By Tony Stafford
As I mentioned last week, I have been quite significantly moved by reading Jamie Reid’s book Doped, £9.99 in paperback from Racing Post books. There, that’s the traditional book review opening. It matters who publishes your book. When I did a couple of books for Collins Willow, a few years apart, I got loads of reviews for the first one, the Little Black Racing Book and hardly any for the second, which unwisely (not my idea) had the Daily Telegraph in its title.
Competitors find it tough to give a mention. In the very old days at the Greyhound Express, the editor was so touchy on that score that an event sponsored by the Evening Standard, who threw quite a bit of cash at it, appeared in our columns as the ES Cup.
I’m sure if there was still a Sporting Life or Sporting Chronicle, and even the Sportsman, they might have balked at praising Jamie Reid’s book, but they’ve gone and so are the times that the book covers.
In those days every trainer, and pretty much all but the most geriatric of owners, simply went racing every time they had a runner. It was in that climate that the prime doper, well-known bookmaker Bill Roper, aided by his Swiss-born girlfriend, the glamorous Micheline Lugeon, set up the far-reaching plan to dope horses.
All the action in the book was from the decade around 1960, so from 1955-65. It also coincides with the period of my life when I had the good fortune to watch football matches at Highbury, cricket at the Oval and racing all over the place with my dad.
One of the most notorious of the doping episodes was the nobbling of 2,000 Guineas favourite Pinturischio, whose winning debut in the Wood Ditton Stakes was one of the times we’d gone racing on the Fallowfield and Britten coach from Clapton Pond.
In those days, it took a couple of hours at least, not counting the half-way stop. So many of the elements of those days are riveted into my memory, and reading dad’s Daily Express on the way up and thereby thinking I knew more about it than him is one of them! So, too, is the slightly uncomfortable recollection that on one notable occasion, the ill-aiming occupant of the next spot in front of the wall in the pub’s toilet was the famed “tipster” Raj “Prince” Monolulu.
Tipsters were at the bottom level of racing’s fraudsters in those innocent days. They’d stand outside the horse and dog tracks with their envelopes containing, as they claimed “a sure winner”. Others pressed the day’s official racecard, with a whispered “there’s a cert in there” and claiming their half a crown (12.5p) which few novice racegoers had the will to refuse.
As Jamie relates, the immediate post-War era, with its strict rationing and very limited public entertainment was vastly different from today. There was football in the winter, speedway, dog and horse racing and consequent massive attendances at all, but few people had cars, even fewer television, while the black market brought massive riches to a “hidden” stratum of society.
Much of that money found its way to the racecourses, especially as off-course cash betting did not begin until the early 1960’s. If you were a toff, you’d have your telephone accounts. Again in 1955 few ordinary people had a telephone, although my mate Roger’s family - his father was a Nuneaton bookmaker - was on a party line.
They had a near neighbour, Billy Breen, better known by his stage name Larry Grayson of “shut that door” fame. Roger tells me his mum used to pick the phone up, and as was the case in those days, would hear the extremely camp Larry on the line. Shamelessly, she’d listen to Billy’s rather fruity conversations. One day years later, Roger asked Billy if he knew his mum listened in. He replied: “Yes, and when she was listening, I made sure I’d spice it up a bit for her”.
The better-off punters would have credit accounts and get on that way, but for those without a phone, the only recourse was the street bookmaker, with whom you’d bet one day, and collect the next – that is if he didn’t disappear for a few days!
For the most part these street bookies were allowed to ply their trade unmolested by the police, but they would step in maybe once every few months for a routine sweep of the local areas, resulting in a desultory fine for the “criminal” and a betting-free day or two for his clients.
I don’t think my dad used street bookies, but I do recall his sending postal order bets off by post to Guntrips. As long as they were postmarked timed earlier than the race, they were honoured.
It was in that context that the people behind the doping were working. As I said earlier, trainers invariably went to see their horses run. The dopers knew this, and the glamorous Swiss lady, posing as a rich, racehorse-owning Frenchwoman, would be driven by chauffeur, often Roper, a big wheel in bookmaking, to major stables when the boss was away.
She’d say she was in the area and was anxious to send her horses from France to England to be trained and had heard “good things” about this particular yard. One of the most prestigious was Peter Cazalet’s Fairlawne estate in Kent, which housed the Queen Mother’s horses and is now owned by Khalid Abdullah. That was one of the first ports of call.
The idea was for her to entrance the generally-naïve stable staff whose only experience of glamour might be in the pages of Tit Bits (not as racy as it sounds). She would ask to see the horse, primed beforehand by Roper to get the exact location in the stable blocks of certain future big-race contenders. Show her the horse they usually did.
With that information in place, then Roper’s dopers, often disaffected stable lads, would be deployed to go over the wall in the night and apply the drugs to the specific horse, usually the day before the big race. Sometimes the doping would be overdone and the horse would be so drunk when the trainer saw him in the morning, that he would withdraw him, and no profit could be made.
Doped cleverly introduces the main participants, drawing a clear link between Roper, who knew all the major owners of the time – indeed he physically transacted the commissions for many of them – and Maxie Parker, owner of the expanding Ladbrokes firm.
Roper worked closely with and for Parker for years before the doping idea developed, and when Parker was easing out of the limelight, his nephew Cyril Stein took over the running of the firm. Jamie Reid could hardly be more obvious in branding Parker a leading beneficiary of the proceeds from the doped horses – he among others “was always in the know when one was no good” and indeed singling out Ladbrokes from the other main bookmakers of the time. Parker was never prosecuted, but others were and were jailed, but generally for short terms.
I’m not on commission, but I do say, buy (or borrow) this book. There’s so much more to read, and the way the net draws in on Roper has you almost willing him to get away with it. But that, too, is the magic of racing. Someone nowadays has a coup, everyone soon knows via the electronic information grapevine, but afterwards you still smile and say “well done”, if grudgingly. As I told Jamie in an e-mail after I read it, this is a book I wish I’d had the perseverance and skill to write.