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David Ashforth's column: Why Panorama team is facing a tough task.

Byline: David Ashforth

I PITY the BBC's Panorama researchers, reported to be diligently applying themselves to the superficially promising but actually thankless task of unearthing corruption in British horseracing.

The film editor's skill in turning the old and banal into the fresh and scandalous will be tested to the limit. Sad to say, contemporary horseracing suffers from a dreadful scarcity of skulduggery.

Far from being afflicted by corruption, British racing is starved of it. We are reduced to getting enormously excited at the thought that someone might be running an immature two-year-old over an inadequate trip in order to achieve a favourable handicap mark.

The conviction (not really the right word, given the lack of them) that you have spotted a non-trier is unbearably thrilling. If it is a favourite, deliberately stopped from winning, it should be stuffed and displayed at the British Horseracing Museum, in the rare breeds section.

Apart from an occasional flurry of excitement - the Top Cees libel action, the doping of Avanti Express and Lively Knight - it is tame stuff. It wasn't always thus, as some research I am doing for a book on skulduggery has brought home to me.

In 1844, the Derby was won by a four-year-old and, by 1898, skulduggery had reached such a level of sophistication that an entire race meeting was invented, at the fictional location of Trodmore, not in Cornwall.

For 20 years, between 1919 and 1939, a scandalously forgotten anti-hero of the Turf, Peter Christian Barrie, combined doping and ringing on a grand scale in Britain and North America, having probably practised in Australia first.

He would make a much more interesting subject for a documentary, and the Jockey Club should sponsor a race in his memory.

In Australia, in the early 1930s, horsemen were enormously inventive, regularly deploying the latest advances in electrical engineering and chemistry to make horses go faster, or slower.

As well as batteries and drugs,

they also fiddled with weights, scales and whips, and were even known to place bars with needles sticking out

of them on the track.

In the USA, after the Second World War, there were so many ringers that the newly established Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau promoted the introduction of tattoos on horses' lips.

In Britain, in 1949 alone, I have so far identified three ringers, three more, I fear, than in the last 20 years, since Flockton Grey. Now that the Jockey Club has introduced microchips into horses' necks, what chance is there?

Granted, we still have doping, although it exists more as a talked-about potential - EPO, equine growth hormone - than a regular reality. There was a time when doping was commonplace. Now, thankfully, it is not, although there are plenty of people who will always be convinced that sophisticated dopers are out there, using undetectable drugs. I doubt it.

Racing in Britain is enormously competitive and highly regulated. Where there is gambling, there will always be a temptation to cheat, but it will be a surprise if Panorama gets beyond the old hat - the failed

race-fixing and doping investigation, money-laundering, tales from Hong Kong, EPO and speculation.

For a bit of novelty, it may take a look at betting exchanges which, because they provide a fresh opportunity to lay horses, broader than the opportunities afforded by spread betting, could be attractive to cheats. There is some mileage in that.

For a programme to be worth doing, Panorama's researchers need to come up with something new, and something backed by solid evidence. It will be a surprise if they can.


Bad publicity: but far from being infested with corruption, British racing is starved of any real scandals
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Apr 27, 2002
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