Fine Cotton

Fine Cotton was an Australian thoroughbred horse which was at the centre of a substitution scam (also known as a ring-in) which occurred on August 18, 1984 in the Commerce Novice (2nd division) Handicap over 1500 metres at Eagle Farm Racecourse, Brisbane, Queensland. Although there have been many ring-ins and other illegal scams in Australian racing, the Fine Cotton scandal is infamous in Australia due to the involvement of some of racing's elite.

Before the Race

Fine Cotton was a horse of very limited abilities who was racing in the southern areas of Queensland. The horse was eligible to race in restricted races (for horses with less than a certain number of wins) and even then had a poor record leading up to the substitution. Fine Cotton's last race, before the ring-in, had been in a 1200m Intermediate Handicap at a Doomben Wednesday meeting on August 8, 1984 where he carried 53.5kg and started at 20-1. He ran 10th in a field of 12.

The scam involved a syndicate, which was said to be headed by former bloodstock agent John Gillespie, purchasing a horse that looked almost identical to Fine Cotton and initially they were able to locate a better performed horse that strongly resembled Fine Cotton. Unfortunately for the syndicate, this horse was injured and unable to race when the ring-in was due to take place. Having already invested money and gone so far, the syndicate decided to find another horse. With time running out they purchased a horse called Bold Personality, an open-class horse several grades above Fine Cotton.

The syndicate faced a problem in that the two horses were different colours. Fine Cotton was an 8 year old brown gelding and had white markings on his hind legs whereas Bold Personality was a 7 year old bay gelding with no markings. To overcome this they applied Clairol hair colouring to Bold Personality with limited success. On race day having forgotten the peroxide to whiten the legs of Bold Personality they resorted to crudely applied white paint. These poorly conceived attempts to overcome the discrepancies in appearance between the two horses later served to highlight the amateurish nature of the scheme.

Race Day

The syndicate entered Fine Cotton in a race at Eagle Farm on August 18 1984. The event chosen was a Novice handicap for horses who had won less than a set number of races. A horse of Bold Personality's ability was not eligible to race in a restricted Novice handicap because he was considered to be an open class horse. Even allowing for the restricted class, Fine Cotton was in such poor form that he was considered an outside chance of winning and opened in the betting at odds of 33-1. As betting continued, money began to be invested on Fine Cotton both at Eagle Farm and at other tracks and TAB's throughout the country. Such was the avalanche of money that Fine Cotton/Bold Personality eventually started at 7/2 ($4.50). It is believed that the conspirators would have netted more than $AUD1.5 million if the ring-in had been successful. This scale of betting plunge was highly unusual and so racing stewards were already suspicious before the race.

The Race

The 2nd Novice Handicap would in ordinary circumstances have been a forgettable event if not for the substitution. The horses entered were up and coming horses or older horses of limited ability such as Fine Cotton. The syndicate then waited for the race. Bold Personality racing as Fine Cotton, and ridden by apprentice Gus Philpot, was able to win, but only by a short half head (otherwise known as a "nose", the shortest possible margin of victory in horse racing), from Harbour Gold. Even if he had lost the suspicions raised would have uncovered the scam. As it was inquiries were already taking place as the place getters returned to scale.

Post Race

Suspicious after the huge betting plunge and the seemingly dramatic improvement made by Fine Cotton, racing stewards launched an immediate investigation. As Bold Personality returned to scale the paint was beginning to run on his leg, something obvious to those nearby. Several members of the crowd began to shout "ring-in". Stewards stopped payment of bets in the race while they spoke to Fine Cotton's trainer Hayden Haitana. They requested the registration papers for Fine Cotton so that they could verify the identity of the race winner, however Haitana absconded from the track without complying with this request and the scam began to fall apart. Bold Personality--alias Fine Cotton-- was disqualified and an official inquiry was opened. The many punters who had backed him did not receive any money.

Aftermath

Hayden Haitana was eventually found in South Australia and was later charged over the affair. As investigations continued it became clear that despite the ineptitude of the ring-in, some high profile individuals were at least aware if not involved in the scheme. Amongst them were well-known Sydney bookmakers Bill Waterhouse and his son Robbie.

As a result of the official inquiry, the Queensland Turf Club, the State's principal racing club, "warned off" (banned) six people for life. They were the organiser John Gillespie, horse trainer Hayden Haitana, businessman Robert North, electrical technician Tommaso Di Luzio and salesman John Dixon. Gillespie and Haitana also served jail terms.

Because most of the betting plunge on the race was on New South Wales racecourses, the Australian Jockey Club in Sydney held its own inquiry and warned off bookmakers Bill and Robbie Waterhouse and seven others, including Catholic Priest Edward O'Dwyer, for having prior knowledge of the ring-in.

Robbie Waterhouse has consistently denied he participated in the scheme or knew of the details. The Waterhouses had bet on Fine Cotton in amounts that suggest they knew Fine Cotton's chances were greater than his form suggested. Whether this was due to a tip or knowledge of the scam has been the subject of considerable speculation. What is known is that the involvement of the Waterhouses infuriated other bookmakers who stood to lose as a result.

The warning-off later presented a problem for Robbie's wife Gai Waterhouse, daughter of training legend T J Smith, when she applied for a trainer's licence from the AJC. After much pressure by Gai on the AJC she gained her licence to train.

In 1998, after being banned for 14 years, Bill and Robbie Waterhouse were allowed back on to Australian racecourses. Since then, Robbie has had a number of controversial run-ins with racing stewards. As of August 2004, trainer Hayden Haitana was still serving his life ban.

The last report on Fine Cotton, in 2004, was that the then 28 year old gelding was still alive and in retirement on a small property on Brisbane's outskirts.

References

* [http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/stories/s314622.htm ABC Local Radio article on Robbie Waterhouse and 'the Fine Cotton' affair]
* [http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/4/story.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=10370810 New Zealand Herald article recap on the Fine Cotton scandal]


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