Wake Up Racing, You Are In Crisis

4
Feb

Racing Authorities clutch to a position on racing skulduggery that is not believed outside the bubble.

Authorities have trotted out the same line for five years; vigilant policing protects public confidence by weeding out racing’s few remaining bag eggs. They’d say racing is no different than any other sport or business; some inevitable rascals but an honest mob, overall.

The truth is that most racing people are honorable. It’s also true that few outside the bubble believe it.

On the ABC’s Offsiders program yesterday, four non-racing sport and social commentators cut to the chase; horse racing is in crisis and the last five years of turmoil proves it. There is no counter-spin. By any measure, it’s fact.

The cobalt stings were perceived by the outside world as more evidence of bad racing culture but portrayed by racing authorities as the result of good policing. Harsh penalties – before successful appeals – would mean a new line in the sand, a cultural shift.

Then came Aquanita; the doping of horses right under the noses of stewards for 10 years. A neat race-day gotcha finally caught the crooks. Authorities clutched to the standard line – we didn’t get lucky, we got serious – but the outside world rolled its eyes at sport’s great serial offender.

Now Darren Weir. Charges are yet to be answered and a police investigation is on-going so it’s unfair to be pre-emptive. But our biggest trainer, the one with the best story, the fairytale the outside world embraced, is about to be put out of business because a tool of his trade appears to be crude devices used to illicit an electric shock.

The trucks have already rolled in, the horses and their owners are leaving. Staff are in limbo and in tears. The ripple effect of an almost certain major disruption to Weir’s career – more will be known today – will be devastating.

Racing people are shocked, not as much that Weir has been seemingly chased down, but because the fallout is so huge.

There has been no shock outside the bubble. The eyes have rolled again. The industry leaders have again approached the microphone to ease concerns and the volume is on mute.

Racing is in crisis, drifting away. On Offsiders, they recommended a government inquiry into racing to work out what’s gone wrong with a sport that was once less trashed – and why.

Our biggest race-clubs are losing major sponsors that had proudly aligned themselves to racing for decades. These sponsors are a barometer to public acceptance.

Racing may well be evolving from one era to the next. The desperate actions of many trainers many years ago – jacking them up, running them dead, tubing them – are less frequent now. Prizemoney is up, so is diligent stewarding.

The culture to push your luck may well be changing but the repeated scandals of the last five years suggest it’s not a smooth transition.

There are too many trainers in Victoria, too many scrambling for a piece of the pie. Prizemoney hikes and celebrated increases in wagering turnover barely trickle to those who most need it. Many of the 900 trainers are going broke and don’t know how to run a business.

The bigger stables aren’t necessarily less desperate than the smaller ones. They’re just desperate for different reasons.

Darren Weir’s stable had grown at an incredible, even alarming, rate in the last decade. Did the business model grow with it? More than one leading owner had sat Weir down and warned him he was getting too big, too quick and that things were getting out of hand.

Most believed the stable would have become more profitable had it cut his numbers almost in half; chop off the tail and focus on the top and middle. House most of them under one roof instead of scattered all over the state. Keep it tight and controlled.

An obvious move from officials, and one unlikely to be missed by an independent inquiry, would be to prevent such haphazard growth again; make a rule that prevents trainers having horses trained all over the place. Cap them without imposing a cap. Weir had hundreds of horses trained by a handful of pre-trainers. “I’ve never seen an era of so much outsourcing,” said one trainer. “Why not make a rule where the horses who are racing must be trained from the one site?”

Weir’s loyalty to the bushies who helped get him started meant he kept training their country class horses. Besides, transporting truckloads of them to far-flung tracks was part of a business model that wasn’t about restraint. The slow horses were profitable.

Once racing gets around to acknowledging its crisis, the rekindling can begin. The public will respect racing more for acknowledging it has lost its confidence and pledging to win it back than denying it.

There is something about the nature of horse training that makes it difficult for trainers to adapt to evolving social standards.

They work the opposite hours to the rest of us. They mix with the outside world via their owners but not often; race-day, trackwork, that’s about it. They are surrounded by similar insiders and mostly consider critics of racing as politically correct do-gooders.

I have a handful of friends who are trainers. They are interesting and engaging people but some simply do not grasp or care what the world thinks.

They get hints but they brush them off. The backlash to Racing NSW’s bid for a slot race barrier draw to be plastered over the sails of the Opera House was one of those hints.

The petitions and protests were a reaction to Alan Jones’ bullying but also because there was an overwhelming view that racing had no place being draped over the Opera House.

Racing should welcome an independent inquiry because racing has proved incapable of introspection. It misreads messages. It keeps belting out “wagering is up” press releases as good news to an outside world that views gambling as a social disease.

Time for someone outside the bubble to reach for the microscope.

BY: Matt Stewart RSN Racing Editor
www.rsn.com.au