The Fine Cotton Fiasco

Nonfiction. A bit of horseplay. Why the long face?

There are a great many crazy characters—both human and horse—involved in the 1984 Fine Cotton Fiasco, but we will begin our story with The Brains. This is a relative term. 

While serving a stint in Boggo Road Gaol for over 250 ‘Dishonesty Offences’, The Brains, notorious conman John Gillespie, hatches a scheme. He’s well-connected in Queensland’s racing industry and has heard about two identical horses—couldn’t pick ‘em apart, apparently. They were deadset dead ringers. And The Brains’ mastermind plot is, essentially, when you really get down to it, a classic switcheroo

So far so genius. 

There’s a colourful history of ring-ins in Australia, in both horse racing and social netball comps. In neither sport are they uncontroversial and in neither sport are they easily forgiven. Anyone deemed involved in a racing ring-in is given a life ban from the track. Or worse. If you know what I mean… a… ban from life more generally. Trainers and conspirators have been ‘knocked’ over botched switcheroos in the past, and implicated horses were often euthanised as well. As if the horses had had anything to do with it. 

Now out and at large, John Gillespie assembles a small syndicate of conspirators. Horse trainers, muscle men, financiers, etc. It’s a real mixed bag. They purchase the inveterate battler Fine Cotton, who’s had just two wins in seventy starts for $1000. A bargain. And they buy his younger, stronger and faster deadset doppelganger, Dashing Solitaire, for just $10,000. They must be dreamin’.

To fund the scheme, Gillespie brings in Mick Sayers, a Sydney criminal who would one day be infamous enough to have his murder dramatised in Underbelly: Chopper (2018). Sayers passes the tip up the criminal chain of command to big-time Sydney mobster George Freemen—the very same George Freemen whose ordering of Mick Sayers’ murder would one day come to the silver screen via Underbelly: Chopper. But they can’t have known that at the time. The plot is also leaked to some of Queensland’s notoriously crooked cops, and circulated through various nefarious webs around the country.

The stakes are all of a sudden very high, but hey, Fine Cotton and Dashing Solitaire really are indistinguishable. She’ll be right, mates. So, so far still genius.

**A horse walks into a bar. The horse needs a drink after a long, hard day at The Track. The Trots. The Races. It’s been run ragged, flogged, yelled at, etc. Novembers are a busy period for thoroughbreds. And yeah so the horse walks in and the bartender turns to him and says, ‘G’day mate, why the long face?’**

It’s one week out from the big race and Dashing Solitaire has cut his leg on a barbed wire fence. Shit. Turns out she maybe won’t be right. It’s not no worries, mates: Dashing Solitaire can’t run! The genius scheme is bungled! Foiled! Donezo!

The syndicate goes to the pub and gets on the beers. That’s something they do a lot. John Gillespie, The Brains, a notorious confidence man who had, don’t forget, been charged for being dishonest over 250 times, gets on the old blower to let Mick Sayers know. Gillespie comes back to the table and says that Sayers said it isn’t going to be that easy. He says Sayers said heads will roll: someone’s gonna get knocked if they don’t push on.

It’s likely that notorious confidence man John Gillespie never actually called Sayers, and that he instead just pushed the phone’s buttons and looked busy. He wants the scheme to go ahead, and he needs to motivate his conspirators to go ahead with it. And they do. In the wild, the threat of death hones the senses, sharpens the mind. In Queensland in 1984, the threat of death compelled the syndicate to panic-buy a second horse. His name is Bold Personality.

Apart from both being horses, Fine Cotton and Bold Personality don’t look much alike at all. They are in fact different colours. An emissary is sent to Coffs Harbour with a dodgy cheque and Bold Personality is driven back up to Brisvegas in his thickest winter coat in the Sunshine State in August. The horse becomes severely dehydrated, which is honestly really only the beginning of his problems. Vets—famous dibber-dobbers about, you know, animal cruelty—are a no-go, and so the syndicate’s horse trainer, Hayden Haitana, personally plugs a hose down Bold Personality’s nose so that water will run straight into his stomach. This works. Things are looking up. Yes! She’ll be ri—Nope. Spoke too soon. They pop a blood vessel in B.P.’s nose and have to fasten his head to the stable roof to stem the flow.

Now for the coat colour issue. The Brains goes around Brisbane pharmacies buying up their women’s hair dye supplies. The conspirators lather up Bold Personality and leave it to work its magic overnight. Then, at 6:00 A.M., the morning of the big race, they learn an interesting chemistry lesson: human hair and horsehair are not the same. Whatever it is that turns human women’s hair brown apparently turns horses bright orange. Flaming orange. Like it’s very own spotlight, a galloping red flag, screaming brightly and orangely to the world that something here is worth a formal inquiry. Obviously, this won’t do. They cut their losses and wash out the dye; just on the front lawn, by the way. Next, they spray paint Bold Personality’s legs white to match Fine Cotton’s. But this also looks awful, and so Haitana bandages them up and calls it a day. Good enough. She’ll (probably) be right, mates, and so on. It’s race time.

Both the real and the fake Fine Cotton are taken in floats to the Eagle Farm Racecourse.

Trainer Hayden Haitana's life ban lifted over Fine Cotton ring-in ...

Here’s Hayden Haitana looking exactly like what you’d expect a 1980’s horse trainer to look like.

**There are about 30,000 horses involved in the Australian racing industry, owned by some 300,000 human beings through various syndicates and groups. But can you ever really own a horse? Yeah. You can. You can bet on them too. You can go down to The Track. The Trots. The Races. And there you can have a watch and a bet and a laugh and a beer and a 40% chance of having or developing a serious gambling problem, as big beautiful horses—with the aid of a riding crop—run fast. Really fast. Sometimes races goes right to the wire. Sometimes only a nose separates the winner from the losers—lucky their faces are so long?**

The 2nd Novice Handicap race is no great prize; it’s essentially a race for losers. Fine Cotton has been overworked by the syndicate in the lead up to the race and will start as a rank outsider, with opening odds of 33-1. By the close, so much money is dumped on Fine Cotton from all over Australia that his odds have changed to just 4-1. This is either: a) A miracle, or b) Suspicious. 

In addition to the usual rabble at the Eagle Farm Racecourse on the 14th of August 1984, there are off duty crooked cops, mobsters, and two of George Freeman’s henchmen sent up from Sydney. There are members of the Queensland fraud squad, having a punt. There is a big-betting Catholic priest. There is the septuagenarian mother of the then police commissioner—hmmm. Basically, there are people at Eagle Farm that day who had never bet before and would never bet again. This is either: a) Just a pretty weird day at the track, or b) Suspicious

In fact, so many people are aware of the scheme that, as the Eagle Farm’s 2nd Novice Handicap race was about to start, other jockeys gave the late-arriving Gus Philpot (no relation) a wink and a nudge. He had no idea that the horse he was sitting on was not Fine Cotton. 

The race didn’t stop the nation or anything, but it was exciting. 

The fake “Fine Cotton” started slow while the real Fine Cotton waited in the carpark. Bold Personality was absolutely a cut above this race for losers, but he’d had had a very stressful lead-up, and had also been hastily fitted with the wrong kind of shoes. He was in the middle of the pack until the final bend, when suddenly he remembered he was a winner, found his stride, and stormed down the straight. He edged out the initial favourite Harbour Gold right at the line. And so despite the long, hot drive and dehydration and bloody nose and botched makeover and wrong shoes, Bold Personality won the race on Fine Cotton’s behalf. You Beauty!

The Fine Cotton affair - Ringing-in 30 years of controversy

There are almost immediately cries of ‘Ring-in! Ring-in!’ Those close to the horse can see white spray paint trickling down his legs. And we can’t be having paint trickling down legs now can we? An official inquiry is launched. Bets are frozen. Trainer Hayden Haitana is sent away to get Fine Cotton’s identifying documents. He gets in his car and drives very, very far away.

**Did you know that horse racing was in the Ancient Greek Olympics, in 730BC, making the sport older than the Abrahamic religions? Should we maybe be putting our Faith in The Track, The Trots, The Races? More than we do already, anyway? History shows that it’s generally at the introduction of obscene amounts of money that organised religions, uhh, lose their way. Is $24 Million AUD in one year in bets alone obscene enough? How many problem gamblers are we willing to Sacrifice for this New Faith? How many Horses per annum—120, give or take? G-g-giddy up? Because this is what horses do, have done, since well before Jesus, right? Race? And we treat them right, right? Except for the occasional euthanasia, catastrophic limb injury, stomach ulcer, mental trauma and/or fiasco? Exactly! And well then so hey, why are their faces so long?**

“Fine Cotton” was disqualified, which was bad news for the conspirators and the crooked cops and priests and Bill and Robbie Waterhouse (!) and the then-police commissioner’s elderly mum. A lot of the above were given serious bans from racing, and the syndicate disbanded and fled. In the end, the initial favourite Harbour Gold was declared the winner.

Big-time Sydney criminal George Freemen cleaned up. He’d sent his henchmen up to place a large bet on Harbour Gold’s disproportionate odds, and then to make sure Fine Cotton was disqualified. An absolutely classic bait-n-switch on an already classic switcheroo. What a star.

Notorious conman John Gillespie was found, arrested and sent to Boggo Road Gaol for four years. He claims to have been in on Freemen’s double sting all along, and even suggests he’s three or four swindles ahead of all of us. His name recently appeared in the Panama Papers.

Bold Personality was abandoned at the track, but returned to his rightful owner. The cheque to buy him had bounced anyway. He never had to run another race again. 

A nation-wide manhunt for Hayden the horse man Haitana went on for several weeks. He was eventually found in Adelaide and sentenced to a year in prison. Fine Cotton, the real Fine Cotton, was found some time later grazing in a paddock of police horses, only a couple of clicks down the road from Eagle Farm Racecourse. He’d been hiding there the whole time.

Fine Cotton would live a long life of moderate fame. A movie producer purchased the rights to his story but the blockbuster biopic was never made. Maybe one day we’ll get an Underbelly series about it all.