Peter Oborne: In racing it pays to hold one's nose

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The Independent Online

For years rumours have swept round Kieren Fallon, the champion jockey arrested last week on suspicion of race fixing. He has been accused of many things. Yet, as ever, he has found many supporters. The defence often comes down to this: "Say what you will, he is a very fine jockey who brings lustre to one of our national sports."

Logically this is no defence at all - the late Harold Shipman was doubtless a very fine doctor in some respects - and it cannot be stressed too much that Fallon has not been convicted of anything, and continues to protest his innocence. Nevertheless his arrest is a massive event. He is the reigning champion jockey, the pre-eminent figure in his profession. Imagine the reaction if David Beckham was charged with fixing football matches. If Fallon really is guilty of stopping horses, then racing is very corrupt indeed.

It was curious to observe the reaction of racing people last week. I spoke to one leading racing peer. On the whole he was sympathetic to Fallon, and critical of the police. People in racing desperately want to protect Fallon and his colleagues. It is important to understand that racing is a very small, inward-looking world with its own loyalties and rewards. No investigative reporter has ever penetrated Newmarket, the headquarters of flat racing, and never could. An anthropologist would find it easier to be accepted by the most remote Amazonian tribe than to get to grips with the customs and practices of Newmarket folk.

This is one of the attractions. Racing is contemptuous and suspicious of modern Britain. It is a primitive and atavistic world, with much more in common with the 18th century than the 21st. It looks after its own. Several years ago The Sporting Life accused Fallon of stopping a horse: the resulting libel action went all the way to the law courts. The jury found against the Life, a decision that helped lead to the closure of that great paper. One of the problems it faced was the reluctance of witnesses to give testimony in court.

Lester Piggott, Fallon's great predecessor as champion jockey, spent time in jail for tax dodging. Quite recently two well known national hunt trainers conspired to rip off an owner at an auction by selling him a horse at a falsely high price. Nobody in racing minded, and the two continued in business. Senior figures stood by Graham Bradley, the controversial National Hunt jockey now warned off racing, for far too long. Some still do. Bookmakers and the Jockey Club, which administers the security side of racing, have long suspected that dozens of races get fixed every year, but found it impossible to prove.

The element of skulduggery is another attraction. There is an enchantment to being in possession of the latest piece of hot information at a racecourse. Nor are ordinary followers of racing in the dark about this. Go into any betting office and listen to the punters curse and swear. Many believe all jockeys and trainers are corrupt. This is not quite true, but certainly part of the art of following horses is knowing which are likely to be off and which not. Heaven forbid that the game were ever sanitized by some Blairite regulatory committee.

Nevertheless there is something disturbing and arrogant about Kieren Fallon. Six months ago he fell victim to a heist by the News of the World. The Screws failed to get Fallon bang to rights, but the picture that emerged was not attractive: greedy, arrogant and contemptuous of the "stupid" punters in betting shops - the small people who, in the end, provide him with a living. Charges of bringing racing into disrepute hang over Fallon in the wake of that episode. Above all, compare Fallon to his splendid rival Frankie Dettori. Dettori brings nothing but joy and exuberance to our marvellous national sport; Fallon a grim mean-mindedness.

Fallon's patrons continued to back him after that. Champion racing trainer Michael Stoute backed him, and Stoute's owners followed suit. One of those owners, the Queen, employed Fallon at Royal Ascot. I warned then that she was wrong to do so. Everybody is innocent till proven guilty, but owners who value their integrity should steer clear of Fallon for the time being.

Peter Oborne is political editor of 'The Spectator'