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The Fine
Cotton Fiasco

They decided to spray paint the horse and hoped no one would notice.

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The Mongolian Horse

The Mongolian horse is a cultural icon, a beloved animal, and their only means of survival.

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The Anguished Painting

A painting possessed by a tortured artist.

It was called the 'Darkest Day in Horse-Racing' - but really it should have been called the funniest. 

On the early morning of 18 August 1984, eight-year-old Fine Cotton was switched out with his stablemate for a disastrous ring-in at Eagle Farm Australia for the 2nd Handicap horse race.

 

It was supposed to be a small affair with small winnings, a race for horses who hadn't done too well in their careers. It should have gone off without a hitch. But this innocuous race would become part of one of the biggest scandals in horse racing history, and all due to a can of spray paint, a terrible dye job, and a barbed-wire fence.

The plan

The three men who took part in this scheme were John Gillespie, a small-time criminal who focused specifically on gambling and horse racing scams, Robin North, the son of a wealthy socialite and a real estate agent, and then the horse's trainer Hayden Haitana.

The syndicate was formed and they put their plan into action.

The plan was concocted on 8 August, only ten days before the 2nd Handicap was to take place. Simply put, they would let another horse, Dashing Soltaire run in Fine Cotton's place. It was genius, Dashing Solitaire was a perfect ring-in for Fine Cotton, you couldn't pick the two apart, and Fine Cotton went into the running at 33:1, so putting a hefty sum on a sure-bet, would certainly pay off.

 

To ensure Fine Cotton stayed at low odds, Haitana let him run extra races before the Handicap. This ensured that Fine Cotton would lose races before the main race, and so his odds would stay low. In the meantime he kept up Dashing Solitaire's training, to ensure he was primed for race day.

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But then, disaster struck. Dashing Soltaire, their switcheroo horse, was injured only a week before the race. Having cut his leg on a barbed-wire fence, the horse had to be scratched from the line-up. At this point, the safe bet was to pull the plug on the scheme, but unfortunately, they couldn't.

According to Gillespie, Mick Sayers, the underworld race-rigger was the real ring leader of the syndicate and told the three men, in no uncertain terms, "One of you will end up dead if this race doesn't go through." So back they went to the drawing board.

Gilespie decided they needed another horse, so searching high and low he grabbed the first available fit horse he could find and had it shipped down to Brisbane the day before the race. The horse was called Bold Personality and was a few grades higher than Fine Cotton.

 

When the horse arrived it was dehydrated and exhausted from the ferry trip. To re-hydrate it, they stuck a hose up the horse's nose and pumped him full of water. But they had a much bigger problem.

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Bold Personality was a bright beautiful bay and Fine Cotton was dark brown. Bold Personality was also a couple of inches bigger and did not have the tell-tale white socks which Fine Cotton sported on his back legs.

After some deliberation, they got a bottle of beer, some water, and a big old can of lady's hair dye. They took the two horses to Haitana's suburban home, and in the front yard, they dyed their runner.

The next morning, the three hungover, would-be conmen stumbled out to the garage to see their handiwork. It wasn't quite what they had expected. Human hair-dye does not work the same on horsehair, and their Bold Personality was now bright orange.

 

They needed a miracle, and possibly a hose, maybe some tickets to Timbuktu. But, not to be discouraged, they washed out the dye, turning his orange coat into a darker shade, a little closer to what they needed.

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Trainer, Haiden Haitana with Fine Cotton

Body sorted, now they had to sort out the hooves. They'd forgotten the peroxide - or rather they'd forgotten to use the peroxide the previous night. Well, at least they had a can of spray paint. After some spraying, they stood back. No one, not even a five-year-old would fall for that hack job. They had some bandages. They wrapped up the legs, sent up a prayer and hauled the now thoroughly bewildered horse into the box, and set off to the races.

But they had another problem. Bold Personality had no shoes.

They'd have to find someone who would shoe the animal in a pinch - and who could keep his mouth shut. They found a man in the phone book and quickly drove to his workshop. 

But another problem met them. The farrier only had harness horseshoes - which are specifically balanced differently to help the legs achieve that high action in trotting races. The group had no time left and told the man to just do the job. The horse was shod and once again shoved into the trailer, decidedly more bewildered than before.

By the time they finally arrived at the races, all three were having some serious second thoughts. But a possible gun to the head shoved any misconceptions aside. No one would notice a dyed, slightly spray-painted horse? Right?

 

Whether deliberate or accidental, news had spread amongst the betters of the scam, and by the time they got to the racetrack, their innings had dropped from 33:1 to a far less profitable 4:1. 

Even if their horse won now, they would not be making the money they'd hoped for. They kept Bold Personality under a horse blanket, just to keep possible curious onlookers from spotting their bad dye-job. When the race was about to start, they ripped off the blanket, helped the jocky onboard, sent the horse off to the start, and another few prayers up to the sky.

The race started, and their horse dropped far back in the pack. Bold Personality, thoroughly upset by this point, ripped his head up and down, fighting the jockey the entire way. As they came down to the straight the horse ripped loose and took to the front, coming down to the wire hammer and tongs with Harbour Gold - the original favourite.

It was a photo-finish, but Bold Personality managed to sneak his nose over the line first, and they won. 

Sort of.

The second the horse was led into the ring the crowds cried out 'ring-in' but really the crowds didn't need to say much. The dye and the bad spray-paint job were slowly melting off of the horse and the jockey's hands were stained brown. Needless to say, the race officials were suspicious.

The stewards looked for the trainer, but he was long gone. Eventually, all three men were arrested and brought up on charges of fraud. Haitana and North each received a one-year jail fine, but Haitana's was extended to four. Gillespie got off lighter, and just warned off of racecourses. All of them would eventually be allowed back on the tracks after around seven years. 

A few rumours still abound about the race. Some claimed that the big underworld heads planned it like this, to put the bad ring-in in the race to bet on the other horse and so get a sure bet. Apparently, Gilespie made a cool 1.6 million by betting on Harbour Gold, but these are only rumours.

But whatever the aftermath of the race, no one can deny that Fine Cotton stands as one of the greatest horse racing scandals in the world. And possibly one of the funniest. 

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