By Keyser Soze in Australia
A WISH LIST FOR AUSTRALIAN RACING IN 2016:
It’s now or never time for the big two – New South Wales and Victoria. With a peak national body for Australian racing a “mission impossible” if the two States could even collaborate and cooperate in key areas of race dates, handicapping, programing, setting the racing clock, uniform rules, prize money, marketing and promotion – just to name a handful- Australian racing just might be able to get its act together, get back on track, and ignite interest in a sport, which, like a patient diagnosed with a serious illness, needs immediate treatment to prevent it going into intensive care. Give Peace A Chance, people. Have a Bed-In, or go plant some acorns for peace. Anything except more warmongering.
As for Racing Australia, a “costume” change from its previous incarnation – the Australian Racing Board- it has done little to change the perception that the so-called national body is still a toothless tiger, despite the valiant efforts of our old mate “Toffee Tongue” to prove the cynics wrong.
ALL WEATHER TRACK FOR NSW
Yet again last week, the now all-too-familiar tropical storms that are part of NSW’s weather pattern, forced the cancellation of three race meetings while those that survived were run on extremely heavy tracks. NSW racing cannot afford the loss of wagering revenue and lost opportunities for its “50,000 participants” to earn prize money and income, let alone the backlog of horses disadvantaged in their preparations.
Yet, the brick wall goes up whenever the all-weather or synthetic track option is offered as a secure and viable option to keep the racing schedule ticking over in NSW. We’ve lost count of the number of race meetings lost in this State last year, courtesy of the weather gods and goddesses.
The Racing NSW brick wall has to be dismantled, and a synthetic all-weather racing surface installed at one or more provincial and country venues to provide an option to race when turf racing is washed out. The despised Victorians have shown the way with two synthetic surfaces to secure racing during the winter and early spring months with race programs attracting near capacity fields and strong wagering turnover. Trainers and jockeys have voted with their feet to support it.
Perhaps John “the messiah” Messara, in his role as Chairman of Racing NSW, should put an end to the tail wagging the dog and consult some of NSW’s leading trainers – like the Hawkes’, Snowdens, O’Shea, Waterhouse, Waller and others who have raced their horses on the Victorian synthetic surfaces, and put an end to the stubborn and ill-founded resistance by the usual suspects in Druitt Street to a wet weather “insurance” policy for NSW racing.
THE DRUGS PLAGUE: UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!
It is stating the bleeding obvious about the epidemic of drug use and administration in sport and across society. 2015 was Racing’s year from hell. Racing’s very own big C- Cobalt- put the proverbial dagger through its already weakened heart. Cobalt positives did not discriminate, surfacing in horses trained by some of the biggest and most successful names in racing as well as a number of lesser known and lower profile trainers.
To Ray Murrihy’s credit, the time lapse between the confirmation of the positives and the hearing of the charges, was much shorter than the near year-long delays in Victoria. Racing Victoria has been rightly condemned for prolonging the horse opera to the detriment of the image and brand of racing, not to mention the impact on those charged- their families, staff and training businesses. Walking around in a trance, and appearing to be doing nothing while the rumour mill becomes unhinged with all kinds of rumours isn’t exactly helping the integrity of the sport.
Regrettably, the public “circus”- Australian racing’s own version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus- will continue into 2016, with more Norma Desmond-type theatrics whilst the appeals processes are activated. The role of the Victorian racing print media – particularly News Limited scribes- has been glass half full at best, vacillating between empathy and support for some of the charged trainers and implicit criticism of the governing body and its Stewards panel.
One particular gem from the Herald Sun’s Matt Stewart last week captures the challenge that racing and its governing body faces in confronting the drugs issue: “The training ranks are brutally competitive. Many trainers are struggling to survive. Why for instance can’t some innocuous non-performance ‘help’ drugs be put on an exemption list”.
It is not the first time Stewart has played the role of “village idiot” in the pantomime that is Australian Racing, but please don’t insult the intelligence of those in the racing community that have a longer attention span than some of the twitterati who are trying their hardest to hijack any sensible discussion and debate on racing and the scourge of drugs and race fixing.
“Innocuous non-performance help drugs”? Seriously, Tin Man, ever heard of oxymorons? And have you ever considered that IF a level playing field was ever achieved and cheating was extinct in racing that it just might give your “struggling trainers” a bolter’s chance of surviving in this “brutally competitive” universe?
THE LEADERSHIP VACUUM
At a time when the clock is ticking away for Australian racing, and the midnight hour gets perilously closer, governing bodies at the crucial decision-making level in the States, and the leading states, in particular, are in desperate need of activating the “refresh” button with their leadership.
Where every other sport has successfully reinvented itself, has the turnstiles clicking and have astutely positioned themselves to grab a big chunk of the “new” media space and the generation coming through, racing, through its old world thinking, its increasingly meaningless language and jargon, an outdated bureaucratic organizational structure and decision making process, has been left stranded at the start way after the barriers have opened.
Racing, like no other modern sport, has turned preaching to the converted into an art form. And it is content to keep bumbling and bungling its way like the Keystone Cops through whatever challenges are thrown at it in the 21st century- content to live with dwindling attendances and interest and excusing itself for its continuing demise with a suite of “usual suspects” excuses dusted off and given an airing from time to time.
If a week is a long time in politics, then 10 year plus tenures are an eternity for racing executives, aren’t they? But when the tail ferociously wags the dog and its owner plays “good cop, bad cop”, the “refresh” button will stay jammed for an insufferably long time.
A TABCORP AND TATTS MERGER?
It’s not just the leadership layer of Australia’s racing’s governing bodies that needs a “refresh” course. The antiquated model under which the totalisator operators who fund Australian racing is in dire need of a comprehensive overhaul. The failed merger talks between the two “goliaths” is a positive sign that both organizations have finally recognized that not only has the wagering landscape changed forever, but their own shareholders and the racing industry is being hopelessly short-changed by ultra conservative business and commercial strategies. They have failed miserably to exploit opportunities that have been successfully seized upon by their corporate and online wagering competitors.
If there is to be a merger, and most business analysts and commentators expect it to happen, then the resultant entity must break free from the shackles of their separate outdated thinking, re-open dialogue with Governments and Racing Administrators, and re-write their existing wagering licence agreements. Alternatively, they should hoist the “for sale” sign and exit the wagering landscape and give a potential buyer the opportunity to do better.
Their failure to simply deliver on the three key elements of marketing – the three P’s – Product, Promotion and Price- becomes more glaringly evident by the day as a generation of savvy customers are entering the market in increasing numbers and voting with their feet for more exciting products, promotions and prices, which are being offered by the corporate and online sector.
WILL SKY GET ITS ACT TOGETHER?
Let’s hope so for the sake of racing. Sky Thoroughbred Central, launched immediately following the well-executed demise of TVN, with fanfare and great expectations, has turned out to be a one dimensional NSW-centric racing channel. There it plods along with the same old tired faces and voices, with the same outdated production and presentation model, targeting and catering to an ageing and shrinking demographic that epitomizes the time warp that racing finds itself doing the last waltz with Engelbert Humperdinck.
There’s nothing central about Sky’s “gold class” channel whatsoever.That’s unless you believe that NSW racing is the centre of the universe – a proposition which even those who might inhabit the “cuckoo’s nest” would find hard to accept.
The tokenistic treatment of the lesser states through the Sky Thoroughbred Central is demeaning with more than a main course of blatant arrogance thrown in. According to Fairfax Media’s Chris Roots, the Sunshine State’s Brisbane Racing Club is “furious at how it is covered on the Sky premium channel particularly on Saturdays, which often sees it relegated behind NSW provincial meetings”. He adds that: “Officials in Queensland believe Racing NSW has too much influence over Sky Channel. The BRC has sent several letters to Sky, pointing out breaches to the Racing Queensland contract but they have fallen on deaf ears”.
It is an open secret in NSW, and in other states that Racing NSW and Sky, and their Tabcorp masters are joined at the hip- a marriage of convenience for these parties, but a marriage of almost irreconcilable proportions for the rest of the Australian racing states, with perceptions and increasingly well-founded allegations of favourable treatment and preferential treatment being made public.
The continuing loser in all of this is Australian racing. Doesn’t it further mount a compelling case for a total overhaul of leadership at the highest levels in Australian racing?
AND ALL FOR WHAT?
The severe penalties dished out by the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) this week to over thirty players at one of the most prominent AFL Clubs – Essendon- is a stark and revealing reminder of how sporting clubs and sports men and women can be blindsided by an often naïve, stubborn and sometimes misplaced arrogance in responding to charges of using illicit performance enhancing drugs and match fixing.
In the case of the Essendon Football Club and its players, if they had chosen the option of pleading guilty, importantly under mitigating circumstances, to the use and administration of illicit and prohibited substances as the players at NSW NRL Club Cronulla had done, they would have been handed a maximum penalty of three or four months, instead of the one year season ban, and avoided the on-going stress and damage to reputations which they have endured for nearly three years- all in the name of trying to prove their innocence which, from the very beginning was going to be a mountain too high to climb.
There’s a lesson in this for racing and for those involved and facing drugs and race fixing charges with mandatory potentially career ending penalties. Tellingly, it is a reminder of the valuable, brilliant and astute legal advice which was given to Damien Oliver several years ago when he faced the serious charge of betting on a horse which he did not ride, in a race in which he rode the favourite. An early guilty plea and a reduced penalty of nine months enabled Damien to make a triumphant return for the spring racing carnival and resume his outstanding riding career in the manner of the champion jockey, which he is and always will be.
One cannot, but speculate how different a scenario in terms of penalties- and costs- the Victorian trainers facing cobalt charges would have contended with if they offered up, through their legal teams, the highly plausible defence of “unwitting administration” 12 months ago to the Racing Appeals Board and negotiated a reduced penalty of part disqualification, part fine. It might have resulted in some of them being given a matter of months, or at the extreme, a year away from resuming their professional training careers, avoiding the burden of excessive legal costs and the extreme toll on the their own health and that of their families, not forgetting the permanent long term damage to their own reputations and to the image of the racing industry.
Meanwhile, this sorry pantomime continues to be played out in public energized by a headline hungry racing media pack, aided and abetted by a combination of arrogant and not very intelligent behaviour by some of those in the firing line supported by one or two wannabe “D” grade actors masquerading in wigs and gowns in their daylight incarnations as legal eagles.