IT is one of the most glittering rebuttals to the notion of a classless society. It concerns America's horse circuit, where blue-blooded men and women ride blue-blooded thoroughbreds around the country's most enchanting country parks; and where the spectators, dressed to the nines, do as much competing in the champagne tents as the horses out on the course. The costs involved in competing on the horse circuit, from breeding through training, are so high that the sport largely remains the domain of the wealthy, like George Lindemann, heir to his father's US$600 million (about HK$4.6 billion) Cellular One fortune, and - until last week, that is - a favourite to star in the United States equestrian team at the 1996 Olympics. When Atlanta rolls around, however, Mr Lindemann will almost certainly be watching the action from a TV set somewhere in an Illinois jail. His conviction for insurance fraud, a possible 15-year prison term, and the convictions of more than 20 other top figures in the horse show world, have opened the stable doors on the kind of corruption, malice and cruelty that belong more in the Marquis de Sade's dungeon than the penthouse world of the upper classes. What a series of federal trials have uncovered is a racket in which trainers and horsemen routinely swindled insurance companies into parting with hundreds of thousands of dollars in claims on dead horses. And the man who brought it to the notice of the authorities was Tommy Burns, whose trade was horse killing at US$5,000 a shot. Burns, known as the Sandman to his aristocratic clients, had a preferred method of plying his trade: splitting an extension cord down the middle, attaching one end to the victim's ear, the other to its anus, and plugging it in. The death by electrocution was impossible to detect and its effects bore such a close resemblance to a common horse ailment, colic, that insurers never blinked. Lindemann had a problem when his show horse Charisma developed arthritis in 1990 and became unreliable over the jumps: he was not insured for colic. So he employed Mr Burns to break his leg instead and called in a vet to have him 'humanely' put down. Even for people of Lindemann's wealth, the motive was nothing other than the lure of cash to be squeezed from unwitting insurers once a horse had outlived its usefulness. Show horses are insured for a total of over US$1 billion in the US and a swindle can be a lucrative sideline. Lindemann was paid US$250,000 for Charisma. Burns, whose incriminating testimony against his employers will probably allow him to walk free, said he killed up to 15 horses, an admission that has sent as much of a shudder through the horse show circuit as the insurance industry. No one on the circuit seemed surprised that the insurance scam had occurred once or twice, but the realisation that it spread into every cranny of the sport, infecting even the Ivy League-educated Lindemann, was proof, if ever it was needed, that when it comes to crime at least, America truly is a classless society.