‘Racing’s Darkest Day’. So screamed the headline on Queensland’s Sunday Mail on 19 August 1984, less than 24 hours after Bold Personality’s dismal impersonation of Fine Cotton was rumbled. The jig was up, the conspirators had fled, tyres screeching from the car park at the Eagle Farm racecourse and out of the state, with the cops in hot pursuit.
Punters were left angrily holding betting tickets that had less value than the cost of the ink printed upon them. Some, including members of the Queensland Fraud Squad, had had ‘the mail’ – inside information that Fine Cotton would prevail in the Second Division Commerce Novice Handicap. Others were simply duped into betting on the nine-year-old picnic racing nag, drawn into shelling out their hard earned on the back of a betting plunge that was without precedent for such a modest event.
The phrase still hangs over the Fine Cotton fiasco. Old salts in the racing caper still refer to it as ‘racing’s darkest day’. They furrow their brows at the audacity of it and the acute embarrassment that fell upon the industry when the forensic examinations of racing authorities and the criminal justice system commenced in earnest.
The truth of it is that there were many darker days in thoroughbred racing before the Fine Cotton fiasco and there have been many others since. Where the Fine Cotton fiasco stands in terms of superlatives is the funniest, most farcical effort to strip bookmakers of their money ever seen in this country and, we wager, any other.
The entire episode constitutes arguably the silliest moment in Australian history. The sheer incompetence of the men on the ground, their seemingly inexplicable persistence in the face of irrefutable evidence that their scam was never going to work – and would certainly end catastrophically – is hilarious.
This book has its genesis in a radio interview conducted between one of its authors, Peter Hoysted, and Richard Fidler, the then host of ABC Radio’s Conversations. Over the course of several alcohol-fuelled lunches, Hoysted had taken to telling the Fine Cotton story as a long-form anecdote. More so than Hoysted, Fidler understood the fiasco’s exalted place in Australian history as a comic farce of the highest order that desperately needed to find its way from the anecdotal to the more permanent medium of print.
The interview was scheduled with the author confident that Australians would not be intrigued by, nor much interested in, a story of a 35-year-old horse race. Indeed, when the interview concluded, the author figured its hour-long audio artefact would sit gathering dust up on the highest shelf in a bleak corner of the national broadcaster, to be dragged out only when normal broadcasting experienced technical conniptions.
It is a matter of record that the interview ran the very next day and would be downloaded more than a million times.
This brought about a review of the intrinsic worth of the Fine Cotton story. It certainly was a tale of a 35-year-old horse race, but more so, it was a caper. And people love a caper. It was a reckless journey gone haywire from the very point of planning and design to the shattering inevitably of abject failure.
It was also, it seemed, universally amusing. We have here an epic tale of optimism and self-delusion, a slapstick magma of greed and desperation worthy of the Marx Brothers – where the prat-falling was not of the type where one might fall heavily on one’s posterior only to get up, give it a good rub and acknowledge the laughter from those who had witnessed it.
In the background of this doomed comic criminal conspiracy were men who threatened to inflict more than a minor bruising of one’s rear end. They were cold-hearted killers, violent sociopaths who for years had murdered, tortured and terrified anyone who got in their way. These fellows were not funny guys, and the pawns in their game only ignored the looming inevitability of failure under the threat of extreme violence if they pulled out.
Some things are inherently comical. A duck is always funnier than a chicken, and a criminal making a fool of himself is the kind of comedy that can be laughed at without fear of hurting anyone’s feelings. But this wacky Punch and Judy show was played out against the background of a very nasty criminal conspiracy, and the fact remains that the only people who got it in the neck were the poor bloody infantry, while the generals sat in their chateaus and sipped champagne.
Or, in this case, hit up pethidine, chomped on cigars, gorged themselves on party pies or perched their enormous arses on the Treasury benches of the Queensland parliament. It doesn’t much matter. The point is that the further away a participant was from the trenches, the less likely he was to get covered in shit.
If this book, at times, reads like a violent true crime story overflowing with ludicrous vaudeville, it is because that’s what it is.
The Fine Cotton fiasco occurred at the junction of two great events: the looming collapse of the Queensland state government led by Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, in a shower of fetid corruption that could no longer be ignored, and the Sydney gang wars of 1984–85 where a new group of villains, cashed up on drug distribution and armed to the back teeth, challenged the existing order who had dominated organised crime in the city for almost three decades by ruthlessly murdering anyone who got in their way.
As it turns out, you can’t tell the Fine Cotton story without the ugliness – not the whole story, anyway.
As we were putting this book together, we were constantly struck by one thing – that just about everyone we told about the project had heard some version or another of the Fine Cotton story, or at least knew about the ill-fated ring-in in Queensland. What’s more, they would invariably raise their eyebrows and laugh aloud at the memory of it, and wanted to know more.
In short, Australians whose involvement in racing might be owning a stable of champion thoroughbreds, or simply buying a two-dollar ticket in the office Melbourne Cup sweep, at least know the name Fine Cotton.
The Fine Cotton story is embedded in Australian folklore for good, because it stands proudly amidst the pantheon of immortals when it comes to idiocy writ large. At Eagle Farm, a horse that wasn’t Fine Cotton wins a race and for a moment, just a moment, a deranged criminal conspiracy had reaped unspeakable riches, only for the whole caper to implode in anarchic scenes across the country. It just goes to show that from the great and the good to the greedy and the grotesque, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.
Welcome to Queensland, 1984. We hope you enjoy your day at the races.
Peter Hoysted and Pat Sheil