Plugging The Leaks
By Tony Lake
Between the Great War and Second World War the “stable secret” was the lifeblood of racing. Trainers went to extraordinary lengths to conceal their up and coming plots whilst touts went to incredible lengths to uncover them.
H S Persse, who trained in rural Hampshire, took as many precautions as feasibly possible and some that weren’t, to keep his stable’s secrets safe. However, during the 1930 season he was suspicious of leaks. At the racecourse he was getting far shorter odds about his horses than he was expecting. Furthermore a tout was selling his inside information. Something had to be done and the trainer, widely known as “Atty”, employed a private detective and set a trap before resorting to the courts.
The master of Chattis Hill Stables made it clear to his stable lads that they must not give information to anyone and his apprentices had it written into their indentures. So vital was this considered to be that if an apprentice was dismissed for a breach of the rule probably he would never again be allowed by the Jockey Club to enter a stable or even go on a racecourse.
Two or three years earlier Persse had become suspicious of a man called Whiffen who delivered papers to apprentices’ quarters so stopped him. If the boys went to the pubs, being small, he thought that they would get intoxicated quickly; therefore he put the nearby town of Stockbridge out of bounds to them. The boys were permitted to go to the remote village of the Wallops, but only after Persse had employed a private detective to keep an eye on them. And it was there, at the Five Bells Inn, the boys were spotted being treated to drinks by Whiffen and discussing the horses.
Meanwhile the useful Empire Builder was being prepared for the Cambridgeshire and the trainer went into his box with a friend to discuss the horse’s prospects knowing a stable-lad was within earshot. The lad eaves-dropped the conversation and heard that the connections were not going to back it. Within hours a Mr Prebble was circularising to his clients a statement declaring that Empire Builder would run, but Mr Persse would not be backing it.
The lad concerned was dismissed without references. Persse had other plans for Prebble and Whiffen.
Henry Seymour Persse took out an injunction against Mr Alfred Edward Prebble, the proprietor of Grosvenor Garage, and Mr Cyril Gordon Whiffen, a newsagent and tobacconist, both of Stockbridge. “To restrain them from procuring, inciting, inducing or instigating any apprentices, stable-boys, or employee of the plaintiff to disclose his secrets or to give information concerning his business to anyone and from conspiring together to do so.”
The case was heard from 9th to 11th December, 1930, before Mr Justice Luxmore at the High Court of Justice. Sir Patrick Hastings KC and Mr H Johnston appeared for the plaintiff; Mr Raynor Goddard KC and Mr Wilfred Hunt for the defendants. Prebble put up no defence; Whiffen did.
Persse was the first to give evidence.
The Defence tried to discredit the trainer, but he explained that his boys had to be treated as schoolboys. “And perhaps,” added Counsel, “suffered the pains and penalties of schoolboys” (a comment that prompted some laughter). In reply to Raynor Goddard the trainer denied that one boy was caned so badly that he could neither sit nor lie down. He accepted that lads frequently ran away but it was through homesickness not because of canings. Persse conceded that at night the boys were locked in their quarters and the windows were barred and there was a roll-call. However, when he added that some escaped out of the locked room by removing the hinges from the doors, there was more laughter.
It was agreed that the most vital matter was the weights carried by horses during trials. The trainer confirmed that weight carried would not be known to the boy riding the horse. Then he explained how an experienced lad could tell from the amount of lead between his knees what weight was being carried and therefore know the merit of the trial.
The next witness was the private detective. The former CID Inspector, Charles Edward Leach, who told how he saw Whiffen give the boys drinks and obtain information. He went on to say that in a later conversation Whiffen admitted as much to him. Leach’s evidence was corroborated by Mr Percy Price, Persse’s secretary, who witnessed the conversation. Price added that the drinking took place in a small room behind a curtain.
Charles Weston who had worked for Persse for four and a half years also testified that he saw Whiffen buy the boys drinks ranging from lemonade, port and lemon, bitters to whisky. He spoke of the boys getting merry, but not drunk, and how Whiffen had laughed at him when he told him that the boys would get in trouble from Mr Persse.
Two more stable staff gave evidence against Whiffen. Mr William Sharp testified that he had been quizzed by Whiffen about Thyestes’ chances days before he was due to run. After he replied that he did not know anything, Whiffen then went on to inquire into that horse’s trial. Sharp told him that he was not allowed to watch it and then walked away because Whiffen was trying to get information from him. Michael Shine also told the judge that he had been bought drinks by Whiffen and questioned about horses’ chances.
Whiffen was then called to give evidence in his own defence. He claimed that he did not really know Prebble and that at best he was an acquaintance he met at the races. He denied “pumping” the boys for information although admitted buying them drinks. Under cross-examination he also admitted to sometimes having a “tenner” on and that he drove a Chrysler motor car. However, he stressed that he made more money out of his newsagent and tobacconist business than racing. He would not call himself a professional backer and he was surprised to learn that Prebble was a tipster.
Sir Patrick Hastings later asked Whiffen which race meetings he had attended this year. Mr Whiffen listed several. Then the KC retorted “Do you ever have an afternoon home?” and the court burst into laughter.
Finally, Fred Neale, the landlord of the Five Bells, was called as a witness and he admitted that Whiffen was often in conversation with Persse’s boys. He then was asked whether or not his premises were now out of bounds to the boys. He said that he didn’t think so as some were in on Saturday night. Hastings quipped, “The door has been off the hinges again” and got more laughter.
In summing up the Defence, Mr Roland Oliver said the issue in the case was whether Whiffen associated with the stable boys to obtain information by means of giving them drink. Whiffen, who was a young man, was keenly interested in racing, and because he occasionally mentioned horses to the boys, that could be no ground for granting an injunction against him. "I am not attacking Mr Persse," said Mr Oliver, "or reflecting on his treatment of the boys, but obviously it would be better for him if the boys were deaf and dumb. Mr Persse is entitled to take every step to enforce secrecy and to be in a position to cane the boys if he liked."
His Lordship in his judgement said that he was not prepared to believe that Whiffen had never questioned the boys about the horses’ chances and thought him “unreliable in many particulars”. Meanwhile he accepted the evidence of Sharp and Shine and thought Leach gave his evidence “fairly and properly”. Furthermore, his Lordship continued, although allegations (of canings) were made against Persse there “was no ground for any suggestion that improper treatment had been meted out to the boys”.
Consequently, he granted the injunction and Whiffen would have to pay Persse’s costs. A similar order was made on Prebble and he was ordered to pay costs up to the day he failed to put up a defence.