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While there's life there's dope

OF ALL the great lies you're told in childhood, few are quite as whopping as 'Cheats never prosper'. Sport without cheating would be like a north London pavement without a scraped trail of dog excrement gleaming in the sunlight - utterly inconceivable. Only the most pathetic cheats, as far as I can see, never prosper. Poor old Ben Johnson has been nabbed once again, after officials noticed that he'd been behaving in suspicious manner - ie running quickly. Meanwhile, the Jockey Club have been caught trying desperately to hush up a doping scandal, after a couple of horses 'tested positive for a banned substance', as the jargon goes. Subsequent rumours, that the horses in question have since been espousing world peace and listening to Pink Floyd, have happily been discounted.

But what a contrast between the two cases. Johnson's pitiful efforts, designed to overcome an unfortunate lack of natural talent, just seem sordid and sad and pointless. The Jockey Club scandal, on the other hand, has been much more entertaining. Horse racing is, after all, virtually the only sport whose participants actually go slower as a result of taking drugs. (The only other one I can think of is school cross- country running, where school food performs a similar function.) But what makes this particular hoo-hah worth cherishing is that, after two decades of spurious respectability, racing's traditional seedy image, as featured in countless black-and-white British comedy films from the late Fifties and early Sixties, has triumphantly been revived.

It seems impossible to imagine, for instance, that anyone other than Peter Sellers, Wilfred Hyde White and David Lodge can be implicated in the whole messy business. As favourites everywhere are furtively fed iffy Mars bars and outsiders romp home by 10 lengths, it's clear that Dennis Price, Peggy Mount and Ian Carmichael are deeply if not ineradicably involved.

So what's the solution? No doubt increased security may make some difference, with anyone remotely resembling Terry-Thomas being automatically banned from all stables. Perhaps the civil service (Richard Wattis) can come up with a few proposals, and I'm sure the medical profession (Dirk Bogarde, James Robertson Justice) will also have some suggestions to make. But all we can be really sure about at the moment is that this gang of desperate criminals, whoever they are, have taken us back to racing's great days, when everyone wore trilbies and horses didn't have names like Sanyo Teasmade.

We could even see the return of that legendary racing figure, the Picaresque Pub Tipster, to our grey and romance- starved lives. Every time you pop into the pub for a swift one, a wizened man in a cloth cap will instantly sidle up to you and quietly recommend Understains in the 2.30 at Kempton Park. Buoyed up by the swift one, you will head straight to Ladbrokes, where you will drop pounds 50 on a horse whose three legs and heart condition make it about as likely to win the 2.30 at Kempton Park as Alastair Sim himself. The favourite will charge home as expected, and poor Understains will end its days as new high-protein Doggo-Yum.

How can Ben Johnson possibly manage to top this? He obviously can't. But if he's next seen in public in a battered trilby, counting out fivers with Bernard Cribbins and Lionel Jeffries, I for one shan't be in the least surprised.