Spring is almost upon us, racing season, and this month marks the 36th anniversary of Australia's biggest racing scandal - The Fine Cotton Affair. It's as good a time as any to tell a story that really does have it all ...
It began with a couple of blokes, at the time incarcerated at Boggo Road, deciding that when they'd completed this process of rehabilitation it'd be a good idea to find a pair of racehorses, similar in appearance but of differing abilities in the galloping department, and race the good one at the odds of the plodder.
It wasn't the most original of schemes - it's actually a fairly common rort in horse racing world - but it did have that most important and elusive of qualities that make this type of endeavour viable: Simplicity.
It looked even more doable when, after considerable scouting, they found the horses - a nine year old past-it never-been called Fine Cotton, and a quality thoroughbred racing as Dashing Solitaire. The horses were identical.
A small syndicate was formed and tasks allotted, trainer etc. But there was an issue with coming up with the start-up capital. Fine Cotton wasn't a problem - they only needed a grand to buy it - but they needed $10,000 to buy the far superior animal, Dashing Solitaire, on whom they'd be counting to actually win the race.
Sensibly, the syndicate decided that the best course of action would be to approach a fairly notorious mid-level gangster, tell him about the scam, and see if he'd front them the cash. The Gangster, who was experiencing considerable cash-flow troubles of his own (to put it mildly) saw potential in the business and agreed to invest in it. In retrospect this is the exact point where the thing began its descent into the biblical proportioned train-wreck it became, but, for the time being ... they were away.
The horses were acquired and so began the process of relentlessly training and racing the increasingly exhausted and failing Fine Cotton in order to drive its odds even further skyward, while at the same time properly nurturing its 'twin,' Dashing Solitaire, into shape for the race.
Everything was going swimmingly, and then, a week out, disaster struck. Dashing Solitaire cut itself on a fence during training. The cut was nasty enough to require stitches. There was no way the horse would be allowed to race. They rang The Gangster to let him know that, for the time being, they could not proceed.
Unbeknownst to them The Gangster owed a large sum of money to somebody further up the food chain; a Godfather type character. The money The Gangster owed The Godfather was a life-changing amount. As in, he'd lose his life if he didn't come up with it.
He'd been using the syndicate's upcoming horse-switching business as a means to keep the The Godfather at bay. As in, 'I've got something going and when it comes off I'll have your money.'
He'd also been attempting to curry favour by letting The Godfather in on the rort: 'This is what's going on, maybe you should have a flutter on it yourself...' Aborting, at this stage, was not an option.
The horse had had a shocking time behind the Corolla and was dehydrated; also, it looked absolutely nothing like Fine Cotton. The horses were different colours.
The Gangster told the syndicate that they would be proceeding, no matter what.
The syndicate, out of their depth and in fear for their lives, needed another horse. One of them remembered one he'd seen in Coffs Harbour during the scouting process that might do. A member was despatched with a Toyota Corolla, a horse-float and a rubber cheque (they figured they'd fix it up later out of the winnings) to collect Bold Personality.
With Bold Personality's arrival in the Sunshine State the syndicate were confronted with two small problems. The horse had had a shocking time behind the Corolla and was dehydrated; also, it looked absolutely nothing like Fine Cotton. The horses were different colours.
The boys sorted the hydration problem by shoving a hose down the horse's neck in some barbaric practice known as 'flushing,' badly cutting the poor thing's nose while pulling the hose out.
The colour issue they tried to remedy with industrial amounts of ladies' hair dye purchased at chemists far and wide. Fine Cotton's 'socks' were unconvincingly replicated on the sockless Bold Personality with white house paint (it is probably worth noting here that this crew were fond of a 'brekky beer').
The whole dyeing, painting thing was a debacle, none of it worked, and then, at the last minute, they realised the horse was shoeless. A no-questions-asked farrier was summoned who, lacking the right gear, had to put on trotters' plates ...
Off they all went to Eagle Farm.
They would have been very surprised, you'd have to think, to find upon their arrival at the track that Fine Cotton's odds had shortened from 33-1 to 7-2 on. They were now the favourite. Word of the fix had gone well beyond 'leaked.' It was common knowledge.
Eagle Farm was packed with people, otherwise not often seen at a racetrack, holding Fine Cotton betting slips. Particularly prominent were members of the Queensland police force and the Fraud Squad. There'd been a nationwide betting plunge on the race. The jockeys knew. It was a farce.
Still, somehow the ruse went undetected by the stewards; the horse went into the starting barrier, they jumped and, Bold Personality, incredibly, despite its travails, racing as Fine Cotton, won the race by a neck to universal celebration! For a few brief, glorious seconds it must have seemed that they'd gotten away with it ...
Instead some men at the finish line started yelling, 'ring in!' The paint on the horse's leg was running. The stewards were forced to investigate and the whole can of worms exploded. The scandal of scandals!
In the aftermath members of the syndicate were gaoled; life time bans were issued on prominent racing identities; the Gangster was gunned down ...
It turned out The Godfather, seeing opportunity in the bigger picture, had told every bookie he knew about the plot. He then, knowing that the thing must inevitably fall apart, bet heavily on the horse that would otherwise have been favourite and was now running at inflated odds. With the disqualification of Fine Cotton, this horse was subsequently declared the winner.
The Godfather apparently made $1.5 million on the enterprise.
Both Fine Cotton and Bold Personality (who is the real hero of this story), surprisingly, given what we now know, lived happily ever after.