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Sunday, 05 July 2015

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REMEMBER WHEN: The Cartmel conspiracy gripped racing

CARTMEL racecourse packs the crowds in at its Bank Holiday meetings. Its stature in the National Hunt world is steadily rising, writes BOB HERBERT.

But in August 1974 it hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons because of a racehorse named Gay Future.

Gay Future was bought for £5,000 by millionaire Cork businessman Tony Murphy – a flamboyant and affable racing lover who drove a gold Rolls Royce and had a liking for fine cigars – and sent to be trained by Tipperary-based trainer Edward O’Grady.

The pair were involved with a colourful cast of characters known as the Cork Mafia, who included a Garda, a director of Cork Celtic FC and a farmer who would later introduce the Burger King franchise to Ireland, and Gay Future was ferried to Scotland to be under the auspices of stockbroker and part-time horse trainer Tony Collins.

Only the real horse wasn’t sent at all. Instead, a lookalike horse was sent to Collins’ Ayrshire yard. The same chestnut colour, the same features, the same air and poise.

But where Gay Future had shown some promise and speed, this horse was useless beyond belief. It performed poorly, looked in bad condition and was generally seen by experts, punters, and bookies alike, as a no-hoper.

All the while the real Gay Future was in Tipperary being trained by O’Grady and jumping like a stag.

So when “Gay Future” was entered into a hurdle race at Cartmel, it had shown no form and was listed as being ridden by an unknown amateur jockey.

Of course the team had smuggled the real Gay Future across the water and at Cartmel he was ready to beat whatever was put in front of him. Only real Irish fans who closely followed racing would have recognised the listed jockey, “Mr T A Jones” in all form guides, was really Timmy Jones, the top amateur rider in Ireland!

Money began to go down on the horse in shops in Cork and London, where alone more than £30,000 was bet on the horse in small amounts and much of the heavy off-course betting was reserved for doubles involving Gay Future winning, along with one of his two stable mates – Opera Cloak and Ankerwyke – who were running at other courses around the UK the same day.

Bookies saw nothing strange and thought that it was free money from foolish Irish gamblers and so the odds remained high.

But Opera Cloak and Ankerwyke were pulled out of their races, so the doubles bets became a single and a lot of money was riding on Gay Future.

In those days Cartmel had no real communication network to hear of the madness going on beyond the course as hundreds of bets were piled on Gay Future. Without a “blower” to sound the alarm to bookies on the track, the odds at the course for a Gay Future victory remained quite high.

Gay Future was eventually sent off at 10/1, soap flakes having been rubbed into the legs of Gay Future before the off to make punters and bookies think he was sweating and would under-perform.

The horse romped home by 15 lengths and Murphy and his friends would have netted about £3m in today’s money if bookmakers had not spotted the unusual betting patterns.

In fact the huge number of Irish bets that were placed led Special Branch in Britain to think it was part of an IRA plot.

Bookmakers refused to pay out, pending an enquiry, and disaster struck for the syndicate when a journalist phoned up the Collins stables enquiring about the two withdrawn horses, which were said to have been in horse boxes that broke down on their way to the courses where they were due to run.

An unsuspecting stable hand answered the phone and told him that “they’d been grazing outside all day”.

Collins hadn’t even sent the horses out of the yard. The game was up.

The inquiry should have been handled by the Jockey Club, but it ended up in court.

At the trial in Preston, the judge, Mr Justice Caulfield, was unable to hide his admiration for both men. Obviously a racing man, he ruthlessly cut through the prosecution case.

He was struck by the irony of the bookies’ objection to the Gay Future team who, they complained, conspired to keep the odds high.

Justice Caulfield continually interrupted the prosecuting barrister and on one occasion said: “If you go to Cartmel and place a bet for £1,000, and the price is 10/1 on the board, you are not expecting the bookie to smile and leave his board at 10/1.”

In his summing up, the judge virtually ordered the jury to acquit – but they were difficult times because the IRA bombing campaign was at its height and there was a lot of anti-Irish feeling.

Much to Caulfield’s annoyance, the jury returned a ‘guilty’ verdict of conspiracy to defraud the bookmakers. The penalty he imposed was minimal, with Murphy and Collins each fined £1,000.

They were each banned from British racecourses for 10 years.

Such is racing’s love of a character like Tony Murphy that he became a national hero in Ireland and a film called Murphy’s Stroke, starring Pierce Brosnan and Nial Tobin, was made about the scam.

Ginger McCain, responsible for Grand National hero Red Rum’s victories, trained the favourite beaten by Gay Future.

Ginger’s wife Beryl recalled later: “I remember when the jockey came past the winning post he stuck his hand up in the air and looked like he’d won a Grand National. Little did we know he more or less had!”

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