VICTORIANS PREPARE FOR WAR
The battle lines have been well and truly drawn in the media rights war with a clear demarcation between the protagonists – Racing Victoria and its preferred partner, the powerful media conglomerate Seven West Media and the Tabcorp/Sky Channel combine on the other. Dozed off yet?
It’s a war which was a long time coming. Unlike the very cosy and almost intimate unholy alliance that exists in NSW between Racing NSW and Tabcorp /Sky Channel, in many respects, the relationship across the border between Tabcorp/Sky and Racing Victoria has been less than harmonious for a long time. The Victorian and NSW governing bodies are not only bitter rivals in all things to do with racing, but the Vics have long been increasingly suspicious of the cosy alliance across the border. Whereas a harsh word has never been spoken in public by the two parties about each other, in NSW, in Victoria, it’s at times been stormy and tempestuous. And as we all well know suspicion is a recipe for disaster in any relationship – personal or commercial.
But despite what has for long been regarded as a marriage of inconvenience, few in bleak city expected Racing Victoria, under it’s recently-installed Chairman David Moodie, to jump ship and recommend to the Race Clubs that they accept the Seven West Media bid.
In so many ways it was a historic decision. Moodie himself made it clear, in his first public interview as Chairman, that he was an agent of change making loud noises that he found the Seven West bid attractive for what it offered in expanding the reach of racing outside its narrow, boring and ageing RSN-type demographic.
An alliance with Australia’s leading free-to-air network was a gateway towards achieving this. And Seven’s sports portfolio included two prize ratings winners – the AFL’s home and away and finals, and the Australian Open tennis grand slam tournament. Seven also owns the rights to the most lucrative racing carnivals – the spring and autumn carnivals in Melbourne and Sydney. To use racing speak: “Seven had form”.
What clearly spooked Tabcorp and their hard-nosed Chief Executive David Attenborough, below, were the loud murmurings among racing insiders, and increasingly, among the media and business community, that Seven West Media and its Chairman Kerry Stokes were positioning themselves for a tilt at both the wagering license in Western Australia, with the imminent privatisation of the local Tab. Add to this a much bigger prize- the ultra-lucrative Victorian wagering license when the current contract with Tabcorp expires in 2024.
It would be an understatement to say that there are high stakes involved. We’re talking sheep stations here not hobby farms. Lose the media rights contract domestically, internationally and digitally and so does your grip on a raft of other very lucrative opportunities within the joint venture relationship with the racing industry. And that is exactly the message that is sending shareholders in the wagering giant towards becoming sweaty, pill-popping desperados in the throes of a massive hissy fit.
It is also the key reason why Tabcorp and Racing NSW have such an incestuous commercial relationship, one based on the longest of long terms in wagering, media rights and anything to do with racing and wagering in that State.
To Tabcorp and its Board, dealing with a compliant partner is the model of choice. The Victorians are not just irritants, they have increasingly become a very potent, and almost deadly thorn in their side. And we all know how shareholders, and, in this instance, some of the biggest institutional funds and fund managers, react to potential earnings losses. Yes, they ruthlessly and savagely torch the share price and leave the victim vulnerable to predators.
Whilst sections of the media- and particularly Brother Ray Thomas- appear to completely misread the play- and there’s nothing new about that- what is being read and spoken suggests that the Victorians will go with Seven West Media and take up the challenge of investing their own hard earned in establishing the new Channel, having done their homework that both Victorian Racing and Seven West Media have as much to gain and as much to lose if their alliance succeeds or fails.
The incentive to succeed is compelling for both parties, and, let’s face it, boys and girls, Seven West Media’s publicity machine is far superior to anything that the Oz racing industry has been and is able to offer. The incentive to succeed for Seven West Media is massive. It can be a game changer, commercially. And that must be scarier than kissing Rosemary’s Baby for Tabcorp and its shareholders.
It explains why Tabcorp is behaving so belligerently and so aggressively and threatening Armageddon for Victorian racing by pulling the plug on Sky coverage of Victorian racing from next Monday.
From what the Victorians are stating publicly, they are ready for it, and for the short-term hit to wagering revenue. But what Tabcorp fails to realize is that there is a massive backlash against their so-called premium racing channel Sky Thoroughbred racing from punters in both NSW and Victoria- and from many influential industry figures in both States.
It must be said that there is much to be admired about the willingness of the Victorians to think long-term and outside the square- depending on the square- and the la la comfort zone that exists in Oz racing, which has put such a distance between racing and the mainstream community.
For Tabcorp, time is clearly running out fast, if it has not run out already. It’s all a bloody mess, and we’re willing to bet that racing clubs outside of Oz are watching how things are unravelling, and become gun shy about getting involved in any new joint ventures until a Phoenix rises out of the ashes of a dysfunctional Humpty Dumpy.
COBALT SAGA TAKES A TURN FOR THE WORSE (AGAIN)
Chris Roots’ description of an “explosive first day of Sam Kavanagh’s case” could not have been more accurate if the reported coverage by the Sydney press is any guide.
“Racing NSW stewards heard allegations of cobalt supply, cash payments and standover tactics by key members of Flemington Equine Clinic (Victorian based)”, and “there was a web of missing postage books, phone data as well as second phones bought by key players in the inquiry”, reported “The Rooter” in the Sydney Morning Herald last Wednesday.
The allegations, and it must be stressed they are just that at this stage, could have far-reaching ramifications for those named in the inquiry, and for the racing industry itself.
Hot on the heels of the first day of the Sam Kavanagh inquiry, and within 48 hours, Victorian Stewards issued a total of 29 charges against leading Victorian trainers Danny O’Brien, Mark Kavanagh and the training partnership of Lee and Shannon Hope. They also issued 20 charges against Flemington Equine Clinic’s principal veterinarian Tom Brennan, who was also front and centre at the Sam Kavanagh inquiry.
What was particularly revealing was the cooperation between the two Integrity teams at Racing NSW headed by Ray Murrihy and the Racing Victoria team led by Terry Bailey. Surely, one couldn’t ask for two more fearless, focused, decisive leaders in any team sport?
Clearly both men and their teams have put aside State rivalries and instead shared information, and it appears resources as well, in their collaborative attempts to get right down to the bottom of what is increasingly a deep and dark web of intrigue and mystery with what now appears to be some dangerously sinister undertones.
If some of the allegations are taken at face value, then they are better placed in a piece of pulp fiction or a television mini series. “Mad Men?” “Californication?” “Game Of Thrones”?
What does not bode well for some of the key players in the inquiry is that “Sister Ray” has left the door wide open to adding to or issuing new charges. Judging by the reported coverage, you’d be laying long odds on about this happening.
Sadly for racing, the first day of the inquiry is just the first instalment in what is going to be a very long running saga. It’s the type of contract that Hollywood studios dream of – an open-ended long term guaranteed contract to produce a drama with no date in place for a final episode.
It’s the same scenario for Victorian racing. Four leading trainers facing a total of 29 charges, a prominent veterinary practice seemingly facing internal turmoil and 20 charges against its principal – plots and sub-plots which could keep script writers popping champagne corks in the screen writing world. It’s another, yes, racing’s answer to “Game Of Thrones”.
Amidst all of this is a racing media spoilt for choice with front and back page headlines, which, if nothing else, will give racing again the headlines it could do without.
If there is one lesson and message that should be clear and unambiguous to the so-called “profession” which racehorse trainers like to claim they are, it is this: it’s time to stop playing with fire. What was once a fire, threatens to become an inferno for many of you. Geddit?
OZ RACING’S BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD GO TO BELMONT.
So the “glitter twins” of NSW racing – that sweetheart Peter “Toffee Tongue” McGauran, aka Chief Executive of that most inappropriately named racing entity, Racing Australia, and his big bro-in-arms Peter Vlundies, who needs little introduction, were at Belmont to watch American Pharoah add his name to US racing history by winning the Belmont Stakes and complete the American Triple Crown last weekend. And yes, on the goodwill mission were also ATC Chief Executive Darren Pearce and Tabcorp Executive Craig Nugent.
Without begrudging this esteemed quartet of a HUGELY well-deserved junket after all they have and continue to deliver- every working day- we wonder aloud what else it could have been described as? A goodwill mission to spread the word about the Championships, perhaps? Or perhaps “recruiting” American Pharoah (surely they must be dreaming?) to compete in the Queen Elizabeth? Or perhaps even getting a bunch of “b grade” American nags over to give the Championships an “international” flavour? Or just an opportunity to make the most of some first class pointy end seats on a Dreamliner and have an all expenses bonding session?
Does it matter which of these options the arrow on the roulette wheel fell on? The bottom line was the question posed by a prominent racing identity over a beer on Wednesday: What was the CEO of Racing NSW doing at Belmont when one of the biggest scandals to hit NSW racing since the infamous jockey tapes was centre stage in every media outlet in NSW, if not all over Australia?