A sting, a scam, a fix . . . a balls-up
MENTION Fine Cotton in polite Coffs Harbour racing society and 24 years after the infamous 'ring in', faces still screw up in pain.
The horse which gave its name to arguably the most inept race- track scam ever, passed away in Brisbane last Friday aged 31 years, with the news making headlines in sporting circles all around the world.
His demise, and future mention of those involved in the conspiracy, ensures public interest will take years to evaporate.
From the moment open-class sprinter Bold Personality was substituted for novice performer Fine Cotton and 'won' at Eagle Farm on August 18, 1984, the story has alternately shocked and titillated due to the bumbling audacity and downright stupidity of the culprits.
Because of the unfortunate links to this city it meant newspaper readers stayed glued to the then Coffs Harbour Advocate as page after page was allocated to the unfolding inquiries and trials, making it probably the biggest story covered since World War II.
One of the witnesses at the original hearing (who asked not to be identified), remembers the feeling among local racing folk as details of the plot became known.
“It was stupid and the blokes who did it were so foolish they made the Three Stooges look like High Court judges,” he said.
It all began when Coffs Harbour jockey Pat Haitana, locked up for a short period in Brisbane's Boggo Road Jail, met small-time hustler John 'The Phantom' Gillespie, who claimed he had a foolproof way to make money by substituting a high quality horse for a poorly performed animal in a weak race, then betting up big.
Haitana suggested his brother Hayden - training a small string in Coffs - was just the man to prepare the plunge horse and within weeks, wildcat schemes were turning into reality.
It's one of the great mysteries how the fix progressed as far as it did, given the escalating string of misadventures as the day of the planned 'ring in' approached.
The plotters obtained Fine Cotton early in the piece, but then had difficulty finding a similar looking animal.
After a series of false starts, including an attempt to buy Group Two-winner Dashing Soltaire from actor James Mason, they eventually obtained Bold Personality but with less than a week to go, the situation began cart wheeling out of control as Hayden Haitana became increasingly paranoid.
Already a heavy drinker, Haitana's intake increased considerably as the idea took shape and there was no hope of success and his life was now in danger from any one of a host of sinister bit-players.
He'd been alerted to the behind- the-scenes involvement of Sydney's ultimate 'colourful racing character,' SP bookmaking king George Freeman, convicted drug-runner Michael Sayers, and an unusual assortment of shadowy urgers and hangers-on.
Surely, we asked our anonymous witness, the plot was by now common knowledge among the close-knit Coffs Harbour racing community?
“Hayden was notorious for being a bullshit artist, particularly when he'd been drinking which was pretty frequent,” he answered.
“He could have sat around the bar and described the plan down to the tiniest detail and not a single person would have believed a word.”
As the race approached the farce continued downhill.
With Fine Cotton already in Brisbane, stand-in strapper Tommaso Di Luzio was despatched to Coffs Harbour to pick up Bold Personality.
But during the six-hour float trip north he left the horse wrapped in a heavy duty blanket, ensuring it arrived in Queensland in a distressed state, severely dehydrated and in no condition to race.
In a panic, Haitana ordered the horse be drenched (a procedure normally carried out under veterinary supervision) to get moisture back into its system and while he went in search of necessary materials, a bystander forced a tube down the horse's nostrils, causing it to bleed heavily.
They next attempted to make the horse look more like Fine Cotton by changing its markings.
Clairol hair colouring failed to do the trick and whitewash also proved ineffective.
In desperation, white paint was applied which refused to dry and continued to run as the horse broke out into a severe sweat.
Even as the horse was led out to the start the paint continued to streak its face and drip down onto its hooves.
Once the horses crossed the line and the 'winner' was disqualified, the enormous fall out began and has never ceased.
Gillespie and Hayden Haitana were eventually jailed and six people were warned off racecourses for life.
Leviathan bookmakers Bill and Robbie Waterhouse were caught up in the scandal and their story is a saga in itself.
Fingers were pointed at judges, racing and public officials, politicians ... and even a Catholic priest, Fr Edward O'Dwyer, who was caught leading a plunge on Fine Cotton at Kempsey dog races
Mick Sayers was blasted to death in an underworld execution and long-deceased George Freeman is again 'starring' in Underbelly: A Tale Of Two Cities.
(It will be interesting to see what mention is made of his part in coming episodes.)
Hayden Haitana was last heard of in South Australia while Murwillumbah-based Gillespie was last year accused of involvement in another suspect racing venture, despite his warning-off remaining current.
After initially being seen as Ned Kelly-like larrikins, public sympathy turned against the plotters as the sordid details became known.
“They caused unwarranted harm to the animals involved, set out to deliberately rob the public blind and hurt many innocent people who were painted guilty by association when they had nothing to do with it,” the witness said.
“If there was anything good to come from it, it did cause a lot of scum who were giving Coffs Harbour a bad name to flee.
“It took time but the honest ones who stayed behind became the foundations of the ethical and highly-respected industry that local racing has become.”
As recently as yesterday, a source told the Coffs Coast Advocate of the existence of a mysterious diary, much sought after during the original investigations, and supposed to contain details that have never been made public.
“Just because the horse has died doesn't mean this story is complete,” this informant said.
“A lot of people still have to meet their maker before it will finally be put to rest.”