THE CASE of the PENNY PILLS

A beating, a suicide, a blonde and a cure for asthma have been parlayed by the press into a major British horse-doping scandal
May 08, 1960

In the dead of the night of April 19, while standing in his kitchen garden, Bertie Rogers took his own life with a shotgun. Once a stableboy and jockey, Bertie was 66 years old, lived quietly in the village of Compton in southern England, made a fair living driving a lorry for £12 a week and was well thought of in his community. Aside from close friends, his death ought not to have affected many people one way or another. But the day after it occurred, front-page banner headlines flared throughout Great Britain. For all his unassuming ways, said a lathered Fleet Street, Bertie Rogers was in fact chief chemist in a nationwide, perhaps even international, horse-doping syndicate. And such was his wizardry, he concocted his dope from ordinary asthma pills, available from any druggist for a penny.

That such a thing could be true of Bertie Rogers was incredible. For 30 years he had made his home in an ancient thatched-roof cottage owned by 82-year-old Alan Prior and his wife Julia. Peaceable (he was only 5 feet 4 inches) and easygoing (he was so bowlegged everyone called him "Bandy," but he took no offense), Bertie made himself useful in Compton and was a regular and convivial guest at the Red Lion, a fieldstone inn 300 yards from his cottage. Indeed, Rogers' civic standing was such that his neighbors had made him chairman of the Thrift Club, and as one man later told The Daily Telegraph, "Bandy was as straight as a die over money matters and would sooner pay you a pound than owe you a halfpenny."

Chairing the Thrift Club certainly seemed the proper activity for Bertie Rogers. Though his only known income was from his modest job, another friend told the Telegraph "he often flourished a bundle of fivers [£5 notes, worth about $14 each] and never seemed hard up for money." Added to that was the fact that though Bertie had a weakness for playing the horses, he still maintained his solvency, a testimony to money sense any man would acknowledge. (And, it could later be said, his profitable manipulation of penny asthma pills was a thrifty enterprise in itself.)

Bertie Rogers did have his peculiarities, to be sure. For one thing, he received a rather unnatural amount of mail from people in racing circles, it was said, and he kept every letter in a pasteboard box beside the upright piano in the Priors' living room. But anyone who troubled to notice could only conclude it was an old jockey's feeble tie with the past, and forget it. For another thing, the papers were able to report that Rogers used to keep an occasional clandestine rendezvous with a "beautiful blonde woman and a flashily dressed man driving an expensive saloon car." That detail of Bertie's life was politely marked down by fellow villagers as his affair, not theirs. Finally, Bertie had an uncanny way of predicting which horses would win which races. Those who knew this merely agreed it was Rogers' good fortune to be so gifted.

But curiosity began to get the best of Compton in mid-March when a singular misadventure befell its Thrift Club chairman. "Two men drove up to the house in a large black car, and Bandy went off with them," Alan Prior, the landlord, told the Daily Mail. One man, Prior remembered, was about 35 and his name, indisputably, was Joe. A regular at the Red Lion recalled (for the Mail): "I saw Bandy talking to these two men—they were whispering and stopped when I came up. They plied him with drink, and against his will he went out with them."

"Very late the same evening," said Prior, "the car pulled up, and Mr. Rogers was dumped on my front path. He was in a terrible state, covered with blood, and a lump the size of an egg was on his temple." Rogers volunteered nothing to Prior about his outing and refused to see a doctor. He remained uncommunicative for days afterward, and it began to appear that the two strangers (indicted by one man as Londoners) not only had altered Bertie's looks but had changed his personality as well. "Bandy seemed to become a completely different man," said Errol Castle, publican of the Red Lion, to the Daily Mail. "Ordinarily, he was always cheerful and had a kind word for everyone. Often he would buy six bars of chocolate for children playing outside the pub." Said Prior: "From that night on he seemed terribly depressed and talked as little as possible."

Since Bertie wasn't talking, his neighbors did not press. Then about dusk one night two weeks ago, acting on what the papers described variously as "an overheard conversation between trainers" (News Chronicle) and an "underworld tip by vindictive criminals" (The Daily Telegraph), two Scotland Yard inspectors showed up at the thatched cottage. After a mumbled conversation with Bertie (the Priors confessed they could not hear what was said), the Yard men left with Bertie Rogers in tow. Mrs. Prior met Bertie at the door when he returned after midnight. At the urging of the press, she reconstructed this exchange: "I said: 'Whatever's up?'

"Bandy said: 'They had me at Marlborough.'

"I said: 'What's the matter then?'

"He said: 'They reckon I have been giving them powders for horses.'

"I said: 'Did you know this was coming?'

"He said: 'No.' "

It was some hours later, after Mrs. Prior had retired, that Bandy went into the garden and there ended his life. Ruled Mr. N. B. Challenor, the North Berkshire coroner: "He found himself in a state where he felt unable to stand up to what might be ahead." The earthly possessions Rogers left behind him included a £100 ($280) Post Office Savings Account, his box of letters, mixing bowls, a mortar and pestle and a quantity of bluish powder. Police said the powder was a stimulant drug.

The case of Bertie Rogers and the Penny Pills had the makings of a first-rate scandal and, operating on the assumption Scotland Yard would be typically noncommital (it has been), the papers launched investigations of their own. "The more sensational writers will extract the most from the latest scandal," said The Star, primly and correctly.

Scotland Yard, led by Chief Detective Superintendent Herbert Sparks, a sort of Jack Hawkins facsimile, went its businesslike way. Reporters went theirs. Vic Rogers, 56, told The Daily Telegraph his brother Bertie had been doping horses for 20 years. "I implored Bandy to get out of the racket," said Vic, "for there was no future in it. But it was easy come, easy go with Bandy. He spent in a big way as he won in a big way." The Daily Mail uncovered a friend of Bertie's who said he too had shared his secret. "Quite naturally, I didn't want to know anything about crooked deals," said the man, quite naturally, "but Bandy once took me to the races and told me beforehand which horses would win. He was completely right." When Rogers made personal deliveries of dope, said the Mail's source, "he would sew his secret-formula capsules into a hidden pocket in his waistcoat. He would then give the stuff to the stableboys or to others in the racing world. Once I nearly went to the police," the man added, "but a man doesn't let a friend down, does he?"

The Daily Express learned, meanwhile, that Rogers had sometimes openly boasted to close friends that his drugs were surefire and undetectable (an unlikely claim), and the News Chronicle quoted a man who remembered, "Bandy used to ring up friends, and often he would say to me afterward: 'Such and such a horse is going to win.' Mostly it did."

Those newsmen not nosing about at the Red Lion were busy elsewhere, sometimes tracking Scotland Yard, sometimes constructing theories.

The letters in Bertie's box by the piano were orders for dope from racing courses all over England, maybe all over the Continent, wagered the Daily Express. The beautiful blonde and her well-dressed escort in the limousine supplied Rogers with the basic ingredients used in his formula, conjectured the Telegraph and the News Chronicle. Bertie was beaten and dumped in his yard because "he wanted to quit the business," surmised the News Chronicle, because he refused to join a new dope gang, said the Daily Express. Rogers was paid for his services, said most of the papers, with tips on which horses would be operating under his influence, but the News Chronicle and The Daily Telegraph were at odds whether he got £5 or £50 additional for each treatment (known in the trade as a "cup of tea"). Sharing the cynical attitude of some that Bertie's dope was nothing but ersatz powder pawned off on gullible, would-be crooks, the lightweight Empire News sniffed: "Only a minor doping incident has taken place."

All the while Scotland Yard (which had called in the French S√ªreté to explore Continental ramifications) mingled furtively with race-meeting crowds, asked questions "of the high and low in racing circles throughout the country" (Evening News) and "drove through the night" (The Daily Telegraph) to a track in West Ilsley where "five stable lads were roused from sleep and interviewed." The Telegraph missed the lads' drowsy responses, but it knew the inspectors then pushed on for further questions at other tracks and that back at headquarters a diligent search of records disclosed a dossier bearing a now familiar name: Bertie Rogers. Ten years old, it concerned another instance in which Rogers had been suspected of doping operations. Sir Gordon Richards, who once rode for the Queen and is the world's only knighted jockey, was called in to aid the Yard. Immensely knowledgeable about English racing (though an emphatic stranger to the late Bertie Rogers), he said: "The inquiries could turn out to be a bubble—on the other hand, there may be repercussions."

Clearly, repercussions were what the press was hoping for. It had been some time since it had had its hands on a major racing scandal. The most easily recalled was the great Santa Amaro-Francasal conspiracy in 1953. Francasal, a relaxed sort of race horse, was entered in a race at Bath, but the fleet-footed Santa Amaro, his virtual lookalike, was the horse in the paddock. On the supposition it was Francasal running, official odds were 10 to 1. On the knowledge it was Santa Amaro, tipped-off bettors all over England backed the bogus entry. As the bets built up, bookmakers tried to telegraph the track to shorten the odds, but found the wire inoperative. Francasal-Santa Amaro ran a beautiful race and won. Too late to do much good, Scotland Yard discovered the telegraph wire had been deliberately cut and a swindle consummated.

Whether Bertie (Bandy) Rogers had carried off a swindle to rival the Francasal-Santa Amaro switch was yet to be proved. But he had risen to national (if posthumous) prominence and had supplied the English with a fine and going scandal.

PHOTOBERTIE ROGERS, WHO CHOSE NOT TO FACE WHAT LAY AHEAD PHOTOALAN PRIOR, WHO FOUND BERTIE'S BODY IN THE BACK GARDEN PHOTOFLEET STREET'S FRENZIED HEADLINES MADE THE MOST OF SCOTLAND YARD'S INVESTIGATION INTO SUSPECTED DOPING SYNDICATE PHOTOSIR GORDON RICHARDS AIDED POLICE PHOTOSUPERINTENDENT SPARKS LED YARD QUIZ PHOTOTV-EQUIPPED THATCHED COTTAGE, OF TYPE PROMINENT IN ENGLISH TOURING ADS, WAS BELIEVED LABORATORY FOR BERTIE ROGERS
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)