£300m drug ring used horse racing to launder its vast profits

Paul Peachey
Saturday 15 June 2002 00:00

Customs officers have broken up the international network of the biggest known cocaine-smuggling gang to operate in Britain.

Vast profits from the multi-million-pound deals were laundered through the British racing industry, with the criminals paying jockeys for inside information on betting, according to the Jockey Club.

The organisation said that one of the country's best-known riders, Graham Bradley, a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner in 1983 on Bregawn, admitted in court to being paid for passing sensitive information to the suspected mastermind of the drugs gang.

Brian Wright – nicknamed "the Milkman" because he "always delivers" – was a well-known figure in racing circles and was investigated by police in 1998 over doping and racefixing. He was never charged and also avoided arrest over the drugs ring. He is currently believed to be living in luxury under tight security in northern Cyprus, which has no extradition treaty with Britain.

Details of the drugs ring can finally be reported after publicity bans were lifted at the end of a series of trials in Britain and abroad that have seen 15 gang members jailed for a total of 215 years. They included Mr Wright's son, Brian Wright jnr, the gang's UK representative, who was jailed for 16 years. The trials were the result of a six-year investigation and the seizure of cocaine in Britain with a street value of £61m. The five trials included one of 14 months, making it the second -longest criminal trial in legal history.

The gang's empire stretched from Australia to America and involved a complex supply network embracing Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Panama.

Light aircraft were used to parachute cocaine drops of up to 600kg at a time to waiting boats, while speedboats made deliveries at sea. Ocean-going yachts were used to ship the drugs across the Atlantic.

The gang transferred the drugs between yachts a few miles off either Salcombe, Devon, Poole in Dorset, or Lymington, Hampshire, so the transatlantic vessels could dock "clean". Between 1996 and 1998 alone, the enterprise, thought to have started as early as 1992, saw three tonnes of cocaine brought to Britain with a street value "very conservatively" estimated at £300m.

Customs officials were first alerted to the drugs operation when a converted fishing trawler developed engine problems and put into dock in Cork in the Irish Republic in 1996. The cargo of 599kg of cocaine, worth £80m, was discovered and the skipper, John Ewart, was jailed for 17 years.

His evidence to investigators, with key finds on the vessel, pointed the finger towards the Wright organisation. Brian Wright snr, 56, was the alleged financier who has an international warrant out for his arrest. He controlled the operation from his home in southern Spain but during trips to British racecourses in the 1980s and 90s he portrayed himself as a wealthy entrepreneur.

He mixed with the rich and famous, including the bookmaker Victor Chandler and the comedian Jim Davidson, and had a box at Ascot.

The Jockey Club claimed that drug profits were gambled on horses to disguise their origins. Mr Wright allegedly improved his chances by fixing races. It said it also had a sworn statement from another former jockey and trainer, Dermot Browne – known as The Needle Man – admitting that he had been involved in doping about 20 horses at Mr Wright's request.

During the trial of former jump jockey Barrie Wright (unrelated to the other Wrights), the Jockey Club said both Mr Bradley and Barrie Wright admitted they "passed privileged and sensitive information to Brian Wright (snr) and others for reward".

The Jockey Club said that Mr Bradley described how his fellow jockey would tell punters via the telephone of the latest information from the jockeys' weighing room. Barrie Wright, who was charged over the cocaine ring, was acquitted.

Mr Bradley, who now works as a bloodstock agent with the footballers Steve McManaman and Robbie Fowler among his clients, yesterday declined to comment on the case.

Mr Bradley, renowned as a great stylist in his racing days, was briefly charged with conspiracy to cheat in 1999 after an investigation by the Metropolitan Police into allegations of doping and race-fixing. The allegation was dropped and he was free to resume his riding career. He stopped racing in 1999.

In a statement, Christopher Spence, senior steward of the Jockey Club, said: "We have studied the transcripts of sworn testimony given in court where serious malpractice in connection with racing was admitted ... We are in a position to accelerate our plans for action and a further announcement will be made next week."

Yesterday Hilton Van Staden, 52, a South African, was jailed for nine years by a judge at Bristol Crown Court in connection with the conspiracy to smuggle drugs.

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