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Remembering Fine Cotton

Twenty years ago this week, apprentice Gus Philpot was legged aboard an eight-year-old gelding in an ordinary race at Eagle Farm.

 Racing

Remembering Fine Cotton

Twenty years ago this week, apprentice Gus Philpot was legged aboard an eight-year-old gelding in an ordinary race at Eagle Farm.

It was, however, no ordinary occasion.

The horse he rode to a narrow victory in the Second Commerce Novice (1500m) on August 18, 1984, was supposed to be called Fine Cotton.

In fact it was the much better performed open company sprinter Bold Personality, clumsily disguised and backed around the nation from 33-1 to 7-2.

It seemed almost everyone at Eagle Farm - including a large contingent of the local police force - knew it was a ring-in.

The result never stood, and all those who backed Fine Cotton, aka Bold Personality, did their dough cold on what was to become one of the most infamous days in Australian racing.

The Fine Cotton scandal rocked Australian racing to its core.

It claimed the scalp of high profile Sydney bookmaker Bill Waterhouse and his son Robbie for having prior knowledge of the substitution as well as a host of other people including the ring-in mastermind John Gillespie and his disgraced trainer Hayden Haitana.

Fine Cotton is still alive, grazing in retirement on a small property in Brisbane's western outskirts.

He's no longer the photogenic racehorse that won 13 times in 39 starts, but a 28-year-old greying gelding living the Life of Riley oblivious to his famous past.

His nickname is Satchmo because his current owner, movie producer John Stainton, was once told by Haitana he'd blow the trumpet on all those involved if he could talk.

Haitana served six months of a 12-month prison sentence for his part in the substitution.

He was one of six people warned off for life by the Queensland Turf Club (QTC), the State's governing body at the time.

Gillespie was also warned off by the QTC as well as businessman Robert North, electrical technician Tommaso Di Luzio and salesman John Dixon.

The Australian Jockey Club in Sydney warned off Bill and Robbie Waterhouse and seven others in November, 1984 for having prior knowledge of the ring-in.

Robbie Waterhouse also served eight months periodic detention for perjury before the Racing Appeals Tribunal in 1992.

Co-conspirators told Haitana that Gillespie had orchestrated how to switch the real Fine Cotton with Bold Personality while he was behind bars in Brisbane's former Boggo Road jail.

Gillespie, a former bloodstock agent, was jailed for four years for fraud and warned off racetracks for life.

On the 10th anniversary of this amazing chapter in Australian racing, Haitana alleged disgraced former Queensland Police Commissioner Terry Lewis and some police and prison officers were tipped off to back Fine Cotton on the day.

"It wasn't just Lewis who knew about it, it was a whole bunch (of police and warders). There were police everywhere at the races that day," Haitana said at the time.

Lewis was later sentenced to 14 years jail for official corruption resulting from the Fitzgerald inquiry, which included accepting bribes from SP bookmakers to turn a blind eye to illegal betting operations.

Gillespie's links with police originated when he was a key witness for them in a foot and mouth extortion case in Rockhampton in which he informed on the extortionists.

According to Haitana, a relative of Lewis accompanied Fine Cotton's part-owner, the late Malcolm Macgregor Lowndes, to the races that day while Gillespie was in the company of at least one serving police officer.

The Fine Cotton saga was a comedy of errors from the beginning.

Both horses were geldings, however, Fine Cotton was brown with white socks on its rear legs while Bold Personality was a bay with no socks on any legs.

Gillespie attempted to correct the colour discrepancy with large quantities of Clairol, but to no effect.

Before the race, when the time came to put the finishing touches to Bold Personality's colour and highlights, he discovered that he had forgotten the peroxide and resorted to spraying the socks on with white paint.

When that didn't work, the horse's hind legs were bandaged to conceal the mess.

By the time of the race there probably wasn't a punter on the course who didn't know that "Fine Cotton" was a ring-in.

To this day it isn't known why the late chairman of stewards Andy Tindall allowed the horse to run.

It was disqualified immediately after winning the race and all of the smart money that had been laid on Fine Cotton went to the bookies.

Tindall, who died 10 years ago, never spoke spoke about the Fine Cotton scandal.

While Tindall was reluctant to talk of the past, his deputy Paul Byrne and Haitana suspected that not everyone associated with the ring-in was caught.

"The bulk that did go deserved to go, but there were some licensees, without naming them, who were hurt unnecessarily," said Byrne on a previous anniversary.

Byrne denied what some people still believe today; that stewards knew of the ring-in before the race or that stewards acted wrongly by letting Fine Cotton run before disqualifying the horse.

"It was only after they came back into the enclosure after the big go that we thought of a ring-in," Byrne once said.

"We didn't hear punters saying it was the wrong horse or anything. I said to Andy that there had been a big go at Fine Cotton and that we'd better look at its papers.

"They got the main ones involved but you never know how many were really involved in it."

One of the amazing sequels to the whole affair was the sight of Haitana having a beer in one of the Eagle Farm bars after the race as if nothing had happened.

The Waterhouses and all those warned off in Sydney have since had their bans lifted but the now 57-year-old Haitana is still on the outer, with Queensland Racing refusing his application earlier this year to have his lifetime ban overturned.

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