By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - A 1960s British horse-doping scandal that reached into the royal stables, drew in the criminal underworld and included a Swiss femme fatale has won a top sports-writing prize and made author Jamie Reid a happy man.
Reid's "Doped: The Real Life Story of the 1960s Racehorse Doping Gang" was the winner on Wednesday night of the 25,000-pound ($40,700) William Hlll Sports Book of the Year Award, which the British bookmakers tout as the "richest and most prestigious sports-writing prize in the world".
Reid said he was "thrilled to bits" with the award for his book, which judges praised as "an absolutely thrilling read".
He said that literally overnight orders had come in from a big book chain, sales were up on Amazon and there was interest in television and film rights.
Reid's book tells the tale of crooked bookie Bill Roper ("Roper the Doper"), his glamorous Swiss mistress Micheline Lugeon and their scheme to fix horse races in the early 1960s.
Working from their Notting Hill headquarters in London, Roper and his gang made millions by modern standards. No horse in the country was safe from being "nobbled" (doped), and it was only when they breached the stable of the Queen Mother's trainer that Scotland Yard were called in. Roper and Lugeon both served time in jail.
Reid, who writes a column for the Financial Times, said the story was one of those cases of "truth being stranger than fiction".
He said he had learned when he was a boy about horseracing from his grandmother and had always recalled there was "something very suspicious" about the 1961 Epsom Derby in which highly favored three-year-old superstar Pinturischio did not run - leaving the proceeds in the hands of the bookies and creating a great opportunity for Roper and his gang.
"There were rumors and talk and even when (Roper's) trial happened in 1963 it never really came out exactly what had gone on and who was behind it," Reid said.
"Over the years I've been able to meet people who were able to fill in pieces of the jigsaw for me, figures in the bookmaking world and indeed in the last few years, figures in the underworld."
Here's what else Reid had to say about the murky world of 1960s horseracing and the details woven into his book:
Q: So what is at the heart of this ripping yarn?
A: What I did not realize until a few years ago was that there was this relationship at the centre of it between bookmaker and gambler Bill Roper and his lover who was a very attractive Swiss woman, Michelle Lugeon, who was every inch the femme fatale. She looked like a petite Ava Gardner and she was beautiful, very bright and very hard working too. He fell madly in love with her and she wanted to be a beautician in England so he bought her a shop in Knightsbridge while he had a penthouse apartment in Kensington and he also had a wife and children.
He bought himself a new bookmaking office in Covent Garden and it was a classic scenario where in order to pay for it all he started looking around at his options and he concluded that this (doping) was for him. In some ways they were too successful at it, they were too good, and then serious criminals got involved and wanted a piece of the action and that started to spell his downfall.
Q: Doping still goes on but it is hard to believe that something of this magnitude, involving the most famous racing event in the country, could have happened.
A: One of the problems the police had was there was no specific crime of doping a race horse, they had to prove conspiracy to defraud punters betting on the horse, the owners, the trainers and police officers and lawyers will tell you it was not easy to make stick. But the other extraordinary thing about it was that the gang were able to get away with it for so long.
In the late 1950s and early '60s, the Jockey Club which ran racing in Britain was an autocratic organization of mostly elderly white upper class men who had little understanding of the betting world and even less of the criminal world. The gangsters and criminals really ran rings around them. Eventually Roper's gang broke into the stables of the trainer of the Queen Mother's horses in Kent and the trainer was an arch-royalist who was so concerned about the possibility of the scandal embarrassing the royal family that he went straight to the Home Office.
Q: Many of the main players in this history are dead and gone, but what of the femme fatale?
A: After he got out of jail she and Roper went to South Africa for a time and then they came back and stayed in England but she went back to South Africa. We don't ultimately know what became of her. She kind of vanishes into the mist. ($1 = 0.6144 British pounds)
(Editing by Alison Williams)