Supreme Court to decide if horse-doping is criminal fraud

Horses race around a track. Stock photo by Getty Images.
Stock photo by Getty Images

All bets are off today as the Supreme Court of Canada hears an interesting case of horseracing fraud.

Should the top court decide horseracing meets the elements of fraud under the Criminal Code, one man — Derek Riesberry — will be in major trouble.

Here is the background story. Riesberry, a trainer of standardbred horses, was caught on video injecting a drug into a racehorse. Additionally, a syringe containing performance-enhancing drugs was found in his truck. He was charged with fraud and attempted fraud, as well as cheating and attempted cheating at a “game” — all under the Criminal Code.

At trial, the judge tossed the fraud charges on the basis that the Crown failed to prove “deprivation.” In other words, the court was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that an actual monetary loss occurred because people relied on an assumption that the horse was or was not injected with a drug. Essentially, the finding was: no deprivation, no fraud.

The trial judge also tossed the cheating charges because horse racing, in his opinion, was not a “game of chance or mixed chance and skill,” and, as such, did not meet the definition of a “game” under the Code.

The Crown appealed this decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal convicted Riesberry of fraud and attempted fraud, because he deprived bettors of an honest horserace and violated the rules of racing.

The appeal court did not, however, convict Riesberry of cheating in a game. Instead, it ordered a new trial so another judge could look for specific facts that may substantiate cheating. On the question of whether horseracing is a game under the criminal code, the appeal court said it could be a game of mixed chance and skill, if bettors resorted to chance systematically.

Riesberry was not happy with the Court of Appeal’s decision on the fraud charges. He appealed his convictions to the Supreme Court. The SCC will be dealing with fraud-related charges only. It has to decide whether Riesberry’s cheating put the public at risk and deprived them of a value.

The decision of the top court will be final. There are three possibilities:

  • The SCC confirms his fraud convictions, which will be bad news for Riesberry because he may get a jail term as the penalty.
  • The SCC tosses his fraud convictions, which is what Riesberry ideally wants.
  • The SCC orders a new trial on fraud charges. This means Riesberry has to go back to trial court and start all over. Of course, this will cost him more in lawyer fees and headaches.

The law may not be very clear, but horse bettors will tell you what Riesberry did is a definite no-no.

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