A lesson in ethics at the Grand National

The Times, 7 April 2006

It began innocently enough. I was a bright young thing in a bright young law firm, tomorrow would be Grand National day, and I had been favoured with An Important Task by my boss. "Would you mind looking after the clients during the race?" she asked, her desk awash with faxes and law books. "I’ve got to deal with an injunction and there’s a chance I’ll be on the phone to the court tomorrow. Can you meet the clients and play host?"

How could I say no? And why would I? I had only just joined this particular firm, whose hopes for me were as high as mine for myself. On the racetrack, that is. I was a problem-everything in those days, and the opportunity to be score a prime seat at the National was too good to pass up. I’d planned an afternoon at the bookies, but suddenly a free ticket to one of my favourite races was mine. "Of course," I said. "Who are they and what do they do?"

Such professionalism in one so young. I duly clasped my notebook and scribbled down the identities of my guests-to-be. There was the deputy editor of a national magazine, a news reporter from Liverpool, an advertising account manager from London, and even the communications director from the company where I had formerly plied my trade. "You know all about him," said my boss, of a man who makes Alastair Campbell look carefree, "but be careful with the others. We have to set the right image."

Nothing could be further from my mind, I assured her. I scurried to my office and read The Racing Post. I logged on and checked the form online. My choices were clear, my decisions made.

The next morning - Grand National morning - my excitement was undimmed by the arrival of the clients. My former colleague greeted me with a glint in his eye. "I suppose you’ll be having a bet or ten today, then?" he said, within earshot of his fellow guests. "No, of course not," I replied, conscious of my role. Image, after all, is nine tenths of the law. I ushered them into taxis and soon we were at the famous racecourse. My former colleague delighted in telling me that he was off to the Seychelles the next day.

It was a bright early spring day, and Aintree gleamed in the sun. Around me swarmed hundreds of people, betting slips protruding from their tweed attire. I took the clients to our corporate hospitality suite, my ex-colleague lorded it as usual and the wine flowed freely. So freely that, despite a plethora of opportunity, I forgot to place a bet.

Suddenly the National was about to start. My guests and I crowded to the top of the stands. One of them asked An Important Question about our practice. I could not escape. The race started and I hadn’t placed a bet. Then a curious thing happened.

As Seagram hurtled down the home straight, my ex-colleague raised his hands in the air to cheer – and dropped his betting slip. It landed at my feet. Thinking fast, I stood on it.

He had to leave in a hurry after the race to pack for the Seychelles, so I took it upon myself to collect his winnings. I knew that he would have wanted me to use them wisely, so I put the lot on the next race. And won. My boss, exhausted from a Saturday spent talking a judge into preventing the highly compromising details of a high-profile jockey’s indiscretions appearing in the tabloid press, arrived to see me collecting a vast stack of cash. "Had a good day?" she said.

"Not bad. There’s just a small ethical point I might need your help with."