IT APPEARS an open and shut case. Kieren Fallon, six times champion jockey, has been charged with fixing races. The sport of racing is therefore guilty. Had it been any jockey other than Fallon who had been charged last week, the likelihood is that the case would have made a few paragraphs in the news sections of most papers. But Fallon is racing's most colourful and controversial figure, as well as being the finest jockey of the day, the punter's pal whose six jockeys' titles and three Derby victories have brought him fame, fortune and a devoted following. Hence the avalanche of headlines which fulfil their own statement that racing's reputation has been damaged.

Some people consider Fallon to be the Superman of modern jockeyship but that is not thought to be the reason why the City of London Police called their massive inquiry Operation Crypton. That name came rather from the secretive nature of the investigation, which involved decoding the electronic trails left by people using the betting exchange, Betfair, allegedly to swindle innocent punters out of a reported £10m which they had invested on races where the outcome was allegedly "fixed" by owners, trainers and jockeys.

Upon being charged, Fallon's suspension from riding in Britain was immediate and was confirmed by the Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA) on Friday. The HRA said they had to protect racing's image, but Fallon and the two other jockeys who have been charged, Fergal Lynch and Darren Williams, will appeal against the suspension which could cost them their careers - they will be banned from riding in the UK until after the trial, which could be a year or more from now.

Even with insurance payouts for which they can apply, Lynch and Williams will lose thousands of pounds by being suspended but Fallon could lose many hundreds of thousands as his employers, Ireland's Coolmore stud and Ballydoyle stable, are certainties to win many major races in Britain each year. Fallon will lose his percentage of those winnings, even though Coolmore is standing by him and will continue to employ him in Ireland and elsewhere.

Fallon has never been far from controversy since arriving in Britain in 1988 after a five-year apprenticeship with Kevin Prendergast in his native Ireland. He joined Jimmy Fitzgerald's stable but his best-known association was with trainers Lynda and Jack Ramsden, for whom he rode several winners in high-profile betting coups.

Always short-fused, his temper cost Fallon dear in September 1994 when he was banned for six months for pulling fellow jockey Stuart Webster off his horse. He was also banned a couple of times for hitting his horses and whipping a fellow jockey, as well as verbally abusing a race starter and generally giving the impression of being a mercurial soul.

After dominating the northern racing scene, Fallon was plucked by Henry Cecil, then the greatest trainer in England, to be stable jockey in 1997. The pair won Classics and Fallon began his run of six championships in seven years, but the partnership foundered after Cecil's wife confessed to an affair with a top jockey. Fallon denied it was him.

In 1998 he made a high-profile court appearance in the celebrated Top Cees case, winning £70,000 from The Sporting Life after they libelled Fallon by saying he had not tried to win a race aboard Lynda Ramsden's horse in order to boost its price in a race it subsequently won. He won another case out of court when a newspaper falsely alleged he had passed information to Chinese triad gangs.

In June 2000, Fallon suffered a horrific fall at Royal Ascot and nearly lost an arm. He was out for six months but returned to land successive Derbies aboard Kris Kin and North Light, the latter coming after he spent 30 days in rehab following his admission of an alcohol problem.

In March, 2004, Fallon was beaten a short head on Ballinger Ridge. The horse had been leading by ten lengths but Fallon eased him prematurely and was caught on the line. A tabloid newspaper subsequently claimed the Irishman had told undercover journalists that the horse was going to be beaten, but most experts said Fallon just made a mistake.

The suspension for that offence did not prevent the most powerful man in racing, John Magnier of Coolmore, from headhunting Fallon as the new stable jockey at Ballydoyle. Since taking over last year he has already won three British Classics and won the Irish Derby only last weekend, giving another faultless performance aboard Dylan Thomas.

Fallon and nine others are charged with conspiracy to defraud, which is notoriously difficult to prove. Co-accused Miles Rodgers, former head of the Platinum Racing syndicate - he was "warned off" for two years by the Jockey Club in March after backing four of his horses to lose - also faces charges under the Proceeds of Crime Act, as does his associate Joanne Richardson who has not been charged with conspiracy.

No matter the outcome of the case, Operation Crypton is already the biggest investigation of its kind ever undertaken into racing and involved a worldwide search for evidence. It has been reported that officers from the City of London Police - Britain's top force for investigating fraud - travelled as far as Australia, where race fixing was once a real problem until the authorities took draconian steps. Among those believed to have been interviewed were New South Wales steward Ray Murrihy, said by the Australian press to be an expert in spotting race-fixing.

The evidence accumulated by the police includes 1,300 witness statements, hundreds of mobile phone records, records of more than 500 interviews, and 5,000 exhibits including bank accounts and Betfair's own digital "trail" of betting patterns. Some 19 different addresses were raided by the police with search warrants, and almost 40,000 pages of evidence were passed to the Crown Prosecution Service and counsel by the police, who arrested 34 people in all.

The HRA replaced the Jockey Club as guardians of racing's integrity and the case will be their biggest test by far. Betting exchanges are said by some pundits and bookmakers to pose a serious threat to the integrity of racing because they allow punters to back a horse to lose. Other say that allowing unlicensed persons to "lay" horses is a guaranteed recipe for undermining public confidence in racing. But betting exchanges have been given a clean legal bill of health and had it not been for Betfair's ability to track down every transaction, this prosecution would not have happened.

Fallon says he is innocent and will fight the case all the way. That is likely to include legal action, if necessary, to overturn his suspension.

The damage which the case will do to racing is incalculable. It is worth remembering that there are some 430 licensed jockeys in Britain and just three have been charged, but as one of them is Fallon, the whole sport will be under scrutiny.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for those who were arrested but subsequently not charged. The best-known of the 17 who were cleared last week - adding to six others previously not charged - is Robert Winston, who many experts think can succeed Fallon as the best jockey of this generation. Trainer Karl Burke, jockeys Gyles Parkin and Paul Bradley and newly professional rider Dale Jewett were also all freed from the unimaginable stress caused by possible charges hanging over them for months.

One senior figure in Scottish racing said last week: "The problem for guys like Winston and the rest is that, though they have been declared perfectly innocent, some of the mud will stick and that's grossly unfair."

The same goes for racing as a whole. Regardless of the outcome of Fallon's case and the other court proceedings, there can be no doubt that the sport's image has already been tarnished, and with long and highly public trials to come, the mud will not so much spatter racing as swamp it.

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