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Hot horses, hard drugs and a soap powder plot 04/06/2007
Martin Kelner

I have a feeling I may not be the absolute best person in the world to comment on the television coverage of the Derby, having seen none of it. Not a minute. I actually went to the race, and in the excitement forgot to set my machine to record the BBC's programme. Using my skill and judgment, however, and based on past form and previous runnings, I think I can tell you how it went.

After a rhapsodic title sequence including lots of slow-motion footage of fine, shiny thoroughbred flanks in action, and possibly a little sepia clip of Lester Piggott to stress the venerable nature of the race, the camera finds Clare Balding out on the course, in a hat. She appears to be standing on her own, but the camera pulls back to reveal Willie Carson standing next to her.

With her customary brisk professionalism, Clare sets up the Frankie story, before handing over to Rishi Persad - "Dishy Rishi", as the BBC website tells me he is known "by his fans" - or Jake Humphrey, or some other handsome young blade looking to graduate from children's television, who has the plum gig of standing on the top deck of an open-top bus trying to get some sense out of four chaps who have been drinking since 10.30am.

Back in the studio, the talk will be of horses and trainers, which need not concern us too much, since if there is one area in which a little knowledge is a dangerous thing it is horse racing. We will see the animals being led around the paddock, and we will look for the ones that are sweating up, because these will be the skittish, nervous ones, not worthy of financial support. That is the one piece of racing lore every mug punter knows, but here is something this particular MP was not aware of: if soap powder is added to the horse's pre-race wash, it will appear to be sweating, putting off potential backers, ensuring it starts at a more advantageous price for those in the know.

I am sure that kind of thing does not go on these days, but it made a cracking story on the two-part Channel 4 documentary, Sport's Dirty Secrets, in which the word "Secrets" performed much the same function as the words "garden fresh" on a tin of peas. There was little you might call revelatory, but there were some interesting new interviews, reminding us of half-forgotten sporting scandals of the past.

The soap powder story went back to August bank holiday, 1974. The horse Gay Future was running at Cartmel in the Lake District, heavily backed in betting shops - in doubles and trebles, alongside guaranteed non-runners, to disguise the coup - with the conspirators relying on the remoteness of the track and the difficulty of communications in those pre-internet days to camouflage the smell of rat. The soaped-up 10-1 shot duly "won, doing handstands," as Graham Sharpe, of William Hill put it, and the scam was only rumbled because the non-runners - the beards, if you like - had never even left their stables.

But, as John McCririck rather astutely pointed out, we only know about the Gay Future story because the scallywags - let us call them the Omo gang - were collared. What about all the stings that never came to light? Those might have qualified as secrets, but instead we had the well-rehearsed story of the Sheffield Wednesday players who fell in with a back-street betting syndicate in 1962, and sacrificed their careers for peanuts.

What I did not know was that there were others involved in the scandal who traded immunity for cooperation with the police, one of whom "went on to manage at the highest level". A name would have been a real secret. The story still had the power and resonance, though, forty-odd years after the event, to bring one of the Wednesday three, Peter Swan, to tears.

Far less exercised by her part in sport's dark past was Dr Birgit Heukrodt, a three-times swimming world champion and a product of East German state plan 14.25. She breezed through the shocking story of how children were made to go to the trainer's table, and finish a tea which, unknown to them, was spiked with pharmaceuticals, storing up who knew what health problems for them in the future. "The main damage to me has been the sound of my voice," she said, and indeed if anyone is looking to re-make the John Lee Hooker back catalogue, Dr Heukrodt is your man. Or woman.

To no great surprise, drugs featured prominently in the sporting scandals revisited. Few viewers, I suspect, will have reeled in disbelief on discovering the Tour de France is a festival of pharmaceuticals. As James Richardson said: "It's a system that's bent, yet it's the only system in town." Nor, I suspect, will the story of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (Balco) have come as news to many. There have been several newspaper pieces about the "nutrition centre" in San Francisco, set up by the former rock musician Victor Conte, where athletes were provided with the latest performance-enhancing drugs. One interesting aspect of the story I was unaware of, though, was that Victor played bass guitar in a very successful group called Tower of Power.

And yet it was another member of the group, the baritone sax man Stephen Kupka, who was known as The Funky Doctor. Funny how things turn out.