddenly backed from a morning price of 16-1 down to 2-1 for an event at an even more modest track, Folkestone. But when the horse gets to the racecourse, it is withdrawn after a vet's certificate is produced to say it has been coughing. The gamble is thwarted. But then the local stewards insist that the horse is dope-tested, and it comes up positive for steroids.

The trainer, Geoff Lewis, who has only had the horse for 10 days, puts his hands up and says, "Not me, guv", and asks for an analysis of the second sample, which is undertaken by a French laboratory.

Meanwhile, Bo Knows Nigel changes stables yet again and later winds up dead after injuring itself in a Boxing Day race. A few days later, the Jockey Club announces that the investigation into the alleged doping incident will be dropped after the second test revealed a much diminished, and therefore acceptable, level of steroids. Other, non-specified investigations will continue, they say, amid great smiles of relief all round. But all this has taken place over a span of four and a half months, and thosewho analysed the original sample, the Horserace Forensic Laboratory in Newmarket, stand by their methods. So where does that leave racing?

Well, at this stage it looks like yet another incident is to be left unexplained, pushed to one side, left to gather dust in that wire in-tray containing files on the hurdler Her Honour, tested positive for a stopping drug last year, and the Flat horses Bravefoot and Norwich, who were both found to have been nobbled at the St Leger meeting in 1990. None of these cases has yet produced a satisfactory explanation.

In fairness, one should say that the Jockey Club, who retain control of security and disciplinary matters despite the formation of the British Horseracing Board, have taken some steps to ensure that the incidences of doped racehorses are squeezed out of the system. Racecourse stables are now equipped with cameras to prevent interference with horses before a race, and they insist that their betting intelligence services - all doping attempts are linked to money, one way or the other - are stronger than ever. For all the Jockey Club's efforts, there remains a suspicion that, in an area as contentious and important as this, they should be doing even more to maintain the image they wish to portray of racing as an unblemished sport.

One wonders, though, if they can truly escape the purging which two other major sports, athletics and football, are now having to undertake. In both cases, complacent administrations were forced by circumstances supposedly under, yet actually beyond, their control into what will be a prolonged period of in-house repairs. Racing has yet to endure such public scrutiny - the Lester Piggott tax-dodging affair, and the Grand National fiasco of 1993 have been the nearest they have had to come to wider-scale investigation and ridicule. But its own date with the Augean Stables may not be too long in coming.

For while the self-elected Jockey Club is quick to dispense feudal justice to any scrawny jockey who offends its codes, they seem less sure about taking on the big boys and the big issues. Indeed, you sometimes imagine that if they were to catch a man ina hooped vest and mask climbing a drain-pipe of their offices in Portman Square, London, they would take the view that he was doing a jolly good job cleaning the windows.

The decision, just before Christmas, to fine the leading trainer Martin Pipe, and his second jockey Jonathan Lower, just £750 each for an offence under the "non-triers" rule, may be a case in point. Their horse Encore Un Peu - a name which might provide an apt motto for the Jockey Club itself - looked to have been blatantly "pulled" in a race at Warwick on 15 November.

In the betting ring at the course, there was a certain lack of confidence in the horse, who drifted from 6-4 out to 2-1, before coming in again to 15-8. The race-readers' comments on the action - "raced keenly, close up, lost place 5th, still going well approaching two out, shaken up and ran on strongly flat" - give a clear picture of the horse's under-performance in finishing four lengths second.

A previous case of "non-trying" in 1991 resulted in a three-month ban for a trainer, while last year looks like another case of the Jockey Club being "soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime". If this blinkered approach persists, skulduggery in racingwill indeed be passed off as the stuff of Dick Francis. But in Dick Francis, the wrong-doers are at least caught and brought to appropriate justice.

There will be those who see in the fate of the former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton further evidence of the pernicious combination of betting and horse-racing. They will add Shilton's name to a list which includes the former QPR forward Stanley Bowles, of whom one of his managers, Ernie Tagg, said: "If he could pass a betting-shop like he can pass a ball he'd have no worries at all." They will tell you stories about the ex-international who is still managing, unlike the unfortunate Shilton, a club onthe south coast of England and who once engineered his own transfer in order to pay off the gambling debts that he had accumulated.

What they won't be able to say is what it must have been like to be picking up thousands of pounds a week while having three or four afternoons a week off. They won't know the thrill of slipping away to the nearest racecourse to be feted by all the otherrefugees from conventional life. To be bought drinks and told jokes. And the last thing they'll say is what fun it must have been while the going was good.

Dish-less, I retire to bed on Wednesday night like a 1960s teenager tuning to Radio Luxembourg, transistor under the pillow, ear-piece in place. But the hiss of sound from Down Under proves too soporific. I awake to hear an Australian going on about saving the black rhino, then later, to hear Warne and May leave the pitch in sly triumph. I once tuned into a Test in India with Gower on 39, fell asleep, then woke hours later to hear that Gower was on 33, a follow-on having taken place. What is life tryingto tell me?

THERE were calls last week for the Chairman of the Tote, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, to step down from office after a long reign. In his persona as "The Voice Of Reason", Lord Wyatt has been a staunch supporter of the beleagured Home Secretary, Michael Howard. Can I suggest therefore that Howard becomes his successor. That way, if nothing else, Tote punters would then stand a chance of getting away with their losing credit bets.