What brings a senior lawyer and a disqualified punter together? Kate McClymont reports.
WITH only 200 metres to go, Bold Glance looked a dead certainty to win the Eagle Farm handicap. But racegoers watched with a mix of astonishment and horror as the gelding was easily run down. ''I've seen more vigour on a merry-go-round horse,'' fumed one punter.
The fallout from that race in February has rocked the racing world and sent shivers down the spines of those concerned about the suspicion of widespread fixing in Australian sport.
Last week one of the nation's biggest sports punters, Steve Fletcher, who bets $700,000 a week, was disqualified from betting for a year by Racing Queensland after an investigation found he had prior knowledge that Bold Glance's jockey, Bobby El-Issa, would not ride to win. Mr Fletcher had backed the winner and bet that Bold Glance would not win. The inquiry found he was a close associate of the jockey, who has been disqualified for two years.
But if his friendships with jockeys and footballers have raised eyebrows (the troubled AFL player Brendan Fevola owes him $20,000), so has his long-term friendship with the senior Crown prosecutor Margaret Cunneen, SC, whose name is being mentioned as a possible candidate as the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions.
Ms Cunneen became a cause celebre when she was continually overlooked in her quest to be made a silk. When she finally succeeded in 2007, Mr Fletcher was on hand to celebrate.
Yesterday Ms Cunneen was keen to play down the friendship, saying: ''I have met him a few times. Quite frankly I don't want to have any public connection with him. That wouldn't assist me at the present time at all.''
Ms Cunneen said her son Steve had worked for Mr Fletcher but no longer did so because of Mr Fletcher's disqualification. But Mr Fletcher happily confirmed he and Ms Cunneen were good friends and he had seen her as recently as Thursday, when she dropped her son off for work.
Ms Cunneen said in her position she had made it a strict policy over 35 years never to have anything to do with ''shady'' people. When reminded that she had attended the book launch of the twice-jailed former detective Roger Rogerson in 2009, she said: ''But I know Roger independently. I've known him since he was a detective … He was never convicted of anything while he was a police officer.''
After graduating, Mr Fletcher, 40, worked at Macquarie Bank for less than a fortnight before leaving to work at Sky Racing. Nicknamed ''the Professor'' for his ability to calculate odds, Mr Fletcher is no stranger to controversy. With his pal Eddie Hayson, a brothel owner, the pair pulled off what has become the known as ''the great greyhound sting''.
In 2005 Mr Fletcher and Mr Hayson had bet a small fortune on the favourite, Lucy's Light, in an otherwise unremarkable race on the Gold Coast. Less than 45 seconds before the jump, Mr Fletcher put $16,000 on the other five dogs, thereby blowing out the odds of the favourite.
The sting, which was perfectly legal, reaped the pair a massive payout after Lucy's Light's odds drifted from $1.10 to $13. Several bookmakers were stung and one Adelaide bookie, Curly Seal, initially refused to pay the $700,000 he owed. The matter was settled out of court.
Then there was the pair's wager on the Newcastle Knights to lose to the Warriors in 2006. Mr Hayson, who owned a string of horses with the football star Andrew Johns and his brother Matthew, denied receiving inside information that Johns would not be playing because of injury.
Mr Fletcher has also made use of information about tennis matches. ''Steve loves to play tennis but even more to bet on it,'' wrote his friend Scott Woodward in his book Living & Learning with the World's Biggest Punters.
Woodward told of going to the Australian Open in Melbourne. ''Steve mentioned that he had 'a good thing' as his spies had reported that one of the players was unable to make the early morning warm-up and things didn't seem good.'' According to Woodward, Mr Fletcher took advantage of the ''incorrect odds'' on the fit player.
Woodward also told of the time Mr Fletcher cleaned up at Nowra greyhounds. ''He had a hot tip and 'surprisingly' the race was held up as one of the runners had broken his muzzle.'' The delay allowed the trifecta to blow out from about $5000 to nearly $30,000. Woodward wrote: ''Steve's good thing … won easily and the trifecta came in 1, 2, 3 and he got the lot.''
As for Mr Fletcher, he is heading off on an overseas holiday while he waits for lawyers to challenge his disqualification, which he is confident of overturning on appeal.