Talking Horses: Evans and Ladbrokes case will damage horse racing's image | Greg Wood

Greg Wood
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Action over the Taunton fences, where Lovely Job runs on Thursday afternoon, earlier this year. </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images</span>
Action over the Taunton fences, where Lovely Job runs on Thursday afternoon, earlier this year. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

So, how are you feeling as you size up the markets this morning? Confident that the prices on offer are, on the whole, a reasonably assessment of every runner’s chance? Or just a little concerned, in the light of the transcript released yesterday of David Evans’s discussions with Ladbrokes about his runners in a race at Wolverhampton in 2015, that there are day-to-day relationships between trainers and bookies that are a little too chummy for comfort?

It was plain in the immediate aftermath of the hearing into the Black Dave case, when Evans himself conceded that a £3,140 fine was “very lenient”, that there had been plenty going on behind the scenes. But it was not until a word-by-word transcript of the cheery, nudge-nudge conversation between Evans and a Ladbrokes trader emerged yesterday that it truly came into focus.

The transcript was fascinating, not least because of its novelty value – details of a conversation like this rarely find their way into the public domain. But is that because relationships like this one between a trainer and a bookmakerare a vanishingly rare occurrence in the first place? Or because, 99% of the time, it is in the interests of both sides to keep schtum?

The suspicion among many punters will be that it is very much the latter, and the damage that this case will do to racing’s image and the backers’ belief in the sport’s integrity as a betting medium is undeniable. So how, then, did the disciplinary panel manage to come up with a penalty a £3,000 fine for “conduct prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct and/or good reputation of horse racing” which even Evans himself described as “very lenient”?

The answer seems to be that its three members focused on the details of this specific morning in 2015, and considered only the immediate implications of Evans’s actions, rather than the impact on racing’s image when the details emerged.

Evans gained a half-point edge on the market at the time while Ladbrokes apparently used the information that Tango Sky, his other runner in the race, was going to be scratched to squeeze a little more juice from their book via Rule 4. A price cut, from 7-2 to 3-1, about a horse they knew was not going to start was enough to boost the deduction from bets on the eventual winner from 20p to 25p, and Evans would also, presumably, have lost a bigger slice of his winnings from a £6,000 bet had Black Dave crossed the line in front. As it turned out, the race went to a 10-1 chance that had attracted very little support in the time between Evans’s call to Ladbrokes and the official notice that Tango Sky was a non-runner.

The panel decided – “crucially”, in their words – that since Evans had placed his price-boosted bet before informing Ladbrokes that Tango Sky was a non-runner, the enhanced price “was not a payoff for information. It had already been given. The panel did not therefore proceed upon the basis that he was potentially profiting from an improper supply of information.”

This seems to me to dismiss too readily the evidence of a long-standing association between Evans and Ladbrokes, as shown by the fact, established during the hearing, that he regularly received enhanced prices when backing horses from his yard. Was this really the first time he had ever passed on a snippet of useful inside information to his bookie?

The panel’s focus on the very small amount of money paid out in extra deductions by backers of the winner as being the main financial loss involved is also puzzling. The transcript of Evans’s conversation with Ladbrokes spread like wildfire on social media on Wednesday afternoon, sowing seeds of doubt about the integrity of betting markets and prompting widespread speculation about how many other trainers enjoy similarly cosy relationships with a bookmaker. It is not easy to assess the cost to the sport from disillusioned punters giving up, scaling back or taking their betting money elsewhere, but the panel, it seems, did not even try.

These are early days for racing’s recently-reformed independent disciplinary system, but a guilty party describing their penalty as “very lenient” is unfortunate, to say the least. In the age of social media, there is little point in having a “disrepute” rule to consider cases that affect racing’s image if the panel does not look beyond the narrow detail and see the wider picture.

As for today’s action, it is difficult to pick many holes in the form of Lovely Job (1.50) ahead of the novice handicap chase at Taunton. Fergal O’Brien’s seven-year-old ran well behind Vintage Clouds after a 69-day break last time out, and that form was franked when the winner went on to finish seven lengths behind Clan Des Obeaux in a strong race at Haydock last weekend.

Serveontime (2.20) should also go well on the same card, while Breathoffreshair (9.15), a winner in a very fast time recently, will be very difficult to beat on the evening card at Newcastle. Vercingetorix (2.00) and Hurricane Rita (2.10) make most appeal at Musselburgh and Towcester respectively.

Tips for Thursday’s races

Taunton 12.20 Diese Des Bieffes 12.50 Brahms De Clermont 1.20 Pengo’s Boy 1.50 Lovely Job (nap) 2.20 Serveontime 2.50 Ballyegan 3.20 Fidelity

Musselburgh 12.30 Minnie Milan 1.00 Ange Des Malberaux 1.30 Heartasia 2.00 Vercingetorix 2.30 Silver Concorde 3.00 Muwalla 3.30 Town Head

Towcester 12.40 Linenhall 1.10 Classic Jewel 1.40 Now McGinty 2.10 Hurricane Rita 2.40 Spice Girl 3.10 Ballyarthur 3.40 Thistle Do Nicely

Newcastle 5.45 Jessie Allan 6.15 Hisar 6.45 Rock On Bertie 7.15 Not After Midnight 7.45 Mont Kiara 8.15 Henpecked 8.45 Middle Creek 9.15 Breathoffreshair (nb)

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