John Singleton’s public comments about More Joyous’ (now former) trainer Gai Waterhouse and her bookmaker son Tom have prompted Tom to see his lawyers regarding a possible defamation action.
Singleton’s mare More Joyous, racing one of the worst races of her career, finished seventh in the All Aged Stakes at Royal Randwick on 27 April. Controversy arose after Singleton’s claim on national television that bookmaker Tom Waterhouse had told people that the mare was not fit to run, inferring that Tom was acting upon ‘insider’ information provided to him by his mother Gai, More Joyous’ trainer (Gai has since been sacked by Singleton as trainer).
After the race Singleton said on national television, “When Gai’s son knows last night exactly the result today the conflict of interest is a bit personal. I was going to put $100,000 on her … and her son is a bookmaker paying she’s got problems I didn’t know about, you have to ask Gai, you have to ask Tommy … all I’m saying is there is too much conflict of interest."
In response to Singleton’s comment, Tom Waterhouse denied making any comment: “I never said the horse had problems – I never knew the horse had problems. He (John) says that kind of stuff to cause a bit of controversy.”
Singleton’s allegation is a serious one, but is it defamation? If it is, Gai Waterhouse may be weighing up her options also.
Defamation in the eyes of the law
Defamation occurs when defamatory material relating to an individual is published. Defamatory material is that which could expose an individual to hatred, contempt or ridicule; cause people to shun or avoid an individual; or lower the public’s estimation of that individual. The law assumes that everyone is of good character, until proved otherwise (more about defamation here).
It is evident that Singleton’s public comments could lower the public’s estimation of Gai Waterhouse as a trusted and reputable horse trainer. The public have been invited through Singleton’s comments to adopt a suspicious approach that may lead them to question what ‘really’ took place.
The statement made by Singleton suggests to the ordinary person that both Gai and Tom Waterhouse (and his betting company) cannot be trusted in the industry and may be involved in insider trading. The comments also infer that Gai Waterhouse does not provide horses fit for racing and does not adhere to racing codes of conduct.
It is evident that this type of inference could cause major damage to the Waterhouses’ reputations and their businesses. Both Gai and Tom may have a possible claim for defamation.
Defences to defamation
In this situation there are three possible defences that Singleton could rely upon if faced with a claim for defamation: qualified privilege, honest opinion and justification.
Arguably, the public has an interest in having information on the condition of race horses for booking purposes. If Singleton can prove that he believed on reasonable grounds that the public had an interest or apparent interest in having this information – and his comments were made in the course of giving the public the information – Singleton may have a qualified privilege defence to the defamation claim.
But can comments based upon third-hand information, made on public television in the aftermath of a booze-fuelled afternoon at the races be considered reasonable conduct in the circumstances? Perhaps a duty lies with Singleton in verifying his sources before proclaiming conspiracy trackside. What is considered reasonable conduct in the circumstances is an objective test the presiding judge will have to wrestle with, and a hurdle that Singleton may well fail to overcome.
Singleton may also consider the defence of expressing his honest opinion. This defence could be successful provided that the matter was an expression of an opinion rather than a statement of fact. This opinion would need to be a matter of public interest, based on proper material that was substantially true.
Although Singleton may have had a reasonable right to express his honest opinion and it may have been a matter for public interest, Singleton’s failure to make proper inquiries before publication of the statement on national television was inexcusable and could result in irreparable harm to the Waterhouse empire. Singleton’s potential defence would likely fail on this point.
The nasty public spat is an unfortunate end to a successful racing relationship that saw Waterhouse training 26 number one winners for Singleton. It is also the beginning of a media circus that could result in a bitter dispute both in and outside the courts if a defamation action is pursued.
If the rumours are true (or at least substantially true) that Gai Waterhouse disclosed More Joyous’ issues to her son Tom, and that Tom passed this information on, then the gaping holes in the above defences will be of little significance. This is because Singleton would be justified in making those comments irrespective of his intent in making them at the time.
The plot thickens…
As always happens a few days on, more information on the saga has come to light. A further report by Patrick Smith in The Australian on the 30 April states:
"Singleton's accusation was that Waterhouse failed to tell him and that the owner only discovered that More Joyous had an issue through mates, including a former Group I jockey, on the Friday night. And the mates had been told by Waterhouse's bookmaking son, the universal wallpaper Tom Waterhouse.
Yet it has become clear that Singleton's personal vet, John Peatfield, was aware that the mare had "some heat in the neck" on Thursday. The horse was given suitable treatment. And that Peatfield and Waterhouse's vet, Leanne Begg, inspected the horse in the presence of Singleton's racing manager, Duncan Grimley.
Waterhouse considered the horse fit to race on the Thursday, had it confirmed by two vets on race morning with Singleton's racing man present.
What was Waterhouse going to tell Singleton that the vet and the racing manager could not have been expected to do? Waterhouse would have seen Singleton that afternoon and only reconfirmed what she had every right to think the vet and the racing manager would have already informed Singleton about.”
Sky News revealed yesterday that a further statement had been made by Andrew Johns in order to clarify the media frenzy which has taken place since Saturday. Johns stated:
"I asked him (Tom Waterhouse) what he liked and if there were any specials. Tom replied that he didn’t like It’s a Dundee, More Joyous and All Too Hard. I think I remember saying to him, with a laugh I think, surely you’re not serious about It’s a Dundeel? Tom then went on in some details to quote stats to back his point. The conversation was largely about It’s a Dundeel…At no stage was there any discussion about the health or fitness of More Joyous.”
This statement may dispel whispers suggesting insider trading between Gai and Tom Waterhouse and any truth defence. As the saga unfolds, it is becoming clearer that most of what was said about More Joyous was third hand and taken out of context and not investigated before the drama played out.
There will be a steward’s enquiry Monday next week where Singleton will be forced to reveal the identity of any other, ’mates,’ who spoke to him about More Joyous. Either way as the days go on it looks more and more likely that an apology is on the cards. We put odds of 1000 to 1 that any defamation claim will be filed.
Ironically had the whispers not occurred Singleton would have bet $100,000 on the horse; because of the comments he didn’t - Tom Waterhouse apparently backed More Joyous and lost his money.