You may well have heard the term “ringer” many times before in your life.
The expression refers generally to an illicit swap. Ringers are swapped in as a better version of whatever it is they are replacing in order to get a better result. Ringers can be pro athletes, or in this case better quality horses.
Using ringers in competition can be morally wrong, against a sport’s code or even illegal. In horse racing’s case, running one horse as another is most definitely against the law.
Human ringers are easier to throw into competition. An amateur athletics or running gathering for, let’s say a company or charity day, is easy to infiltrate. A competitor may well have been a former pro and will make mincemeat of their genuine amateur rivals.
In horse racing, the idea is to swap one horse for another, better one and run it under the name of the poorer horse. These days, owing to electronic chips and passports, horses are virtually impossible to swap but it has happened before.
The Famous Case of Flockton Grey
There have been a number of famous big-betting sensations over the years, some legitimate and some nefarious. Of the latter, Flockton Grey’s case was definitely one of the better known.
Flockton Grey was foaled in June 1980. A late foal, he was rather unremarkable and sold for 900 guineas as a foal and later to Ken Richardson for 1,700 guineas as a yearling. Richardson sent the gelding off to be trained in Yorkshire by Stephen Wiles.
Wiles had not trained a winner for some two years when he entered Flockton Grey into his first race in March, 1982 at Leicester. As a late foal, inexpensive and from seemingly an unsuccessful yard, he was 10/1 for his debut.
Something was afoot however. Wiles and Richardson had backed Flockton Grey to the tune of £20,000 with various bookmakers, hoping to avoid suspicion.
After this, they swapped Flockton Grey for a ringer, the three-year-old Good Hand. Using the weight-for-age scale, Good Hand would have had to carry some 47lbs more than the juveniles meaning at level weights he had a mammoth advantage. Almost too much, you’d say.
Because of this, Good Hand was far too strong and in fact won the maiden race by some 20 lengths. A closer race may have made it easier to keep the scam under wraps.
How They Were Found Out
These are the main reasons the Flockton Grey ringer scheme didn’t work out:
- Margin of Victory. Bookmakers refused to pay out after the ringer won the race by 20 lengths. A winner by that margin would have meant the horse potentially being the best juvenile ever seen on a racecourse.
- The Horse’s Teeth. Photographs were obtained showing the runner’s teeth, found to be too developed to be those of a two-year-old.
- Vet Reports. The racecourse vet noted that the winning horse had a noticeable scar on its foreleg. Flockton Grey was traced by investigators to Wiles’ yard and there was no scar in evidence.
- Not Involving the Jockey. Not that we want to see jockeys involved, but Kevin Darley had no knowledge of the scam and this did not hold the winning horse back to avoid suspicion. He let the horse stride out, leading to the 20-length win which aroused the initial suspicion.
In the end, owner Richardson was charged with conspiracy to defraud. He was convicted of that crime in June 1984 and was fined £20,000 and £25,000 costs. He was also handed a suspended prison sentence of nine months.
For his part, trainer Richardson was warned off by the Jockey Club for a huge 25 years.
Why Do People Attempt Ringers?
The simple answer is of course money.
In the past, professional punters could avoid detection for some time by the bookies by placing bets all around the country in smaller amounts.
Nowadays of course, it’s all electronic and the patterns would be picked up early.
Back in the analogue days, the odds would hold up and conspirators could organise a ringer scheme to get a stronger horse to win in place of the weaker horse at large odds.
There is also the question of picking up prize money, though this sort of scheme would even in those days almost always be attempted at lower levels meaning the potential betting winnings were the main motivation.
Are We Likely to See a Ringer in UK or Irish Racing Again?
Betting coups can, should and hopefully will continue.
A horse going really well at home and appearing likely to be better than his reputation on breeding would suggest presents a great betting opportunity.
If you owned such a horse, you would surely back it.
Will we likely ever see an owner and/or trainer deliberately running a ringer again? Thankfully, no.
Running ringers isn’t racing tradecraft. It isn’t ‘canny’ and it isn’t even remotely clever. It’s cheating.
Not only do these schemes cheat the bookies and the racing authorities, but they cheat the everyday punter too.
The amount of digital photography, social media, electronic chips and security checks around now make running ringers almost impossible, thankfully.
Some thoroughbreds have been given the wrong medication by mistake, which was the case with George Boughey in 2023 which meant his horse couldn’t run.
Other accidental ringers have slipped through the cracks, which has led to stronger racecourse checks when scanning horses in on arrival, but these have not been found to be deliberately iniquitous.