Without a doubt, horse racing is a sport full of fascinating stories, mostly positive, about equine heroes and the people behind them. Reading these gives the racing fan a lift, a sense that the sport is honestly run and can do no wrong, and in some cases can generate interest in potential new fans. "Ringers & Rascals", the new book by Racing Post turf-writer David Ashforth, gives the other side of the story.
It is unfortunate that, like any other sport, racing has its dishonest characters, those whose aim is to profit by cheating the other participants in the sport such as competing owners, trainers, and of course the bettors. Ashforth spent about ten years researching this very topic, with his travels taking him from his UK base to America and Australia in the search for more information to piece together a complete story. Ashforth focuses on "ringing", the act of replacing a bad horse with a good one who can win at long odds. Asked why he decided to pursue this topic, Ashforth said, "Skullduggery has always been a part of racing's rich tapestry, yet relatively little has been written about it. What motivated me was curiosity, wanting to know what really happened. Over many years I made many discoveries."
In the earlier chapters of the book, Ashforth focuses on Peter Christian Barrie, dubbed the "King of the Ringers", a character who had bettors, bookmakers, and officials fooled on both sides of the Atlantic. Barrie specialized in two things: coming up with new identities and disguises all the time which kept detectives off his trail and painting horses. Not painting on canvas, but actually painting the animals themselves to change markings and even changing chestnuts to bays and vice versa by use of henna dyes. He disguised good horses as bad ones so he and his mob connections could defraud bookmakers and other bettors out of millions of dollars. Horses opening as 50-1 outsiders went off as 2-1 favorites because of all the mob money flooding into the pools. When the British were on to his game, he fled to Canada, snuck across the border into the United States, and started his business anew, plying his trade at tracks across America, Canada, and even Mexico and Cuba. As if disguising horses was not enough, to further ensure success he used drugs either to enhance a horse's performance or to stifle it. Ashforth researched Barrie extensively, a job made more difficult by Barrie's many aliases.
After completing the Barrie story, Ashforth continues on to Barrie's contemporaries, including the Fine Cotton incident in Sydney, Australia, that led to the banishment of bookmaker Robbie Waterhouse and Forty Two, who had won a maiden race at Calder Race Course and replaced the unraced and much cheaper Almost Impossible, with thousands of dollars bet in Las Vegas on the ringer. Because of Barrie's antics, and those of many others, racing began to institute such measures as lip tattooing to improve racehorse identification. Unfortunately, lip tattooing was only introduced in North America while the British insisted such "drastic measures" would not be necessary. Despite the tattoos, ringers were still able to fool the officials by using counterfeit foal certificates to match the tattooed numbers, in addition to painting the horses. Only recently has European racing gone to a microchipping system to prevent ringing. And more importantly, drug testing was still in its infancy in Barrie's time, and was done mostly using horse saliva instead of blood or urine as is done today.
Given that this topic has not been covered with such detail before, this is a very interesting read for all fans of racing. Skullduggery will always be a part of racing, unfortunately, but because we now know how the people in the book got away with what they did, steps have been taken to prevent their recurrence. Improved drug testing, much faster transfer of information between racing jurisdictions, and better horse identification methods mean that Peter Christian Barrie could not operate in today's racing environment with the same efficiency as he did in the 1930's, when he would paint a horse and administer cocaine by syringe while being vanned from one track to another. Although it is sad knowing that many people lost money because of these characters, their stories are definitely entertaining, and the reader grudgingly applauds the creativity these con men possessed. It also gives the racegoer a reason to look a little closer when a longshot horse on paper is inexplicably bet down to favoritism.
"Ringers & Rascals" has a list price of $16.95 but can be purchased from Amazon.com, for $11.87.