There’s an old axiom, which claims that behind every great fortune lurks a great crime. Taking this insight into consideration, it is therefore not surprising to discover that the so called Sport of Kings, sponsored for thousands of years by the world’s richest men, has occasionally been revealed as the world’s most corrupt sport.
There is no better example of the tactics that can be used to perpetrate fraud in horseracing, and how these can go terribly wrong, than the infamous Fine Cotton affair that rocked Australian thoroughbred racing in the 1980s. The story is not only notable for the audacity of the plot, but also for the fact that some of the best-known personalities in Australian racing were accomplices to the scam.
The protagonist of the most infamous scandal in Australian racing history was an 8-year old brown gelding of mediocre ability. Fine Cotton found himself embroiled in the scheme by virtue of being a frequent, and unsuccessful, participant in restricted races, or races for horses that have virtually no chance of winning in any other category of race they could compete in.
Fine Cotton was so inept that he drew the attention of bloodstock agent John Gillespie, who had hatched a cunning plot to substitute a mediocre racehorse with one that was physically identical, but of superior ability, in a race. Gillespie soon located a suitable body double for Fine Cotton, and prepared to make the switch on race day.
Unfortunately for Gillespie, the wheels began to fall off his plot at this point, as Fine Cotton’s stand-in was injured just before the race. Unwilling to give up on his devious scheme, Gillespie decided to purchase another racehorse for the purpose of substitution, and promptly acquired one Bold Personality.
There was only one problem. In his haste to acquire a stand in, Gillespie had failed to take into account the fact that whilst Bold Personality was a decent racehorse, he bore little physical resemblance to Fine Cotton. Having realised his mistake, Gillespie attempted to rectify the situation with some hair dye and a pot of white paint!
Dumb and Dumber
Having given Bold Performance a new hairdo and custom painted white hocks, Gillespie moved ahead with his scheme and entered ‘Fine Cotton’ in a race at Eagle Farm on August 18 at odds of 33-1. Gillespie then moved onto the next stage of his plan, as he and his associates started betting on Fine Cotton at tabs around Australia.
Unfortunately, they overdid their investment in the betting markets, placing so much money on Fine Cotton that they managed to shorten his odds from 33-1 to 7-2. The only way the conspirators could have made the fact that something peculiar was going on more obvious would have been to strap a jet engine to their entry’s back.
Caught White Hocked
Having watched Fine Cotton evolve from rank outsider to short odds favourite within the space of days, race stewards were well aware that something strange was about to transpire on the day of the race. They weren’t to be disappointed.
With investigations already underway, Bold Personality, in the guise of Fine Cotton, fulfilled his brief and won his race, generating a potential $1.5 million payout for Gillespie and his accomplices. Gillespie never saw a cent of the money.
As ‘Fine Cotton’ was led to the winners paddock the paint on his legs began to run. A number of spectators noticed this and quickly brought this to the attention of race stewards, who immediately summoned Fine Cotton’s trainer, Hayden Haitana, for questioning.
Haitana promptly fled the racecourse and was pursued to South Australia, where he was taken into custody and the details of the plot began to emerge. While stewards had already uncovered the machinations of the scam, it was the names of those involved which attracted the interest of the Australian Press.
Implicated in the affair were prominent Sydney bookmakers Bill Waterhouse and his son Robbie, well known businessman Robert North, Catholic Priest Edward O’Dwyer and sales agent John Dixon. All the accused were presented with bans from horse racing, whilst Gillespie and Haitana were rewarded for their ingenuity with jail sentences.
Fortunately the story had a happy ending for the protagonist, who was allowed to retire from his racing career and take up the pastoral life at a smallholding on the outskirts of Brisbane.
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