Sports Betting: Could you spot a fraud?

Whether at race tracks, bookmakers or online, betting corruption is hard to crack. Nick Harris meets the detectives at the British Horseracing Authority who are winning the war – and setting examples to other sports

Wednesday 03 June 2009 00:00

Memo to anyone plotting to make ill-gotten gains from British horse racing via corrupt betting, whether you're a "bent" jockey, trainer, bookie or gambler planning an illegal sting:

1) Intelligence officers, investigators and analysts with police backgrounds in serious and organised crime have high-tech tools to track virtually your every move by phone and your every bet via the net.

2) They also have a network of informants waiting to shop you.

3) They have patience and they have your number, literally. If they don't get you this week, this month, or this year, they will get you... one day.

Welcome to the world of the Integrity Unit at the British Horseracing Authority.

This organisation is at the heart of the fight against potential corruption in British racing, and a place that other sports could do well to learn from. In England, six footballers linked to an Accrington Stanley versus Bury match last year are being prosecuted by the Football Association for infringement of betting rules. Another more recent match, with all the hallmarks of a suspected "fix", is among other cases being probed by the Gambling Commission (GC).

Police are investigating a recent top-level snooker match where a fix by north-west gangsters is suspected. At least one other snooker match is of serious concern to the GC. The Independent has also learned of a darts match that the GC thinks was "highly suspicious," and governing bodies from Uefa, Fifa and the ICC to those in many other sports acknowledge a clear and present danger from crooked gamblers.

A coalition of governing bodies, SROC (the Sports Rights Owners Coalition), told The Independent this year that betting poses as great a risk to sport as doping. And today, SROC's chairman, Nic Coward, will host a meeting in Paris between Britain's Sports Minister, Gerry Sutcliffe, and his French counterpart, Bernard Laporte, to discuss a range of issues surrounding sports integrity.

This is one fledgling, tangible sign that governments, governing bodies and bookmakers are starting to act in unison, across borders, to combat the threat for the first time.

The majority of individual sports lack the resources and/or expertise to cope alone. Yet Britain does boast one of the most sophisticated single-sport integrity units in the world, at the central London HQ of the BHA, where the chief executive is SROC's Nic Coward.

The BHA is concerned solely with horse racing. But its Integrity Unit, headed by Paul Scotney, a former detective chief superintendent with 27 years on the force, offers a fine example of pro-active "policing" at work, as The Independent was shown during a behind-the-scenes tour.

Collation of intelligence is "pivotal" says Paul Beeby, 48, the head of intelligence. Beeby was a policeman for 25 years, a detective specialising in serious and organised crime, and intelligence-led covert operations. Pertinently for his current job, he was born and raised in Newmarket, "with a passion for horses and racing. It's important to know your subject".

Information arrives from all sectors of racing, from officers in the field, from courses, from weighing rooms, stables, punters, the public, and from a network of informants. "We run informants in the same way the police run informants, right down to safety and protection where appropriate," Beeby says.

Collectively, the sources file some 400 reports into the IU each month, equating to around 20 per working day. Here's tip a that Mr Smith is planning to bet or lay £XX,000 on Y horse at Z meeting. Here's one that Punter Jones met suspected criminal Big, who knows jockeys A and B. And licenced person Brown has just bought himself a new phone that he has failed to register with the BHA as required.

The IU uses the same Memex Intelligence database software as the Metropolitan Police, the US Department of Defence and other major agencies. With a few clicks of a mouse, intelligence officer Jen Hughes can call up details of 4,500 individuals, and produce an on-screen map of links between any one of them and every other person, every horse and every piece of intelligence – from 8,500 current reports – linked to them.

Only a tiny minority of the names on the database are considered a threat to racing's integrity, but monitoring the majority lessens the risk that corruptors will slip by unnoticed.

"The aim is to build an intelligence picture," says Beeby. "Some information is just harmless facts, other stuff clearly isn't. Often, small details will build up into something significant."

The next link in the investigative chain is the betting investigators. Tom Chignell spends much of each working day in front of a bank of screens, monitoring bets in real time. The IU has a "good relationship" with "the traditionals" (high street bookmakers), but it is increasingly online activity, especially on the exchanges and particularly on Betfair, where signs of malpractice can be picked up.

"If anything dodgy is going down, at least some of it will inevitably show up on the exchanges," Chignell says. Details of any bet struck with Betfair are accessible by Chignell within seconds, although punters' identities remain protected unless corruption is suspected. Analytical software picks up irregular patterns.

Chignell's keen eye and specialist knowledge helps to sort the unusual from the suspicious. "Flagged" accounts, where high volumes are traded at unexpected times, get extra attention. Chignell and his colleagues can isolate one person's historic bets, and sort them to try to find patterns.

It was this type of surveillance in late 2004 and 2005 that identified unusual "laying" by Owen Churchill, a bookmaker. He began "risking" tens of thousands of pounds instead of his usual hundreds. Except his risk was minimal because he knew certain horses would lose. It became clear he was targeting horses ridden by two jockeys, Brian Reilly and Dean Williams.

In isolation, their activities might have been missed. But on screen, where Churchill's bets correlated so clearly to specific outcomes, it was obvious something was amiss. An investigation was opened; four full-time investigators are among a range of IU staff actively at work "in the field" at any one time. All three parties were handed long bans.

Chignell signals an alert "when we know we've got a situation that doesn't look good". In such cases, the stewards routinely interview the connections of whichever horse has prompted the alert. When the unit was at a fledgling stage in 2004, there were around three alerts per week. Now it is around one every three weeks. Slowly and surely, racing is becoming less and less corruptible.

Two key people in the IU are the intelligence analysts, John Gardner and Barry Holmes, who both have backgrounds working for the police as crime analysts.

Watching Gardner quietly at work is a study in looking for needles in haystacks, and finding them. "Whereas police have a crime and need to find who did it, here we often know the people involved first," he says. "But then we need to prove there was a crime."

Any licensed person (a jockey or trainer, for example) is obliged to hand over all their phone records if asked. The IU can, under certain circumstances, obtain records via court orders for non-licensed people. Data about the location and usage of betting accounts is also obtainable. Gardner's work involves taking hundreds and thousands of small pieces of information, and using them to link people in conspiracies.

A case can take weeks to piece together. Going through every call that Mr X made and Mr Z made might prove fruitless. Gardner demonstrates this on screen, showing a graph of Mr X's calls, and Mr Z's, and Mr Z's bets, all unrelated. Then he clicks a button that overlays the activities of Mr Y, a middleman. Bingo. X called Y at 12.52pm. Y called Z at 12.53pm. Z placed a bet on jockey X's horse a minute later, then Y called X when the race transpired as hoped.

Such ties become the bedrock of investigations that can lead to prosecution and punishment.

Putting the puzzle together is painstaking work. The satisfaction when the key piece falls into place must be incredible. Gardner gives a small nod to this suggestion, and the hint of a smile. But only a hint.

Scotney is bullish about his unit. "We'll never be complacent," he says. "Our success or otherwise will stem from having the right rules in place in racing in the first place. It's a condition for all licensed people to keep records of phone use and to hand them over if we ever request them.

"There is no right to refusal and no right to silence in an investigation. We have clear rules on betting; jockeys cannot bet at all, for example. There are clear rules on when and where phones can be used. And we have an ongoing campaign to ensure that everyone in racing is clear on the definition of inside information, and that trading it is not allowed."

British horse racing is, for now, way ahead of the game compared to any other sport in the policing of betting integrity. It has needed to be. As the threat of corruption encroaches elsewhere, other sports could do worse than look on, and learn.

'Footballers shouldn't bet': Accrington owner on the scandal at his club

Eric Whalley, the chairman-owner of Accrington Stanley, said last night that a year-long betting scandal has contributed to his club's economic demise, and called on the Football Association to ban footballers from betting on any match.

"Footballers shouldn't bet on their own employment at all," Whalley said. "A partial ban like now leaves grey areas. Gambling by footballers on football is wrong, and damaging. I know first hand."

Six current and former Accrington players have been charged with infringements of FA betting rules after betting on Accrington to lose to Bury on 3 May 2008. Accrington lost.

The FA has spent more than a year on the case but no conclusion is expected until the players' personal hearings, probably next month. All have pleaded not guilty.

Accrington, of League Two, face a High Court winding up order next week, issued by HM Revenue and Customs relating to £300,000 in unpaid tax and national insurance. Whalley accepts responsibility for the arrears but says that the stigma of the betting scandal has cost his club.

"The betting thing alone has not caused our problems but it has certainly hurt us," he says. "After losing one sponsor, we had a major holiday firm willing to replace them but they wouldn't until the betting case was resolved. It's now a lost opportunity.

"I don't understand how it takes the FA so long [to investigate]." The FA says complex investigations take time. A total ban on betting was watered down in 2000.

Click here to find out more about the British Horseracing Authority.

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