It would be naïve in the extreme to suggest that the Sport of Kings is purer than the driven snow. Over the last few decades, there have been numerous scandals involving trainers, owners, jockeys, and bookmakers. One of the most notorious instances of alleged race fixing involved six-time Champion Jockey, Kieran Fallon. He was arrested in September 2004 on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud Betfair customers. His fellow jockeys, Darren Williams and Fergal Lynch were also charged.
A blacksmith named Steve O’Sullivan and trainer Alan Berry were charged with conspiracy to defraud by entering a lame filly in a race at Carlisle in June 2003. It was alleged that they placed lay bets on the horse to lose. Fallon’s race-fixing charge began on October 8, 2007 at the Old Bailey but on December 7, Fallon and his co-defendants were found Not Guilty due to lack of evidence. While his name was cleared, the whole sordid affair casts a shadow on the image of horse racing. In this piece, I will look at the likelihood of corruption in horse racing while also showing you how to spot the signs, if there are any.
Is Race-Fixing Real?
According to the Financial Times, an estimated £10 billion a year is wagered on horse racing in the UK although the figure is probably even higher. With such an immense amount of money involved, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility of corruption. That said, it is much more difficult to ‘fix’ a race outright in the modern era. A more likely scenario is the exchange of inside information where it becomes known that some owners are trying to win the race while for others, it is nothing more than a ‘run out’.
In theory, online betting exchanges have made race-fixing easier. In the ‘old days’, it was only possible to bet on a horse to win or else you could bet each-way. With exchanges, it is possible to both ‘back’ and ‘lay’ horses which means that you could ‘fix’ a race by laying a horse that you know has no hope of winning. This was the charge levelled at Berry and O’Sullivan although both men were acquitted in 2008.
However, there is also a much clearer trail to people who profit from suspicious betting patterns. In recent years, regulators have cracked down on dubious behaviour in horse racing and proven corruption is incredibly rare. This combination suggests that race-fixing is far less prevalent than conspiracy theorists would want you to believe.
How Could Someone Fix a Race?
With great difficulty! Things are very different today when compared to the past. For example, the remarkable events of the 1844 Derby could never happen today. A horse named Running Rein won the race but gossip in the paddock raised strong suspicions about the horse. It turned out that the winner was a 4-year old called Gladiator in a race for 3-year olds!
At Bath racecourse in 1953, five men were involved in replacing a horse named Francasal with a superior horse called Santa Amoro and backed him at 10/1. The fraudsters made over £1 million in profit and while off-course bookies suspected foul play beforehand, they were unable to contact on-course bookies because the sole phone line to the course had been cut!
The wide world of online betting, plus the enormous coverage that racing gets, means such scams are impossible today. One theory is that there are races with say, 10 horses, but only 3-4 are trying to win. This is technically not racing fixing as a few horses are trying to win but the key is to learn the horses with a chance and discard the ones only there for a runout.
The problem is this: Horses are unpredictable by nature and since race-fixing tends to revolve around one runner, it isn’t difficult for stewards to identify any horse that starts slowly and isn’t being ridden honestly throughout the race. Those who fail to understand the nuances of racing may be suspicious because a jockey held a horse back without realising the reason for it.
Suspicious Betting Patterns
Unless you’re privy to inside information, the best way for a punter to suspect race-fixing is to identify strange betting patterns. For example, if a horse started the day as an odds-on favourite but drifted alarmingly in the betting, and was at significantly longer odds by race time, and the horse in question failed miserably.
In February 2018, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) investigated two such cases at the Dublin Racing Festival. Melon was 3.6 on the exchange but 90 seconds before the Irish Champion Hurdle, his odds rocketed to 6.2 and he was 5.9 by the start of the race. Melon finished fifth, some 12 lengths behind the winner Supasundae. Yorkhill was the odds-on favourite to win the Dublin Chase but his price on Betfair went out to 3.5 only minutes before the race and he finished sixth, a whopping 80 lengths behind the new favourite Min.
To the untrained eye, this could seem suspicious but it’s possible that someone got inside information and acted on the exchange; a large sum of money on lay bets would cause the price to drift. You can see how much money is wagered in total as well as the amount available to bet on each set of odds.
In theory, if Bigmartre’s odds tumbled to 4.4 before the race, and went on to win easily, questions may be asked. In reality though, if there is still some element of race-fixing in UK and Irish racing, it will take place in Class 5 and Class 6 events as there is less focus on such races. No one will get away with fixing a race at Cheltenham with the eyes of the world watching.
Here’s another example of a suspicious bet from May 12, 2010 at Uttoxeter. Jason Parfitt placed a total of £14,001 in lay bets on a horse named Soccerjackpot to win a little over £2,000. The total lay bets placed by Parfitt made up 80% of the market opposition to the horse on Betfair. Parfitt was willing to lay the horse to place at odds of 12.66 even though its win price was 18.5.
According to investigators, these actions showed that Parfitt was willing to lay the horse irrespective of the price. It turned out that he was in regular contact with the horse’s owner, John Spence, who had been informed by trainer Alan Jones, that Soccerjackpot had bled in training. Jones was not confident of a good performance. Parfitt was banned for two years and Spence for six months. They were also convicted of odd betting patterns on a horse called Norisan two months previously.
Should I Be Worried About Race Fixing?
Although there are always people looking to make money from inside information such as in the case of Parfitt, the chances of them getting away with it are slim. Licensed individuals are no longer allowed to lay their horses. If there is any dodgy activity, it will almost certainly show up in the exchanges. The British Horseracing Authority’s (BHA) Integrity Unit (IU) use high-tech equipment to track the movements of bettors. The IU also has a network of informers ready to give up the names of people involved in suspicious betting activities.
The IU even has a list of individuals that they track although only a handful are considered a threat to racing’s integrity. The unit has sophisticated analytical software which picks up any irregular patterns, and flagged accounts get special attention. Ultimately, the days of ‘fixing’ a race with a clear winner in mind are thankfully all but gone. Most dodgy betting patterns occur after someone receives inside information about a horse and acts on the exchange, and it is usually a lay bet. In other cases, it is a question of knowing which horses are there for a runout and which ones have a real chance of victory.