Magazine article The Spectator

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Magazine article The Spectator

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Article excerpt

In one of those old Mae West films a girl admires her friend's jewellery: 'Goodness, what lovely pearls, ' only to meet the reply, 'Goodness, my dear, had nothing to do with them.'

The same was true of the sealskin fur coat and silk stockings worn by the gorgeous Micheline Lugeon , a would-be beautician from Switzerland who became notorious on British racecourses in the Sixties. Lugeon was the mistress of the highrolling gambler-bookmaker Bill Roper.

Roper, who maintained a wife in style as well, and put his children through private schools, needed money to keep the champagne flowing for his mistress at the Pigalle.

To find it, he assembled a bunch of accomplices and started rigging races. They would look for small fields of five or six runners and incapacitate the favourite by doping it with barbiturates. They would then accept bets on the fancied horse knowing it could not win and make even more by backing the next best, having driven out its starting price to longer odds.

Roper's gang nobbled dozens of horses, locating where their target's box was within racing yards by sending in the lovely Micheline posing as a would-be owner thinking of sending the trainer two or three horses. Roper, pretending to be Madame's chauffeur, would follow making notes. It was simple, audacious and highly profitable, at least until harder-line gangsters muscled in demanding protection money.

The gang's story has been authentically chronicled by Jamie Reid in his clever period piece Doped (Racing Post, £20). While the Macmillan government fumbled its way through sex and spying scandals, racing's authorities, the Jockey Club and the racecourse stewards, were revealing an equal incompetence and inability to face the real world. Time after time there was no inquiry or drug test when a favourite ran inexplicably badly.

In the end, Roper and Lugeon were caught and gaoled, briefly, along with other gang members. My only quibble is that the author seems a little in love with his villains: after all, they didn't just defraud millions, but, especially when they started doping jumpers, they callously put lives at risk and deserved to face attempted-murder charges.

Enjoying reacquaintance with an old Dick Francis hero in his son Felix's third solo novel Refusal (Michael Joseph, £18.99) reminded me that it was in Roper's heyday in 1962 that Dick's first novel Dead Cert was published. Between them, the Roper gang and the Francis family have done a lot to forge racing's public image. …

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