The Year of the Horse will open inauspiciously for the Hong Kong Jockey Club with racing embroiled in another race-fixing investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption. No charges have been brought in the case, and the details remain murky at best, but 20 arrests and the allegations that followed have been enough to feed the fevered imaginations of the conspiracy theorists and deal a massive credibility blow to Hong Kong's premier sport. Around the world, headlines have again linked Hong Kong with race-fixing and, whatever the final outcome of the case, the taint of scandal will be hard to shake as the Jockey Club continues its determined, and so far largely successful, bid to improve Hong Kong racing's international reputation. The case could hardly be more high-profile given that the allegations of accepting 'advantages from illegal bookmakers as rewards for supplying stable racing information and manipulating race results' have been levelled at former champion Robbie Fradd and John Egan, two of the top four jockeys in last season's championship. The allegations are a setback to the Jockey Club's much-admired 'new' racing administration, led by director of racing Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges and chief stipendiary steward John Schreck. Along with Tim McNally - the former FBI man recruited in 1999 to head the Jockey Club's security department - they are caught up in their first major race-fixing investigation in Hong Kong. Engelbrecht-Bresges, widely acknowledged as one of the brightest and most forward-thinking racing administrators in the world, took up his post in April 1998, six months before the convictions in the Stanley Chin case, though the race-fixing involved pre-dated the German's arrival. Engelbrecht-Bresges has driven Hong Kong ever closer to the centre of the international racing stage with his tireless efforts to portray the sport here as having qualities other than the vast betting numbers which most people associate with Hong Kong racing. But, with the spectre of illegal bookmaking at the heart of the latest allegations, he admits the arrests are 'a major setback' to the sport's image at home and abroad. 'The perception for Hong Kong racing is bad whatever the outcome and certainly a blow to our concept of world-class racing and entertainment,' he said. Engelbrecht-Bresges, however, has also been at pains to stress in the past few days that the scandal should not be used to judge the whole racing industry, nor should allegations of race-fixing be regarded as proof. 'Race-fixing is a very damaging term being thrown around too freely at the moment and an expression which suggests the whole system in Hong Kong racing is rotten,' he said. 'The allegation of race-fixing is the worst possible accusation to be made in any racing jurisdiction. It strikes at the very credibility and integrity of our entire team of 5,000 decent, hard-working people.' The investigation inevitably casts doubt on racing control, too, even though Schreck is widely credited with having dramatically improved the standard since he took over as chief stipe at the start of the 1999-2000 season. One measure of the Australian's standing around the world came recently when Malcolm Wallace - director of regulation at the Jockey Club in Britain, where the rules of racing originated - visited Hong Kong to see what could be learned from Schreck's approach. Wallace also visited Australia, Singapore and Macau on his trip, but described going into the stewards' room at Sha Tin to see Schreck at work as 'the equivalent in my line of business as having an audience with the Pope at the Vatican'. Wallace said one way in which Britain could learn from Hong Kong was in Schreck's strict line on all horses being ridden out to the line - a key pillar of stewarding policy designed to ensure that any riders not giving 100 per cent can be identified and punished. In the short term, the Jockey Club's most pressing problem has been the thorny issue of whether to suspend Fradd and Egan during the ongoing investigation. On Friday night, following discussions at Jockey Club headquarters which went on deep into the evening, the decision-makers appeared to be moving towards a new approach to the issue by allowing Fradd to take rides at Thursday's Chinese New Year fixture (for Egan, of course, the point was a moot one as the Irishman is already serving a two-month ban which will rule him out until April 1). But by Saturday morning the traditional view had prevailed and, as in previous cases involving serious allegations such as race-fixing, the jockeys were suspended, initially until March 8. The Jockey Club hopes the case will have become clearer by then, with the ICAC having set bail terms until the beginning of March, but the suspension dilemma will become much more acute if the investigation drags on beyond then. The relatively short period of suspension imposed in this case has been justified on the grounds of being 'in the public interest'. But while the Jockey Club has a duty to protect the integrity of racing at a time when it is under intense scrutiny, suspension throughout a long-term investigation - if that is what develops - would lay the Jockey Club open to accusations of pre-judging the case. To Fradd's credit, he has not objected to being sidelined for a month even though in this case, like Egan, he has not been found to have broken any specific rule of racing, has not been charged and remains innocent until proven guilty. The halfway-house measure of a fixed, short-term suspension for the jockeys rather than the indefinite suspensions from duty handed out to the four HKJC employees questioned in the case may also be a Jockey Club ploy to force the ICAC's hand to produce more evidence quickly. And it may also be a sign that the Jockey Club has learned from the Simon Yim Hin-keung case. The former dual champion apprentice was similarly taken in by ICAC officers for questioning in a 1997 investigation, suspended pending the outcome of the case and was not cleared of any wrongdoing until the following year. Even so, Yim spent four years in the wilderness before being allowed to return to race-riding in April 2001. Beyond the Jockey Club hierarchy and those caught up in the affair, the case also attaches a stigma to the whole Hong Kong racing profession. One leading trainer countered the mud-slinging in the wake of last week's arrests by maintaining that Hong Kong racing was the cleanest in the world and that the allegations should not be used as an excuse to run down an industry which is vital to Hong Kong's economy and culture. A loss of public confidence in racing, he said, would have serious repercussions throughout society. Even so, the rumour mill has been in full swing since Wednesday night. While Saturday's South China Morning Post reported the 20th arrest in the case after an alleged member of an illegal bookmaking syndicate was taken in by the ICAC for questioning, other newspapers claimed a third work rider had also been arrested. The Jockey Club and sources close to the investigation denied the story, as well as claims that more jockeys and even trainers were about to be arrested. The ICAC also has a duty to protect public confidence in racing, not only through its diligence in tracking down corruption but also by handling the current case responsibly. But a widespread view from inside the racing profession is that the ICAC has made the connection between allegations of illegal bookmaking and race-fixing too easily and that it would take more than two jockeys to fix a race. In the last major race-fixing case, 11 current and former jockeys were originally arrested, with three eventually convicted in October 1998, including the ringleader Chin, while the infamous Shanghai Syndicate case in 1986 saw Australian jockey David Brosnan and four local riders jailed for 18 months for conspiring to cheat the public at gaming. Another top trainer put forward the view that, while allegations of race-fixing are damaging to the image of the sport, they do not mean corruption in Hong Kong racing is any more of a problem than in other racing jurisdictions. The difference, he said, was that the Jockey Club and the ICAC are more committed and more effective at finding and punishing offenders than the authorities in some other countries. So, the argument runs, while public confidence may be affected in the short term by the events of the past few days, punters should feel more secure in Hong Kong that racing is fair and clean. The betting figures at Thursday's high-profile Sha Tin meeting will provide the first guide to the affair's impact on punter confidence. Only time will tell where the investigation will lead and what the longer-term effects are for racing. For now, it may be best to keep an open mind.