THE TECHNOLOGY was new, but the motivation was as old as betting. When someone altered the results of four greyhound races before they were published in last Monday's edition of Britain's only specialist horse- and greyhound-racing daily, the Racing Post, they joined a list of punters which stretches back across the centuries.
It includes aristocrats and common criminals, and trainers and jockeys too, but all had one thing in common. When the chance arose, they were ready to apply a crowbar to the window of opportunity.
For as long as there have been odds, people have tried to fiddle them, and this very month marks the centenary of a strikingly similar fraud - that involving the Trodmore Hunt. Like many of the best plots, the Trodmore Hunt was elegant in its simplicity. Someone calling himself G Martin, of St Ives in Cornwall, wrote to The Sportsman newspaper, which in those days was the principal rival to The Sporting Life. He enclosed a list of runners and riders for the Trodmore Hunt race meeting, to be held on 1 August, a Bank Holiday.
In those days, there was no official fixture list, and journalists were happy to accept what help they could from eager members of the public in compiling their racecards, not least on busy Bank Holidays. Martin had chosen his date carefully, and was effectively gambling on the ignorance and laziness of The Sportsman's journalists. It was a safe bet.
The card duly appeared without anyone bothering to check whether Trodmore exists (it doesn't). The following day, Martin sent in a list of the winners and their starting prices - including, as it happens, several horses which had been heavily backed with the illegal street bookies of the time - and these too were published. Again, the plotters had been clever, and the "results" were not too greedy - four winning favourites and nothing at odds of more than 5-1.
This was apparently enough for several bookmakers, who paid out without a second thought. It was all too easy. But the one thing the conspirators could not allow for was human error. The Sporting Life, annoyed that it had somehow missed the original card, cribbed the results from The Sportsman, but somewhere in the typesetting process, a printer's hand slipped and the price of one winner became 5-2 rather than 5-1.
Now, many bookmakers were confused, and started to investigate Trodmore a little more closely. At which point, of course, the truth emerged, and the pay-outs stopped. Yet the true identity of G Martin and his fellow confidence tricksters remains a mystery, and the fact that it took a printing error to expose them can only make you wonder if - or even how often - an identical plan might previously have succeeded.
This sort of chicanery was not a preserve of the Victorian turf, or even the black-and-white post-War racecourses where George Cole ducked and dived when he was not hanging out at St Trinian's. A mainstay of plotters, for instance, has always been the "ringer", a good horse masquerading as an inferior one, and one of the most famous ringer coups of all was attempted less than 20 years ago.
Flockton Grey was a 10-1 chance for a race restricted to two-year-olds over the minimum Flat racing distance of five furlongs at Leicester in March 1982, but he won by the extraordinary distance of 20 lengths. The margin did not seem quite so surprising, though, when it emerged that Flockton Grey was in fact Good Hand - who was a three-year-old, and thus enjoyed an enormous advantage against his juniors. Several convictions for conspiracy to defraud duly followed.
A more subtle take on a similar theme was the Gay Future coup in 1974, although the horse involved was not switched on the racecourse, but at home. As far as his stable staff and the world were concerned, Gay Future was a horse being trained by Tony Collins, at a small stable in Scotland. In fact, though, the horse merely looked like the real Gay Future, who was actually being prepared with immense care in Co Tipperary by a young trainer.
The planning was meticulous. Two of Collins' other horses were entered for races on the same day as Gay Future's intended target, the Ulverston Novice Hurdle at Cartmel on 26 August. There was never the slightest intention that either would run, but by backing all three in trebles - which became single bets when the other two were declared non-runners - the intended coup was concealed from the suspicious eyes of bookmakers.
At the last minute, the real Gay Future arrived from Ireland, fit, muscular and ready to run for his life. A top amateur rider replaced the young conditional who had been listed in the papers. Gay Future won easily, and a brilliant coup had apparently been landed.
The postscript is a sad one, however. Some bookmakers - principally in Ireland - paid out. Others, mainly those in Britain, did not, and somehow the whole case ended up in court. Again convictions followed, though court reports indicated that even the judge was not quite sure what laws had been broken. At other times, though, a moral line has clearly been crossed. At the turn of the century, an American gang made a fortune by doping bad horses with cocaine, which almost inevitably turned them into winners but often with grim consequences for the horses.
In an early Grand National, meanwhile, Captain D'Arcy, who had gambled recklessly on his mount The Knight Of Gwynne, jumped the last in a clear but distant second place behind Tommy Cunningham, riding Peter Simple. His solution? D'Arcy started yelling bribes to Cunningham to throw the race, which allegedly started at pounds 1,000 but rose to pounds 4,000 as the post approached and D'Arcy's desperation grew. Cunningham, to his credit, ignored him.
Greed, opportunity, and a lack of scruples are all that is required, and the latest conspirators will not be the last to try their luck. There is one final point, though, which bears consideration. As a general rule, the plots and frauds that we find out about are the ones that didn't work.
OTHER PLOTS, SCAMS AND COUPS
MACCABEUS/ RUNNING REIN
A "ringer"scandal with a difference - it involved the Derby itself. The 1844 running of the Epsom Classic was apparently won by Running Rein, but a long investigation proved that the colt in question was in fact Maccabeus - a four-year-old. The plot had been a long time in the hatching - the two horses, which appeared almost identical, had been switched two years beforehand when Running Rein was a yearling. The Derby was eventually awarded to Orlando, the original runner-up.
Another "ringer", but again with a twist. Francasal won a seller at Bath in July 1953 at odds of 10-1, but would have started far shorter had the serious money staked on him away from the course been "blown back" - the practice where off course bookmakers send telephone ("blower'') instructions to their agents on the race course to back a particular horse - to cut his starting price. This was not possible, though, since those connected to the scam had shinned up a telegraph pole and cut all the telephone lines to the course shortly before the race. Francasal was in fact an older and better horse called Santa Amaro.
Not a fraud as such, but rather the most spectacular betting coup in turf history. Prepared in the utmost secrecy at an isolated yard in the middle of Salisbury Plain, Hackler's Pride was aimed at the 1903 Cambridgeshire Handicap at Newmarket by the heavy-hitting punters who owned her. She won by three lengths, and the return to her owners was estimated at pounds 250,000 - in old money. Add in the effects of almost a century of inflation, and in modern terms the pay-out was almost pounds 11m.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies