On 14 August 1984, the racehorse Fine Cotton was the centre of a substitution scam at Eagle Farm Racecourse, Brisbane, Queensland. A horse called Bold Personality had run the race disguised to resemble Fine Cotton, to deceive bookmakers for millions.
Wagers on sporting events have always attracted undesirables looking for a way to cheat and win.
Doubtless some have been successful and undetected. Some were exposed and the perpetrators caught and subjected to the consequences.
Others have left one to scratch his head and wonder, “What were they thinking?”
Some schemes have included knowing participation of one or more of the competitors, willing or otherwise, such as a favoured fighter taking a fall in a certain round to an inferior opponent, but others, particularly those involving punting, require no knowledge, compulsion or consent on the part of the horse.
Yes, the jockey can be instructed to rein in a favourite to let a horse with longer odds prevail, but it could be safely said that the horse has no awareness of their participation in the scam.
Sometimes the cheater’s plan is so comical as to not only fall into the “What were they thinking?” category, but also include, “Who was daft enough to be sucked in?”
Such a case in punting was known as The Fine Cotton Affair.
Fine Cotton was foaled in 1976. His lineage was predominantly Australian, and included blood from Ajax, but he did have some British and Irish blood. His sire Aureo did have French blood via Wilkes, and while it may be politically incorrect to say, that may have had some influence in Fine Cotton’s form resulting in his opening as 33-1 odds for the Commerce Novice Handicap at Eagle Farm Racecourse on August 18th, 1984.
Seeking the opportunity to capitalize on those substantial odds, trainer Hayden Haitana and Agent John Gillespie hatched a scheme to ring-in Fine Cotton with another gelding, Bold Personality, a horse of decidedly superior capability.
Buying Bold Personality was not difficult, and credit should be given to Haitana and Gillespie for showing the prudence to at least use another gelding as opposed to a stallion or filly, and perhaps disregard that they failed initially to consider that Fine Cotton was brown with white markings on his hind legs while Bold Personality was a bay with no white whatsoever.
They subsequently dyed Bold Personality to more closely impersonate Fine Cotton, and upon realizing the absence of the white legs, conceived the foolhardy strategy of using white paint to apply the markings, and to further conceal the deception with white bandages when the white paint proved inadequate to the task.
While not the origin of the expression, “Horse of a different colour,” this was nonetheless perhaps the boldest attempt ever at making the Bard’s line fit the occasion.
Greed played a role in unraveling the plot. Placing substantial bets via confederates at numerous venues, Haitana and Gillespie succeeded in gaining the notice of bookmakers who questioned the plummet in odds on Fine Cotton from 33-1 to 7/2. This phenomenal drop somehow managed to elude the attention of VRC and AJC stewards.
Not privy to the ring-in, Gus Philpot, an apprentice jockey, supposedly made the comment that Fine Cotton was unusually docile while being loaded. This is noteworthy in that Fine Cotton had a reputation for reluctance and would have preferred remaining in his stall munching feed to running.
One would think any jockey, apprentice or otherwise, would have the wherewithal to immediately be aware that his mount had been switched, even if it had been replaced by an otherwise identical double.
The event concluded with Bold Personality, in his guise as Fine Cotton, posting a half head victory.
The substantial drop in odds did finally attract the notice of stewards, and the running paint on Bold Personality’s leg was deemed at least slightly suspicious.
Fine Cotton trainer Haitana was called to a steward initiated investigation, but was learned to have somewhat hastily departed the premises.
Disqualification resulted; the win was awarded to Harbour Gold, and all punters who had staked Fine Cotton aka. Bold Personality were not paid.
No less a figure than Bill Waterhouse and his son Robbie were implicated, an allegation they vehemently denied. They were subjected to a ban that was finally lifted in 1998, perhaps in the absence of incontrovertible evidence.
Gillespie and Haitana went to jail for there part in the Fine Cotton affair, and other participants received lifetime bans.
Undeterred by his sanction, Gillespie went on to further infamy including a multi-million dollar horse race in 2008, fraud, and other questionable scams.
His record includes over 300 convictions for numerous and varied offences. He later claimed that he had gotten away with almost $2 million from The Fine Cotton Affair, a widely disputed claim, which if true, would make the 5 months he served of his four year prison sentence fairly lucrative.
It’s probable the entire truth of the affair will never be completely divulged, but the Fine Cotton Affair will forever be inextricably part of Australian horse racing history, and will give additional meaning to the term, “painted pony.”