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"I'm Shocked . . . Shocked . . . " - "Distorted" Form in Sports - Part II...By Nelson Lardner

Now, back to our story . . . a long-running tale of the deviations from established form that sports fans see all the time . . .

The sustained current fascination in the world of speculation regarding this topic lay in its double-edged relationship with the ongoing market phenomenon known as betting exchanges. Grotesque market movements - as so many folks observed when the bizarre Nikolay Davydenko loss came to pass during the Prokom Open tennis tournament last month - can and will shine the spotlight on situations where (at the very least) somebody knew sumpin' the rest of the world didn't. What do the mildest interpretation of the events in Poland translate into? That a whole lot of people were aware of a pre-existing injury to one of Davydenko's pedal extremeties, and a significant percentage of that "In Crowd" were sufficiently movitated to capitalize on their knowledge at Betfair.

Broad, international consternation ensued.

Like a train wreck, we can't look away, and go on as if nothing happened. Nor should we.

When the betting exchanges first began to attract sufficient volume to attract meaningful levels of participation, those connected with horse racing could not help thinking of the potential dark-side exploitation of what was such an attractive concept to so many.

On the positive side, a horseplayer could firm up/lock in a price on a horse he fancied, without concerning himself with a last-minute pari-mutuel playdown on his selection, thus destroying the apparent value inherent in higher odds posted earlier.

But of course, the negative side is the tarnished edge of the hoary adage, "There are a thousand ways to lose a horse race . . . but only one way to win one."

Thoroughbred racing is a much more finely calibrated game than it may appear on the surface to the novice. The fact that wagering favorites win over thirty percent of the time in North America, despite racing conditions which seek to present sizeable, well-matched fields for fans' wagering pleasure, would serve to indicate that it's astonishingly-predictable, despite the chaos factor introduced by most larger fields, odd distances, unusual track conditions, etc.

But top jockeys who're good horsemen, especially those who find themselves riding specific horses on multiple occasions, enjoy an especial command of their individual situations.

Earlier this year, Britain's Horseracing Regulatory Authority stepped in where the London police were reluctant to tread, and served up a one-year suspension to jockey Robert Winston, one of the Isles' most promising young riders. Secondary-track regulars Robbie Fitzpatrick, Luke Fletcher and Fran Ferris took down multi-year suspensions.

All four were spotlighted through investigations of the accounts of five Betfair exchange participants, who during an 8 1/2-month period in 2003-04 were found to have made significant laydowns AGAINST horses ridden by the quartet. Twenty-one mounts handled by Winston came up in the sustained screening process.

Winston sidestepped the multi-year blow, but was charged with being in violation of Rule 243, i. e. giving information for reward. The panel acknowledged that no guarantees of any mount's defeat were passed on by Winston to those offering said "rewards".

But the pattern of an apparent information "pipeline" being employed by informed exchange speculators was there for investigators to see, and the fact that those recipients/bettors kept going back for more, over a sustained period of time, was telling.

Three years ago, the biggest sustained jockey brouhaha in the last decade was touched off in Britain, when internationally known riding star Kieran Fallon and 15 others were caught in another dragnet cast by London police. Again, the fuse was lit by Betfair, who'd contacted the English Jockey Club with information regarding suspicious patterns of "lays" against losers. The English publication News Of The World took the bit in their teeth, and ran hard with the story. Fallon fought back, and the Jockey Club eventually dismissed the case for lack of evidence late in the year.

But another Betfair-instigated investigation disclosed in 2006 has had more sustained effects. Fallon was the biggest name among a dozen figures, including three jockeys, allegedly involved in suspicious circumstances ranging from December of 2002 through early September of 2004. Subsequently banned from riding in the UK, and denied licenses in the U. S. and in Hong Kong, he found his way into a sustained Australian suspension for careless riding, and was banned in France for six months last fall after testing positive for cocaine. At last report, his trial was scheduled for London, commencing September 24.

Sad business, given Fallon's extraordinary talents . . . but it's a new information era, and to ignore it is sticking your head in the sand. As quoted on more than three years ago, CEO Joe Tighe of TradingSports Exchange Systems noted:

"It is not exchanges that have spawned corrupt individuals in racing; they have only served to uncover them. Prior to the introduction of exchanges, skullduggery in its many ugly forms took place behind closed doors in smoky betting shops with cash, unseen, unheard, and untraceable. Now, irregular patterns emerge in betting on exchanges which stand out like a red flag - they tell us 'someone knows something about this race the rest of us don't'. This information can then be used to track and punish those involved by following the money. As was the case before, if not for the exchanges illuminating the bets placed, no one would know and the betting public would be none the wiser."

The conventional books hate the exchanges' proffered value. And crooks hate them for their transparency, but - more than just serving the punter seeking top value - Betfair and the like are helping to enforce sporting integrity more than any other oversight body in this day and age.

Nelson Lardner

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