At its best it's a beautiful thing, but horse racing has an undeniable dark side.
THE only thing that would have been worse for Victorian racing than Damien Oliver riding in the Melbourne Cup was if he had won it. There would have been a great image for the world - a jockey, who has admitted betting $10,000 on a horse he was riding against at Moonee Valley two years ago, collecting about $400,000 in prizemoney from Australian racing's showpiece event.
The message is clear enough anyway - anything goes. Once again Racing Victoria has buried its head in the sand, citing process as the reason for not clearing the mess up sooner. Not to mention the attempts by Victoria Racing Club's chief executive Dale Monteith to shoot the messenger by condemning the publication of Oliver's admission on the day of the Cup.
No wonder racing is under such a cloud. It seems remarkably similar to the state of denial maintained by cycling authorities until the full horror of the Lance Armstrong debacle finally unfolded. How different would that have been if the matter had been addressed early?
The tragedy is that thoroughbred racing at its finest can be a beautiful thing. Oliver was the poster boy for the Melbourne Cup after winning on Media Puzzle in 2002, just days after his jockey brother Jason died in a fall. The photograph of him saluting the heavens after crossing the line is iconic.
Now he is responsible for helping to drag its reputation through the mud on the very day he provided it with a story so beautiful they turned it into a movie. But he is a long way from being the only one in a dirty industry that is plagued by cheating, doping, fixing and money laundering.
Back in the mid-1990s racing was hit by what became known as the Jockey Tapes scandal. Australian Federal Police were covertly taping a suspected drug dealer called Victor Spink. What they also picked up was a lot of calls between Spink and several high-profile jockeys.
In one taped call Spink tells a leading jockey he will give him $20,000 from his winnings to split between four crooked jockeys. "It may as well be in your pocket than all those other pockets, or even the bookies' pockets," said Spink.
"Exactly," replied the jockey, Jim Cassidy. That would be the same Jim Cassidy who was also riding in the Melbourne Cup on Tuesday.
Cassidy bounced back from a three-year ban following that scandal to resume his highly successful career. This week he rode Maluckyday into a lacklustre 19th place in the race that stops the nation. He, too, is under a cloud.
NSW Chief Steward Ray Murrihy has expressed frustration that he cannot access information held by police from a gangland figure turned police informer who claimed he hand-delivered cash from drug boss Tony Mokbel to Cassidy in return for tips. In 2008, Murrihy interviewed Cassidy about allegations he was on Mokbel's payroll and the jockey issued a straight denial. The Age has reported several times that several policing agencies have evidence to the contrary.
The fact that none of these policing bodies can get its act together and exchange information across jurisdictions and state borders is laughable. Victorian Racing Integrity Commissioner Sal Perna has sensibly called for racing authorities to be able to use police information. How much more embarrassment will be heaped on the industry before Victorian Racing Minister Denis Napthine decides to stop sitting on his hands?
The Smoking Aces allegations of race fixing at Cranbourne last year, which have embroiled riders Danny Nikolic, Mark Zahra and another as-yet-unnamed jockey, have only fuelled the suspicion held by many that racing is dirty. But nobody knows just how widespread the rot is.
Again, police tapes played a crucial role in bringing the allegations to light. Nikolic has received a two-year ban - not for anything to do with this, but over an altercation with stewards chairman Terry Bailey.
In Victoria, the stewards have been doing their best to show that they are keeping the industry honest. But what they have found in the past few days is far from reassuring. On Melbourne Cup day the two-man Compliance Assurance Team scaled the walls of a stables and claimed to have found equipment for stomach tubing a horse, which is illegal within 24 hours of a race.
Three other trainers are due to appear before stewards on Friday to be quizzed about allegedly illegal Spring Carnival race-day treatments. The image of racing is certainly taking a battering.
But this is a $14 billion a year industry that employs thousands of decent, hardworking and honest people. The problem is not just that race fixing happens, but why. And the answer to that lies firmly in the hands of the powerful few who hang on to the money.
On Tuesday, the nation rejoiced with jockey Brett Prebble after he stormed to victory on Green Moon. That's the image racing authorities want you to associate with the sport. But up and down the country on Tuesday hundreds of other jockeys were turning out to ride at smaller meetings for a lot less money. These are jockeys who get up in the early hours to do unpaid track work to earn the right to ride on race day. They drive long distances to ride often indifferent horses on poorly maintained tracks. When they do race they get paid a rider's fee - the colossal sum of $170. That's not much money for starving yourself to get down to the required weight and then taking control of a 500-kilogram animal at 65km/h.
The Australian Jockeys Association surveyed a typical race day at Randwick in Sydney. A total of 29 jockeys raced, nine rode winners to get 5 per cent of the prizemoney, 17 received the riders' fee and of those, nine jockeys rode just one race. Not looking quite so attractive now is it?
The AJA reports that 89 per cent of its members have had at least one fall requiring medical attention. At Edenhope in March 32-year-old jockey and mother of two Louise Cooper was expecting a minimum payday of about $500 for riding in three races. Instead she crashed horribly into the ground and was left paralysed from the chest down. Tragically, hers is not a unique story in an industry considered more dangerous than skydiving.
In March 2009, the AJA finally won its long campaign for jockeys to receive a 1 per cent share of prize money to pay insurance and for welfare programs for those, like Cooper, who are injured. It meant she received a $250,000 payout - better than before the agreement but still not a lot for the mother of a young family with a long future in a wheelchair ahead of her. Even when they are racing most jockeys are not doing that well. Owners and trainers have ended the old tradition of an extra "sling" of the prize money for the jockey. That would have only brought Australian jockeys' share of the winnings on par with other countries. An AJA survey found eight out of 10 jockeys were earning less than $60,000 a year and many had had weeks where they could not afford to pay food bills. Needless to say, most have not put money away for the future.
And this in an industry where a trainer can drop you from riding a horse without notice on a whim and where a ban leaves you with no source of income. That's what happened to Queensland jockey Keith "Magic" Mahoney in 2004.
Already appealing a five-week penalty for careless riding, the 42-year-old received another ban when his horse moved across the path of two others. He was now facing three months with no pay. They found his body inside his Honda Integra, with a tube running into the car from the exhaust pipe, two days later.
"I know of four jockeys in Victoria who committed suicide in the last 12 months," AJA chief executive Paul Innes told me when I was researching Fixed. So is it any wonder that they are tempted to have a punt even if it is against the rules? How difficult must it be to see so much money swirling around a race track and know that you cannot legitimately have a piece of it?
It is not just country jockeys who face an uncertain future. Hall of Fame jockey Darren Beadman, who won 94 group 1 races including the Melbourne Cup, announced his retirement after crashing to the ground in a barrier trial at Happy Valley in Hong Kong in February. The 47-year-old was struck by the hoof of the horse that followed him, leaving a 12-centimetre crack in his skull, which also saved his life.
"I knew in my heart that I wouldn't be riding again, when I was in hospital," Beadman said as he announced his retirement. "I'm really lucky to be alive."
Perhaps that mindset, living with the constant threat your next pay day could be your last, helps to explain why jockeys are tempted to take a punt. It certainly goes some way to explaining Oliver's ride in the Cup.
He had already been dumped from his ride on Luca Cumani's My Quest For Peace when he had been asked and unable to deny that he had placed the bet on Miss Octopussy at Moonee Valley in 2010. Now, staring down the barrel of a possible career-ending two-year ban, he had a ride on Americain and possibly his last chance at 5 per cent of that $6 million prize.
Many have been surprised that he escaped without charge after bumping other highly favoured horses out of the way to make room. As they turned for home he pulled Americain to the outside, pushing Mount Athos into Red Cadeaux, only to be defeated by the weight on the hard ground. Even so, he rode in nine of the 10 races on the day and with his rider's fee and share of winnings in other races Oliver still took home $6705. It looks like he will need it.
There can never be any justification for taking a payment to fix a race. But in an uncertain world where any ride and pay day may be your last and where everyone else seems to be making a lot of money while you take all the risks, it must be hugely tempting to place a bet or pull up a horse.
Yes, it is time for the racing authorities to get to grips with a national integrity body, but it is also time for those in the industry who control the purse strings to have a good hard look at the way they take care of their own. Because, at the moment, even the AJA's Innes cannot see a reason why jockeys should keep racing. Shaking his head, he said: "Really, you know, I don't know why they do it."
Matthew Benns is the author of Fixed: Cheating, Doping, Rape and Murder - The Inside Track on Australia's Racing Industry (Ebury Australia) $34.95