Horse racing, much to the chagrin of the vast majority of us within the sport and nearly all punters, has always had its minority of cheats.
We’re taking a look at some famous examples, as well as what to look out for in future.
Former Durham-based trainer Howard Johnson was once heading right towards the top of National Hunt racing.
At one point in time, he was winning Cheltenham Festival races and Grade 1’s, partly due to his partnership with prominent owner Graham Wylie.
He was banned for four years however in 2011 after being found to be in breach of welfare rules.
Three years of this ban were in relation to the trainer racing a horse eight times after it had gone through a de-nerving operation.
That operation left the horse with less sensation in the lower limbs, meaning it couldn’t feel as much pain, which meant of course that the horse would not stop or look after itself naturally when gaining a strain or an injury.
Another year was added for administering steroids to horses.
Though the ban was for four years, Johnson has not been back to the training ranks since.
Northern Ireland-based Ronan McNally was given a 12-year ban in 2023, as well as a £44,000 fine.
McNally was found to be stopping horses from performing to their best ability in order to be given lowly handicap marks for future races.
When they did enter handicaps, they were found to have been heavily backed by McNally’s associates.
It was said that McNally used racecourses as ‘schooling grounds’, his horses not running always on their merits.
On many occasions, his horses were given lenient handicap marks and then showed huge improvement in a short space of time to be able to win.
The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board imposed his punishment.
Despite always claiming innocence, still holding a licence and still being the top dog in California, American Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert has had a chequered recent past.
More than 30 horses trained by Baffert have failed drugs tests in the past. He has paid in excess of $20,000 in fines for this. Always, Baffert challenges his sanctions often legally, agreeing to fines as long as he avoids suspensions.
The biggest problem authorities have is that medication phenylbutazone is often found to be administered, but often Baffert claims this is false or has been administered by mistake and doesn’t affect performance.
After winning the 2021 Kentucky Derby, Baffert’s Medina Spirit tested for 21pg/ml of betamethasone and was later disqualified from the race. This was found to be Baffert’s fifth known violation in a little over a year.
Despite some rather comical press conferences and a major protesting of his innocence, Baffert was banned by Kentucky and couldn’t take part in the Derby. The most annoying thing for many is the doubling-down of support for him by successful owners. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise, though.
Back in 1974, Irish millionaire horse racing enthusiast Tony Murphy attempted the old switcheroo.
An unknown horse, referred to by Murphy as Gay Future, was sent to be trained in Britain by Antony Collins. Really, he was just similar in looks to the real Gay Future.
As the unknown horse really didn’t show a lot of ability, his odds were pretty big when he went sent for a race at Carmel in August of that year. Just before the race however, the real Gay Future was sent from Ireland to be swapped with the unknown horse.
So as not to alert the bookies, Murphy entered two other horses trained by Collins with no intentions at all to run them.
When the race came, Murphy’s two ‘other’ horses were pulled out leaving Gay Future to race alone on the card, at the same time as some other major races which took the attention away from what was happening.
To stop others backing Gay Future and wrecking the price, his legs were covered with soap which made him look as though he was sweating up.
It goes without saying that Gay Future won, but the coup failed when a newspaper reporter learned that the other two horses in question hadn’t even travelled to the track. Both Collins and Murphy were convicted of fraud, though neither in the end went to prison.
In the 1980’s, bloodstock agent John Gillespie bought pretty unsuccessful Australian horse Fine Cotton. The agent also purchased Dashing Solitaire, a better horse who closely resembled Fine Cotton.
The simple if devious plan was to run Dashing Solitaire instead of Fine Cotton in August, 1984, and cop the prize.
The plan failed however when Dashing Solitaire got injured, in a kangaroo-related incident no less, leaving him unable to run.
Gillespie didn’t want to admit defeat though.
Instead, he and his associates decided to run Bold Personality instead, whose colours were nothing like Fine Cotton’s.
To rectify this, Gillespie and his mates used hair dye but that turned the horse orange. When the dye was washed off, spray paint was used next to match up their talented horse with Fine Cotton’s markings.
Of course, Bold Personality ran and won, but paint then dripped down the horse’s legs leaving Gillespie and the trainer heading off to jail.
Jason Servis et al.
Many watchers of American racing remember feeling so bad for trainer Jason Servis.
His Maximum Security had just landed the Kentucky Derby before a stewards’ enquiry was called.
After a long wait, his horse was demoted for interference in what was seen by many as a very harsh decision.
Sympathy waned however when in March 2020, federal prosecutors in the States indicted 27 trainers, drug distributors and vets including Servis.
Those involved were alleged to have used drugs which were designed to secretly and dangerously enhance the racing performance of horses beyond their natural ability.
This, prosecutors said, was a dishonest practice that placed the lives of the affected animals at risk.
As part of this, Servis had his licence removed and faced charges, a vet was known to have distributed cobra venom as a painkiller and Jorge Navarro, trainer of top-level winner X Y Jet, was also indicted.
Is Cheating Still Going On?
These major cases are thankfully very rare indeed. The bigger the cheat and conspiracy, the more likely it is that those involved will be caught and dealt with swiftly.
What is likely to happen is that small advantages are sought in racing, probably very regularly.
We have the ‘non-triers rule’, meaning if it is deemed that a trainer is schooling a horse in public or a jockey is not trying his or her best to attain the best possible placing, action can be taken.
What many trainers and jockeys don’t bank on is the fact that, while those commentating on television must be very careful regarding their comments, people watching at home don’t miss much either and they do tend to say something.
Many times there are horses running at lower levels which appear not to have been ridden competently or to achieve the best placing. To spot these, watch race replays or look out for the word “eyecatcher” in race comments.
The word “eyecatcher” can be used genuinely, i.e., when a horse has been unlucky in running or finished like a train, but often racing papers use such phrases to subtly say that the horse could and should have finished much closer, if not won, so watch out for it next time in a more valuable race.
This sort of thing may muddy the waters a little given the new whip rules coming into force in Britain in 2023.
If a jockey is asked about a potential non-trier, couldn’t they simply say that they couldn’t strike the horse any more times or with any more vigour? It will at least make it a little harder for authorities to spot such tactics.
One more thing to look out for is horses owned by certain syndicates, especially if you’re thinking of joining one.
Often, too many shares in a horse are sold. The horse may bring in six figures for the syndicate, with each member getting pennies as their share even when the horse wins.
What they do to make this better is basically organise a gamble and then tell members when the horse is ready to win. Look out for syndicate-owned horses being heavily backed the day before a race.