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Fine Cotton Ring-In Affair


August 18, 1984, was a dark day in Australia’s horse racing, a day when one of the biggest ring-ins or substitution scandals left many in the racing fraternity red-faced. The brown Australian thoroughbred gelding at the focus of the scandal was none other than Fine Cotton, who was oblivious to what his syndicate was scheming in the Commerce Novice (2nd division) Handicap over 1,500 meters at Eagle Farm Racecourse, Brisbane, Queensland. Fine Cotton, by Aureo from Cottonpicker by Delta was bred by the Estate of the Late GA Darke and Mr W D Hayne, New South Wales and foaled on 29 November 1976.

Trainer Hayden Haitana and bloodstock agent John Gillespie, however, had other plans for the Commerce Novice (2nd division) Handicap. Fine Cotton wasn’t in great form and was eligible to race in restricted races, coming in 10th in a field of 12 in the Intermediate Handicap at a Doomben over a distance of 1,200 metres, the race leading up to the Commerce Novice Handicap. Such poor form was obviously a cause for concern for Fine Cotton’s connections who then purchased another horse almost identical to Fine Cotton, with a better performance record. Their intention was to substitute horses. However, the horse was injured leaving the syndicate in a quandary. Having invested so much of the money, Gillespie and his team decided to purchase another horse called Bold Personality, a horse eligible in the open-class and much superior to Fine Cotton.

Bold Personality was an easy purchase. However, the problem was that Fine Cotton and Bold Personality were different colours. Fine Cotton was a brown gelding with white markings on his hind legs, while Bold Personality was a bay gelding with no markings. The syndicate took the bold step to dye the bay gelding brown, forgetting about the white markings on the legs. A crude attempt was made to apply white paint to Bold Personality’s hind legs, which was later disguised with white bandages when the paint started to wear off. The amateurish attempt to fool the horse racing fraternity was however short lived.

Fine Cotton’s poor form opened his betting odds at 33-1. As betting continued, more money was invested on the brown gelding at racing centres throughout the country, who eventually started at 7/2. However, little did punters know that it was Bold Personality and not Fine Cotton who hit the racetrack. The bookmakers were the first to raise their voice against the unusual odds; however, no objection was raised with the stewards.

While the syndicate waited for the race to begin with bated breath, apprentice jockey Gus Philpot, oblivious to the ring-in was surprised at the ease with which the horse worked his way to the starting gates. Bold Personality, racing as Fine Cotton got the better of Harbour Gold by a short half head at the post.

The huge betting plunge was cause for immediate investigation by the racing stewards. The paint on Bold Personality didn’t help the syndicate’s cause either, which began to run down the leg. A stewards investigation followed with Fine Cotton’s trainer, Hayden Haitana, the first to be summoned. However, Haitana fled from the track, which spelt the end of the syndicate. The horse was disqualified and punters who placed bets on Bold Personality alias Fine Cotton did not receive any money.

The writing was on the wall for the syndicate with even Sydney bookmakers Bill Waterhouse and Robbie, his son, being charged. Gillespie and Haitana served jail terms while businessman Robert North, salesman John Dixon, and electrical technician Tommaso Di Luzio were banned from the Queensland Turf Club for life. An inquiry held by the Australian Jockey Club in Sydney warned off bookmakers Bill and Robbie Waterhouse, who consistently deny any participation in the scheme. Their ban was lifted after 14 years in 1998. Gillespie and Haitana are banned from the racetracks for life. Reportedly, Gillespie’s wanton ways continued with his involvement in a multi-million dollar scam in 2008 which included a $44 million horse race, an art fraud, and Muslim terrorist death threats.

Undoubtedly, the Fine Cotton affair was a comedy of errors right from the beginning. This is one affair that hair dye manufacturer, Clairol, would never want to be associated with.

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