Can there be such an intense dark side when it comes to the sport of horse racing? After all, isn’t it more so about the competition and seeing a horse and jockey do their best? Of course, for some, it may be about placing sports bets on the races and trying to secure a return. On the whole, it’s considered to be a popular and friendly sport but is there anything in it that would stand out as being foul play?
Believe or not, foul play is something that has taken place in the industry over the years. This has seen various horses, riders and trainer fall victim to sly moves of others. Of course, the competitive nature of some people can take over the idea of sportsmanship. This is usually what leads to foul play in any walk of life. Seeing a negative effect on your opponent(s) puts you in a stronger position to win. It’s clear to see why the temptation for this is there. We’re going to take a look at some instances of foul play in the horse racing sector.
The Curious Case of Phar Lap
For this instance of supposed foul play, we have to travel back to 1926. It was in October of that year that Phar Lap, a New Zealand-bred thoroughbred was born. Throughout its years as an active racehorse, it became known as the country’s greatest runner. It achieved incredible success, despite an initial underdog status. The fact that this was the case gave people hope during the Great Depression. Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup, two Cox Plates, the Australian Derby, and more.
One of the best achievements of the horse was winning the Agua Caliente Handicap. This occurred in track-record time. Yet it was even greater because Phar Lap split his hoof during the race and started many lengths behind. The horse also had no training for that course before the race took place.
In 1932, the horse suffered a terrible tragedy, though. On April 5, early in the morning, Phar Lap’s strapper, Tommy Woodcock, found him in severe pain. The horse had a high temperature and within a few hours, it haemorrhaged to death. An autopsy would reveal that its stomach and intestines were both inflamed. Many believed from this that it had suffered an intentional poisoning. Alternative theories also came to light, including accidental poisoning from lead insecticide. Yet it was only in the 1980s that the infection was actually identified in a proper way.
In 2000, equine specialists studied the two necropsies. From this, they concluded that the horse likely died of duodentis-proximal jejunitis. To put it in a simpler fashion – acute bacterial gastroenteritis. Six years later, scientists said that it was almost certain Phar Lap was the victim of a poisoning. A single large dose of arsenic was the culprit in the horse’s death. This research supported the theory that it was down to US gangsters. They feared the horse would inflict big losses on their illegal bookmaker businesses. No real evidence of their involvement exists, of course.
Cannabis Taken Knowingly…or the Result of Foul Play?
Chris Johnson, who also goes by the titles of “CWJ” or “The Magic Man”, is a New Zealand jockey. He is most notable as the holder of the national record for winning rides in New Zealand. He has also won the New Zealand jockeys premiership on two occasions. In June of 2016, he became known for something else, though. A boozy night out to watch boxing ended with Johnson suffering serious consequences. But why?
It was actually towards the end of May that year that he tested positive in a cannabis test. This occurred at the Rangiora trials. The test revealed a cannabis reading of 43 nanograms per millilitre of breath. While Johnson pleaded guilty to the offence, he claimed he did know he had used it. He was unable to offer any kind of explanation about why it was in his system. The Judicial Control Authority (JCA) panel reserved his penalty after the June 3 hearing. Seven days later, it handed down an eight-week suspension to Johnson.
Speaking out for the jockey was Riccarton trainer Michael Pitman. He assisted Johnson at the hearing, and said it was likely the rider had suffered a drink spiking. The boozy night out in Wellington took place on May 21. The jockey was unable to remember much of the evening. He reported that he woke up in his rental car at around 8am the following morning. It was then that he tested positive for cannabis in the random drug test at the Rangiora trials. He tested clear three days later. While the RIU requested a three-month suspension, the JCA panel considered mitigating factors. It determined that a discount of one month was appropriate.
In the JCA’s written decision, the panel said that Johnson had likely ingested cannabis without knowing. There was no way to prove or disprove this, though. It continued to say that it is more likely that his drink, cigarettes or food were actually spiked.
Use of Drones – Is It Foul Play or Not?
In the past few years, many people have used drones to capture photos and video footage. They have been at the centre of various situations. Some have been flown into warzones, others over occupied airspace. There is still a lot of concern over what they can and cannot achieve. Many have linked drones to various instances of foul play in different areas. Yet the drones used in the horse racing sphere have been up for debate in the House of Lords. The questions surrounding them have been about their impact on the industry.
Drones tend to live stream coverage of horse racing events to in-running punters. Yet some suggest that this puts a severe disadvantage on the people who aren’t using drones. Especially when it comes to betting on exchanges. Drone usage is quite widespread in racing. Numbers increased during the COVID-19 pandemic when events took place behind closed doors. Of course, drones are not cheap, with some costing more than £20,000 to buy. These options tend to come with the latest technology built into them. High-definition cameras are often in use, and CAA-qualified people often pilot them. They’re serious machines for serious operations.
Some bettors who have used drones have reported winning hundreds of thousands of pounds. This all comes down to their time advantages over other sports betting capabilities. Racecourses are also against their usage, though. They believe their media rights are being undermined via drones. It is their opinion that the live streams are being picked up by the black market.
Viscount Astor raised the issue of drones in the House of Lords. He called for amendments to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. At the moment, this doesn’t cover sporting events, which Astor said is wrong. He highlighted that the lack of copyright has led to a “vast expansion of illegal gambling”. He also said that this has meant an increase in problem gambling as well.
Yet it was Lord Lipsey who labelled drone usage foul play. The non-executive director at the Starting Price Regulatory Commission spoke during the debate. He said there is an inbuilt disadvantage for in-running players not using the streams. Drone footage can often be 0.5 seconds faster than standard online streams. That doesn’t sound like much, but in the fast-paced world of in-play betting, it is.
“This is foul play, and it must be stopped”, said Lipsey. He also highlighted that the racecourses need copyright in all pictures. Another option would be to criminalise the filming of sporting events this way. Their feelings towards drone usage mirrors that of many other people. There is a difficulty with stopping them from flying near racecourses, though. Often times, drones can be a long way from the tracks and still stream excellent footage. Whether it is actual foul play remains a question under debate.
Another Cannabis Story – The Sabotage of an Entire Country
The 2020 Olympic Games were due to take place in Tokyo that year. Unfortunately, COVID-19 shut down the world, meaning it ended up postponed until 2021. Regardless, an entire nation lost its place in the Summer Games as a result of sabotage. At least, that’s what Qatar said about failed dope tests of its show jumping team.
According to Qatar, the Moroccan show jumping team sabotaged their place in the event. How did they do this? The Qatari team suggested that the Moroccans added cannabis to their shisha. Show jumping riders Sheikh Ali Al Thani and Bassem Mohammed tested positive for the drug. That occurred at the Olympic jumping qualifier in October of 2019. As a result of that, the Moroccan team took the Olympic ticket lost by Qatar.
The case went forward to an FEI Tribunal. On February 15, 2020, they released a partial decision on the matter. That determined a disqualification on the two riders’ individual results. Thus, Qatar’s team result also did not count. It was down to the FEI that the team spot went to Morocco instead.
Both Al Thani and Mohammed denied that they knew about the cannabis use. They spoke of their certainty that they came into contact with the drug during a visit to the shisha bar of their hotel in Rabat. They visited it on a daily basis during the event, with smoking shisha being popular in Qatar. It is particularly known for helping athletes to relax. It remains popular in Morocco as well, yet a substance called kif is often used with or instead of tobacco. Kif is a Moroccan cannabis product.
An oversight must have occurred, as the Qatari team manager was there to ensure they were only served shisha tobacco. Cannabis would not have enhanced their performance in the show jumping event. So, even if they had chosen to use it, it would have been detrimental to their chances. Thus, the riders concluded that someone added the kif to their shisha in an act of foul play. This led them to the outcome that the Moroccan team was the one set to benefit from Qatar’s disqualification. A clear case of “sabotage” led them to file a criminal case.
Racetrack Gangs Cause Chaos
The First World War led to the curtailing of horse racing. Yet once hostilities ceased, a boom period occurred. While lawless behaviour had been a part of tracks before, it intensified at this point. Crooked bookmakers had employed bodyguards to be able to back them up. After all, they only paid out when they too profited and could afford it. Back then, anyone could set up business as a bookmaker at the tracks. Yet the courses were also plagued by gangs who would travel the country.
Some people may be aware of the Bethnal Green Mob. Or the Italian Mob. It may be the case that you’re more familiar with the Birmingham Boys or the Leeds Crowd. Gangs like these targeted bookies, threatening them for money. Bookmakers, in turn, recruited protection from the gangs. Frenzied attacks occurred the tracks, with weapons of all kinds brandished. Punters would also suffer bullying. This saw them forced into buying worthless raffle tickets by the gangs. Epsom and Ascot were, at the time, considered as the worst tracks for lawlessness.
The Metropolitan Police set up the Flying Squad to combat these gangs. They turned their attention to the racetracks of the country. Feelings boiled over at a race meeting at Alexandra Park. There, a battle between the Italian Mob and Birmingham Boys broke out. Both sides received terrible injuries and shots were also fired.
Yet matters came to a head in 1921 on the first day of the Derby. The Birmingham Boys decided to teach The Italian Mob a lesson. To do so, they hired a charabanc. While they went to the Derby hoping to meet with The Italian Mob, they ceased. The Flying Squad was already in attendance. Instead, they left the meeting early and near Ewell in Surrey, they parked the charabanc behind bushes. They hoped to spring an attack on the Italians and leapt out at two cars. Armed with axes, house-bricks and hammers, they smashed the cars to pieces. They then pulled the occupants out, breaking their arms and slashing their heads open. Unfortunately, it turned out to be members of The Leeds Crowd.
This kind of gang warfare existed for many years at racecourses. So often it would interfere with ongoing racing events, much to the chagrin of those attending. Much of this era’s gang warfare now plays out on television’s Peaky Blinders series. Doubtless, this type of activity also led to bookmaking becoming a legal activity in the UK.