Marten’s Perspective: Cheating: Commonplace or under control? (part 1)

August 24th, 2012 | Marten's Perspective

Back in the late 90s racehorse trainer Lynda Ramsden, her husband Jack and champion jockey Kieren Fallon won almost £200,000 from the Sporting Life in libel damages after the paper alleged that the three of them had ‘cheated’ the public by deliberately not trying to win a race with their horse Top Cees.

After the horse won the Chester Cup three weeks later the Sporting Life published a piece accusing the three of cheating. Mirror Group Newspapers, who owned the Life, argued that the item, by Alastair Down, was justified and fair comment on a scandal which was a matter of public interest.

Cheating, according to most dictionaries, is defined as “acting dishonestly or unfairly to gain an advantage, especially in a game or examination.” It is also defined as “to deceive or trick.”

Without going into the semantics I think we can readily accept what we mean by cheating in the context of racing. Rule 45.1 states as follows that a rider must:

“ride his horse throughout the race in such a way that he can be seen to have made a genuine attempt to obtain from his horse timely, real and substantial efforts to achieve the best possible placing and take and be seen to take all other reasonable and permissible measures throughout the race, however it develops, to ensure the horse is given a full opportunity to achieve the best possible placing.”

This seems quite clear, but in my view there is not a day when the rule is not broken. In the 40 or so years I have worked with trainers I cannot recall any member of that profession who has not, at some point, asked his jockey not to give his horse a hard race.

I should add that this is not, in the vast majority of cases, intended to deceive the public or, with the establishment of the exchanges, in order to ‘lay’ the horse to lose. It is almost always because the horse is either returning from injury, not at full fitness or unsuited by certain conditions.

I must also say at this point that, invariably, the instruction is qualified with something along the lines of “win if you can” or “don’t get into trouble.”

I know of hundreds of occasions in my time when unfancied horses have won. Years ago it was different. Now retired jockeys have told me tales of the ingenious lengths they sometimes went to in order to avoid winning.

One ex-jumps jockey, now occasional pundit, who was retained by one of the most famous trainers in National Hunt racing, told me that his boss pulled him in one day to say that he would never ask him to stop a horse again because he was “f…ing useless at it!”

Another former champion jumps jockey, now a successful trainer, told me about the day at Hexham when he spent the last half-mile of the race shouting “Do me, lads, do me” to the struggling riders chasing him in vain pursuit.

Racing was like a private club in those days, with trainers likely to get a quiet tap on the shoulder rather than face an enquiry. It is no secret that the late Arthur (WA) Stephenson used the racecourse as a schooling ground in a way which would never be permitted these days.

I remember ringing the great man once to ask him if he was running one of his horses in a race at Cartmel, where I fancied one of ours. “I will if I can catch it”, he told me. “It’s in the field at the moment.”

 The horse duly turned up, looking as fat as a Hereford bull, and clearly in no state to race. He duly drifted in the market from around evens to 3’1 and was pulled up after half a mile.

Was that cheating? The horse was not remotely able to win but it wasn’t actually stopped. It was simply unfit.

There are, though, darker forces at work these days. The arrival of the exchanges now means that any punter can, like a bookmaker, take money on a horse to lose. The rules prevent those connected with a horse from laying it, which is correct. However everyone has friends and it must be very difficult for the authorities to unravel the threads.

 I have no doubt that some jockeys, trainers and owners have people to lay horses on their behalf which they believe cannot win. However, in my experience, most jockeys when faced with the prospect of winning a race will, in the heat of battle, try their best to win. Indeed, there have been recorded instances of people with proven links to jockeys and trainers laying horses which ended up winning. The competitive instinct in a rider tends to win through in the end.

 I will admit that I was once linked to a horse which was going to the races after a setback. I did not want the horse to be given a hard race, but when I told the jockey he said that he had to be very careful and would not want to get into trouble. I assured him that no betting was involved and that I never meant him to stop the horse from winning.

 I do, though, believe that when the prize money is so poor there is a danger of foul play. When the monetary rewards from stopping a horse are greater than for winning there is always the danger that a rider, trainer or owner down on their luck may be tempted to resort to skulduggery.

A rider’s winning percentage, at low-grade jump meetings and all-weather meetings, can amount to little more than £150 in some races. By contrast there is seldom less than £300,000 matched on such races on the exchanges – considerably more if the race features a short-priced favourite.

An exchange client could very easily lay a short-priced favourite to lose a five-figure sum – considerably more than the couple of hundred quid the jockey will get for riding a winner.

My view is that ‘cheating’ in horse racing – the deliberate attempt to deceive others – is not commonplace. In fact it is very rare, but it does happen. However far more common, especially at run-of-the-mill meetings, there will on a daily basis be horses which run without carrying the confidence, for whatever reason, of their connections. It is up to the punter to assess, from the data available, which horses these may be.

Next week I will illustrate, with more recollections, how you can spot horses which are unlikely to be fancied.

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