Irish racing needs to look deep into its cheating heart
THE small kid smiled as he chalked his cue and spent the next few minutes dashing around the pool table, making the balls disappear like a young Alex Higgins on speed. In between shots he talked about his own hard upbringing on the streets of Belfast city and of his utter determination that, whatever the future held, he wasn't going back to hang around street corners for the rest of his life.
It was the autumn of 1998. Among that year's intake of ambitious inductees at the apprentice school in RACE, Co Kildare, something about Brian Reilly stood out. Although Higgins himself had once tried, Sandy Row hadn't produced many jockeys. Reilly didn't mind the odds. He had grown up through the Troubles, seen bad things, met bad people. He would make it as a jockey, he insisted, because he had no choice.
And, to his credit, he did. Like many before him he served his time in Ireland before moving across the water. He rode his first winner in 2001 and each year brought solid progress: 18 winners in 2002, then 21, then 27 and, in his best year in 2005, 31. Then it came crashing down. In December 2006, Reilly was found guilty of not trying in a race at Wolverhampton a year earlier and banned for 18 months.
Sadly, the kid who had escaped the rough streets of Belfast had fallen in with another set of unwholesome characters. Along with a colleague, Dean Williams, he was found to have passed information to a bookmaker, Owen Churchill, who was laying horses ridden by both jockeys to lose in such unusually large amounts that alarm bells rang out in Betfair's offices and the racing authorities were alerted.
It wasn't difficult to feel sympathy for Reilly's plight. During the hearing his legal team painted a picture of a young, innocent jockey targeted and corrupted by an older man and the disciplinary panel accepted the portrayal. So instead of the minimum two-year suspension stipulated for his offence, they suspended him for 18 months and, for his greed and stupidity, Reilly was fortunate to escape so lightly.
Yet the damage to his career was severe. Since he completed his suspension the records show that Reilly has had just three rides in England, all for the Newmarket trainer Phil McEntee. In 2007, McEntee had his training licence removed for 12 months after being found guilty of passing information for reward. When you are seeking to restore your reputation, you might argue, that isn't the type of company you want to keep.
In racing's deep pond, of course, Reilly was a small fish. And when it comes to corruption, as in all sports, that fact invariably clouds the moral context. People see the names of those who have fallen foul of the disciplinary authorities and conclude that only those at the bottom of the pile get done: the likes of Reilly, Robbie Fitzpatrick, Luke Fletcher, Fran Ferris. Names that trip off the tongue of only the most fervent racing devotees.
And to that list have been added the previously obscure names of Eamon Tyrell and Jason Behan who both received three-year bans from the British Horseracing Authority last Tuesday for deliberately stopping a horse, Casela Park, in a race at Newcastle two months ago. Tyrell, Casela Park's trainer, is vigorously protesting the severity of the punishment and plans to seek a judicial review in the British courts.
In the two weeks since the BHA determined their guilt, sympathy for Tyrell and Behan hasn't been in short supply. While the case against them was clear-cut and damning, the notion of two more small fish being fried rested uneasily with many. Tyrell spoke emotionally of the dire consequences for his livelihood while the fact that neither trainer nor jockey had been able to afford legal representation at their hearing embellished their perceived status as victims.
More than anything, the case offers us a window into the conflicting attitudes towards corruption on both sides of the Irish Sea. The feeling that Casela Park's connections were merely guilty of getting caught at something every racing stable tries at one stage or another is clearly more prevalent this side of the pond. As they made their journey from Ireland, it's very likely that neither Tyrell nor Behan seriously considered the likely repercussions if their plot went astray.
Not everybody in Britain is a fan of how the racing authorities conduct their business of exposing corruption, but it is undeniable that the will to tackle it exists. Nor is it true that they only target the weak and stupid. Graham Bradley was a former Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle winner when he was warned off for eight years in 2002. The Dublin-born Robert Winston was spoken of as a future champion jockey when he was banned for a year after being found guilty of passing information for reward in 2007.
For Casela Park's jockey and trainer, the timing couldn't have been worse. When Fergal Lynch was granted a plea bargain last year, accepting a £50,000 fine and an agreement not to renew his licence for 12 months, after admitting stopping a horse at Ripon in 2004, the leniency of the sentence was widely condemned. Subsequently, the BHA acknowledged that penalties for corruption needed to be more severe. Tyrell and Behan are among the first victims of that resolve.
Was it the case that, steeped in the much more tolerant culture of Irish racing, they simply didn't see the risks involved? Ask the average British racegoer about Irish racing and it is fair bet that he will have a dim view of its integrity. Rightly or wrongly, Irish racing is seen as a by-word for corruption and, at a time when government money is receding and the sport desperately needs to attract a new audience, its negative image is a severe handicap.
It is impossible, of course, to quantify the level of corruption that exists in Irish racing, but if you accept the proposition that it is at least equal, if not greater, than its British counterpart, then it is reasonable to ask why there have been comparably so few corruption cases and such light penalties dished out. Are the cheats that much more subtle and harder to catch here? Are the tools to expose them that much less sophisticated? Does the stomach exist to fight them? Punters are entitled to ask these questions.
When John O'Gorman was found guilty of laying horses trained by his employer, Charles Byrnes, last January, it was seen as a landmark case in Ireland and an opportunity for a significant punishment to be applied as a deterrent to others. In the Turf Club's own words, O'Gorman's actions had "seriously damaged the integrity of racing." Yet they only saw fit to serve him with a four-month suspension, a decision that was met with incredulity in the racing press.
In the ongoing banking crisis it has often been argued that a soft regulatory system made it so much easier for cheats to prosper. So it is in racing. It is a common feature at Irish race meetings for trainers to be charged with "using the racecourse as a training ground." In most cases a small fine is administered and a short ban arises for both horse and jockey. Compared to the fate met by Tyrell and Behan, it amounts to little more than wrist-slapping.
In the end, the ordinary punter -- whose cash is so vital to the sport -- is left in a quandary. He is entitled to ask what difference in principle there is between O'Gorman laying his own stable horses to lose on Betfair and what Reilly and others did when passing information to third parties. Or the difference between a trainer "using the racecourse as a training ground" and what Tyrell and Behan did when Casela Park was stopped at Newcastle.
And until Irish racing starts asking itself hard questions like these the feeling will persist that the only crime Tyrell and Behan committed was in trying to execute their corrupt scheme in the wrong jurisdiction.
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