Welcome to the News desk.
|Hot horses, hard drugs and a soap powder plot
I have a feeling I may
not be the absolute best person in the world to comment on the television
coverage of the Derby, having seen none of it. Not a minute. I actually went to
the race, and in the excitement forgot to set my machine to record the BBC's
programme. Using my skill and judgment, however, and based on past form and
previous runnings, I think I can tell you how it went.
After a rhapsodic
title sequence including lots of slow-motion footage of fine, shiny
thoroughbred flanks in action, and possibly a little sepia clip of Lester
Piggott to stress the venerable nature of the race, the camera finds Clare
Balding out on the course, in a hat. She appears to be standing on her own, but
the camera pulls back to reveal Willie Carson standing next to her.
her customary brisk professionalism, Clare sets up the Frankie story, before
handing over to Rishi Persad - "Dishy Rishi", as the BBC website tells me he is
known "by his fans" - or Jake Humphrey, or some other handsome young blade
looking to graduate from children's television, who has the plum gig of
standing on the top deck of an open-top bus trying to get some sense out of
four chaps who have been drinking since 10.30am.
Back in the studio, the talk will be of horses and
trainers, which need not concern us too much, since if there is one area in
which a little knowledge is a dangerous thing it is horse racing. We will see
the animals being led around the paddock, and we will look for the ones that
are sweating up, because these will be the skittish, nervous ones, not worthy
of financial support. That is the one piece of racing lore every mug punter
knows, but here is something this particular MP was not aware of: if soap
powder is added to the horse's pre-race wash, it will appear to be sweating,
putting off potential backers, ensuring it starts at a more advantageous price
for those in the know.
I am sure that kind of thing does not go on
these days, but it made a cracking story on the two-part Channel 4 documentary,
Sport's Dirty Secrets, in which the word "Secrets" performed much the same
function as the words "garden fresh" on a tin of peas. There was little you
might call revelatory, but there were some interesting new interviews,
reminding us of half-forgotten sporting scandals of the past.
powder story went back to August bank holiday, 1974. The horse Gay Future was
running at Cartmel in the Lake District, heavily backed in betting shops - in
doubles and trebles, alongside guaranteed non-runners, to disguise the coup -
with the conspirators relying on the remoteness of the track and the difficulty
of communications in those pre-internet days to camouflage the smell of rat.
The soaped-up 10-1 shot duly "won, doing handstands," as Graham Sharpe, of
William Hill put it, and the scam was only rumbled because the non-runners -
the beards, if you like - had never even left their stables.
John McCririck rather astutely pointed out, we only know about the Gay Future
story because the scallywags - let us call them the Omo gang - were collared.
What about all the stings that never came to light? Those might have qualified
as secrets, but instead we had the well-rehearsed story of the Sheffield
Wednesday players who fell in with a back-street betting syndicate in 1962, and
sacrificed their careers for peanuts.
What I did not know was that
there were others involved in the scandal who traded immunity for cooperation
with the police, one of whom "went on to manage at the highest level". A name
would have been a real secret. The story still had the power and resonance,
though, forty-odd years after the event, to bring one of the Wednesday three,
Peter Swan, to tears.
Far less exercised by her part in sport's dark
past was Dr Birgit Heukrodt, a three-times swimming world champion and a
product of East German state plan 14.25. She breezed through the shocking story
of how children were made to go to the trainer's table, and finish a tea which,
unknown to them, was spiked with pharmaceuticals, storing up who knew what
health problems for them in the future. "The main damage to me has been the
sound of my voice," she said, and indeed if anyone is looking to re-make the
John Lee Hooker back catalogue, Dr Heukrodt is your man. Or woman.
no great surprise, drugs featured prominently in the sporting scandals
revisited. Few viewers, I suspect, will have reeled in disbelief on discovering
the Tour de France is a festival of pharmaceuticals. As James Richardson said:
"It's a system that's bent, yet it's the only system in town." Nor, I suspect,
will the story of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (Balco) have come as news
to many. There have been several newspaper pieces about the "nutrition centre"
in San Francisco, set up by the former rock musician Victor Conte, where
athletes were provided with the latest performance-enhancing drugs. One
interesting aspect of the story I was unaware of, though, was that Victor
played bass guitar in a very successful group called Tower of Power.
And yet it was another member of the group, the baritone sax man
Stephen Kupka, who was known as The Funky Doctor. Funny how things turn out.