This month marks the six-year anniversary of an ultimately unsuccessful but highly imaginative and astonishingly intricate attempt to rig races at Happy Valley Racecourse. If you presented this stunning plan as a work of fiction you’d be written off as being either unrealistic or on highly effective hallucinogens.
Just hours before a March 2007 meeting, officials discovered something startling buried in the turf at the 1,200m starting point: a remote-controlled device of a dozen foot-long launching tubes, set to line up with each of the runners and designed to shoot tiny darts filled with tranquilliser into the bellies of selected horses as they stood in the barriers before a race.
Under the cover of darkness, what can only be assumed was a team – they were never caught – snuck on to the course proper and fitted out the complex air-compressed system, then carefully hid their work under grass-coloured tape.
Even with elaborate plans like this famous effort, is it fair that racing has long been considered the bad egg of sports? Embarrassing events like Happy Valley’s underground piping ploy certainly don’t help in matters of public image. Outsiders already perceive racing as a mysterious, shadowy world of subterfuge where criminals lurk around every corner and where preordained results are revealed to insiders at a price.
Being a sport based entirely around betting, the game admittedly attracts its share of shady characters looking for an edge and can end up a financial outlet for a crime group’s ill-gotten gains as they launder their cash in the lucrative betting pools.
But racing hardly stands alone in the sporting landscape when it comes to being a bastion of criminal activity and at least the sport of kings took responsibility long ago for the fact it profits from gambling. Unlike other sports, it takes proactive measures to best ensure the integrity of results and not just heavy penalties for those caught after the fact.
Racing’s participants are held to account for their performances and even human error is punished, as racing’s referees – the stewards – try to sniff out any untoward tactics.
Maybe this is why the baddies have to get so imaginative and racing folklore is full of schemes so cunning that on the scam scale they would be worthy of a place alongside any espionage carried out by a Cold War spy. It seems a bit backward but there is an art to getting a horse beat – you can’t just pay it not to try and jockeys are constantly under the microscope.
Sports all around the world are slowly fessing up to the fact they too are riddled with underworld activity and on-field outcomes are being orchestrated by organised crime groups.
In some cases the sports are out-sourcing and even looking to racing for help as they attempt to clean up the mess left when players and officials are “got at”. They don’t have the specialist know-how to even begin to limit the match-fixing and it seems like they’ve only just admitted it is going on.
You don’t need anything as complex as a hidden poison dart shooter (I haven’t ruled out that this is what is wrong with the dismal football team I support), when you can just simply pay a goalkeeper to have a bad day, a star basketballer to miss a few free throws or a top-order batsman to get out at a certain stage of a cricket match.
It’s why some hardcore horseplayers will tell you they won’t bet on any athlete that can talk and greyhound gamblers probably take that stance a bit too far by betting on a sport where humans don’t even step on to the field of play.
Despite the shenanigans of the fence jumpers through the ages, racing in most first world jurisdictions at least is probably cleaner than the last Twenty20 cricket match you watched.
It’s just that the race-fixers have been at it longer than the shifty operators in other sports and have had to try a lot harder because of the rules and vigilant officials. Racing has always attempted to shine a light on the darker forces at play; one day the rest of the sports world will have to do the same and they might not like what they see.