“A conspiracy which struck at the heart of the sport” is how the BHA described the case against former apprentice Darren Egan, for which he was slapped with a 12-year ban for stopping horses and for passing on inside information – a harsh sentence, but one in line with the BHA’s well-promulgated insurgence on cheating.
As startling as the sentence handed Egan was the speed with which one of the sport’s brightest of emerging talents in the saddle had slipped from his pedestal.
During his first full season with a licence in 2012, Egan clocked 47 wins, his mounts garnering £316,766 in prize money. He rode winners at high-profile venues, like the Dante meeting at York. “Apprentice-of-the-moment” the Racing Post labeled him. A broken collarbone sustained in October nixed his chance of crowning that year as champion apprentice.
After sitting out that winter, Egan returned in 2013 undimmed by injury, winning the Lincoln Handicap — the first major handicap of the season — aboard Levitate. But only a few months later, the tapestry of success that Egan had begun to weave for himself rapidly unraveled.
Move to Santa Anita
In August 2013, it emerged Egan was under investigation by the BHA. At the time, he was in the process of transferring his licence from trainer Ron Harris to Newmarket handler John Butler, and the BHA briefly refused Egan his licence mid-process. Though they reissued Egan’s licence weeks later, the damage had been done.
That winter, with the mounts having dried up — a consequence of the BHA’s investigation casting a shadow over his reputation, Egan said — he returned to his native Ireland to work at a stud farm. The following year, he moved to Santa Anita in the United States, where he found work as an exercise rider.
From his new California home, Egan watched from afar the fallout from the BHA investigation, which concluded with a hearing on November 23 last year (had Egan returned to the UK for the hearing, issues with his visa at the time would have likely prevented him from immediately returning to the States, jeopardizing his job there).
In short, the BHA found Egan guilty of stopping two horses between June and July 2013. Egan was also found guilty of passing on inside information to gambler Philip Langford, who the BHA said used the information “corruptly” for betting. In February, the BHA banned Egan from race-riding for 12 years.
Egan was still working at Santa Anita when he approached me earlier this year to delve into his case – a request I knew to be rigged with landmines.
Lack of representation
The BHA’s war on corruption is a well-intentioned crusade. At a time when horseracing the world over is jostling for position in an over-crowded arena of spectacles, even a whiff of skulduggery is enough to turn precious eyes away from the game for good. Cheats need to be purged. Punters need to know their money isn’t lining the pockets of crooks.
Then there’s the matter of guilty parties crying foul - Egan is far from the first individual with a blotted copybook to protest his innocence.
Nevertheless, without wishing to re-litigate the charges against him at length — or go into the specifics of a rather convoluted narrative — I’m left with the impression that Egan’s case deserves a second look, not least because his lack of representation at last November’s hearing made the whole affair distinctly one-sided. Though, in fairness, the BHA could only play with the cards dealt them.
The side of the story pertaining to inside information seems immaterial to further scrutiny. Egan doesn’t dispute that he accepted £1,000 (as part of what he thought was a sponsorship deal, he said) as well as an unregistered phone from a gambler with whom he discussed his rides. The evidence from the available betting data is damning. Though Egan was keen to stress that the gambler in question went by the name of Marc Hobson, rather than Langford. Egan denies ever speaking to Langford - as does Langford about Egan.
Evidence branded ‘a complete joke’
Still, having delved into Egan’s case files (four thick binders stuffed with interviews, betting data, emails, and other details), I was left wondering about alternative outcomes had Egan employed someone to fight his corner at the hearing: would he, indeed, have been found guilty of intentionally stopping horses? The case certainly seems more nuanced and complicated than the one laid out in black and white in the BHA’s reasoning.
Christopher Stewart Moore, the lawyer that Egan let slip a few months before the hearing, admitted recently in an email that he believes the allegations pertaining to Egan stopping horses were rather “flimsy”, adding that the evidence surrounding one of the two rides in particular was a “complete joke”. These two races were apparently singled out by the BHA as the most suspicious examples of cheating from 30 possible races.
The incriminating ride on Imperial Spirit (a 14-1 shot that day) can be seen here. Egan’s ride on Tregereth (a 7-1 shot that day) can be seen here. Click here to see the BHA’s review of those races and their reasons for finding as they did.
It’s worth noting that the two horses Egan has been found guilty of failing to ride on their merits are distinctly moderate in ability. Tregereth is the winner of one race from 21 starts and £7,113 in career earnings. Imperial Spirit is the winner of one race from 32 starts and £7,553 in career earnings. Both trainers were satisfied with the rides Egan had given their horses.
BHA standing firm
Nor is there any record of Egan admitting to intentionally stopping the two horses in question, as was intimated in subsequent media coverage of his ban. Here Egan writes in his statement emailed to the BHA:
“To say that I conspired to fix races with Mr. Langford is absurd. This may be what the BHA investigators would like to believe in order to justify this investigation, but the evidence does not even make sense.”
Further clouding matters are the question marks hanging over the BHA’s ability to adjudicate misconduct within the sport. In May, the BHA came under fire for bungling a non-trier case against trainer Jim Best, for example. While the March findings of the BHA’s “Integrity Review” found the organization in need of reform in a number of key areas.
In response to questions by TRC, the BHA wrote that Egan is guilty of “corrupt practice and conspiracy” in that he “intentionally prevented horses from running on their merits and passed inside information for reward, based on significant evidence”.
“There is absolutely no intention for the BHA to revisit this case, and nor is there any reason to,” the BHA added.
Some will argue the 12-year ban should stand, irrespective of whether Egan stopped horses or not - a point worth considering. Egan used an unregistered phone to share inside knowledge with a gambler who benefited financially from the information. In doing so, Egan undermined the principles of decency and trust needed to bind the sport together. By holding up Egan as an example, perhaps others won’t fall foul of the same temptations.
Working for Michael Dickinson
But what if, as Egan’s former lawyer suggests, Egan didn’t stop those horses, with the BHA landing upon that 12-year figure (a ban that effectively scuppers Egan’s chances of ever resurrecting his race-riding career) without exercising an appropriate sense of impartiality? As the saying goes, “justice must be strong, power should be fair.”
One thing for certain is that Egan’s is a fascinating tale, raising, as it does, all sorts of difficult implications concerning corruption – issues that have existed as long as the sport has, only magnified as the availability of different betting options has increased over the years.
In its response, the BHA wrote that at the core of the anticipated changes to the organization will be a programme of education. “It is through this programme, and the longer-term financial growth of the sport, that we hope to reduce the risk of cases such as those involving Darren Egan occurring.”
As for Egan himself, after he lost his license in California, trainer Michael Dickinson approached him with the offer of a job at his newly re-established training center in Maryland, on the east coast of the U.S.
“What I’ve learned in the past three years, life lessons, work lessons, I wouldn’t have learned in 20 years as a jockey,” Egan said the last time we spoke, over the phone, having already notched a number of months working for Dickinson.
“These are the things you come up against in life. I don’t consider it as bad, necessarily. Instead of what I’ve lost, I look at what I’ve gained. And I hope to eventually get back in the saddle, if only to prove to myself that I’m still a jockey. That’s all I’ve wanted to do.”