By Keyser Soze
BREEDERS LEVY: THE GREAT ESCAPE
Australia’s premier annual yearling sale – the William Inglis Easter sale- kicks off in Sydney next Tuesday. The three day sale showcases le crème de la crème of Australia’s thoroughbred yearlings and, each year, record prices are paid by buyers from every part of the globe as the dreamers are caught up in the intoxicating atmosphere of pursuing the next potential champion. It’s a spending orgy par excellence, where normally, intelligent and highly successful businessmen and women, make bizarre, illogical and irrational decisions, collectively, or individually to voluntarily donate sizeable sums of their wealth into the bank accounts of the wealthiest sector of the racing industry – the Breeders. And there’s another story for this and hidden from view, which we’ll tackle another day. Nothing is ever what it seems, and dig deeper and there’s method and a raison d’être to the perceived madness. It’s not unlike all the money pouring into Hong Kong to purchase losing propositions in the F&B industry.
For the breeders, meanwhile, it’s their guaranteed annual lottery win – the culmination of a near three month sales circuit, where corks of the best of the best in French Champagne are popped, and where every imaginable KPI in the breeding of racehorses is exceeded. If only such success could be replicated and guaranteed for the Australian economy, it would make Federal budget time an anachronism.
For Australian racing, it is also the time to resurrect the elephant in the room – the Breeders Levy, which a few years ago was the subject of serious discussion among the movers and shakers in NSW – the home of Australia’s breeding industry. It was, to use a typically meaningless and worthless line in racing, to be given “serious consideration” by the powers that be to ensure that Breeders made a financial contribution to racing commensurate with the lucrative and massive returns from their annual “lottery” wins from the yearling sales circuit. Like most “politician’s promises”, a breeders levy is yet to see the light of day. Politicians political promises, after all are meant to be broken aren’t they?
The Breeders, like the corporate bookmakers and wagering operators, derive their income from the racing industry. Unlike the corporate bookmakers and wagering operators who pay product fees back to the racing industry in each State – a de facto licence fee for using the racing industry product to derive incomes- the Breeders don’t, and have not paid the racing industry any form of financial compensation for the massive incomes they have derived from- and keep deriving- from Australian racing. It’s akin to operating in a tax haven or tax shelter, except, in this instance, there is no tax. It’s also akin to the real life scenario where corporate Australia, and in particular, some of the glaring examples of multinationals with external home bases, pay little or no tax whatsoever and enjoy a “free” ride on the Australian taxpayers. Sound familiar?
If the noises coming from the breeders at the time are not to have that all too familiar hollow ring about them, then it’s time they demonstrated their commitment to the Australian racing industry, put their hands in their own pockets and made a constructive attempt to sit at the table with the Governing Bodies and negotiate a fair, reasonable and equitable levy back to the Australian racing industry.
The breeding industry is one of Australian racing’s success stories, unlike just about every other area of its operations and revenue streams which are under severe pressure. Funding and revenue streams are, and will continue to be one of, if not the biggest challenges facing the Australian racing. The funding model under which Australian racing operates is unsustainable in its present form. A Breeders levy won’t be a magic bullet, but it will address a major inequality in the funding model.
There are two critical areas of racing which are grossly under-funded, and where funds raised through a Breeders Levy could be channelled into – veterinary research and education into better understanding the complex anatomical and physiological construction of a horse, and into the sinister world of illicit performance enhancing drugs, and the emerging development of undetectable “designer” drugs, whilst at the very top of the priority funding tree are severely hindered by “real” funding constraints. There is no “money tree” in racing anymore. The equine health and welfare of racehorses and the integrity of racing cannot be compromised and can only be enhanced by R&D.
Likewise, with education and training. The racing industry can no longer confine its responsibilities in these areas to the training of apprentices to get their ticket to ride in races. Racing will continue to be challenged vigorously on issues relating to equine welfare and the use of whips. Inevitably, continuing restrictions on the use of whips will demand that the apprentice training module must be overhauled and changed to re-adjust to a changing, if not ultimately, a new riding model.
Likewise, the entire licensing model for trainers and stable employees must be turned on its head to accommodate the rapidly changing face of racing. Trainer and stable staff education are the two glaringly neglected areas of education and training. The racing industry has a responsibility to take a proactive leadership role in these vital areas. Again, funding, or the lack of it, is a roadblock which must be addressed.
In the aftermath of what will undoubtedly be another record breaking sales circuit for the breeding industry by the end of next week, it is the appropriate time to dust off the Breeders Levy and put it back on the table.
GIVE THE CHAMPIONSHIPS BACK THEIR EASTER DATE
It must be soul destroying for the ATC and Racing NSW to be confronted with the appallingly low attendance figures for the Easter weekend BMW Stakes feature race day at Rosehill last Saturday.
Whilst it should be acknowledged that the race program was nowhere near as strong as Golden Slipper day the previous Saturday, NSW and Sydney racing deserves much better than an attendance of just over 8000 for a feature Autumn carnival race day, and one that offered fields of the highest quality in Australian racing.
The Sydney Autumn Racing Carnival and Easter were once inseparable and worked extremely well – just like Melbourne Cup Week and Oakbank at Easter in South Australia. Doncaster Day always had a date with Easter Saturday. Doncaster day was and still is one of the best days of racing in Australia. Deservedly, it played to houses in excess of 40,000, and, yes, it did attract a surge of interstate and international visitors each year with the added lure of the Inglis Easter Yearling Sales thrown in during the Easter week.
So where have all the punters gone? There is compelling anecdotal evidence to suggest that moving the Championships away from Easter has impacted on the traditional “let’s spend Easter in Sydney”, as well as the motivation for Sydneysiders to go racing over Easter and not take the first and last exits out of Sydney during this time.
There can be no doubting the quality of the card this Saturday for the first day of the Championships. With one or two exceptions, it has attracted the cream of Australia’s racehorses. And despite the absence of the much sought after international competition, it’s a race day which, if rightly positioned and properly and professionally marketed and promoted, could return the Sydney Autumn Racing Carnival and its present day incarnation – the Championships- as a Carnival of the highest quality in Australia and give Sydney and NSW racing a base to work forward from.
Of course, what was once the sleeping giant and which has awoken with a roar is Integrity and its inseparable by-product – racing fatigue.
Australian racing’s brand and image has been trashed almost beyond salvation by the an outbreak of racing’s own Ebola virus. A spate of sinister performance enhancing drug positives detected on a scale previously unknown, and, particularly in the two leading states – NSW and Victoria- has shaken the foundations of racing. Like many of the other sports suffering similar problems, the drug positives in racing have snared some of the most prominent names in Australian racing and hijacked the news headlines in all forms of media on an almost daily basis.
If these scandals aren’t enough, then the recent cases in Sydney and Melbourne where monies were withheld from the owners as secret commissions from the sale of racehorses to Hong Kong, has inflicted further damage on racing’s image and brand. Racegoers and the community at large are no longer shocked or surprised at the scale of widespread corruption across a raft of areas in racing. Sadly, it’s now taken as a given with a dangerous Great Divide between the Haves and the Have Nots, the Untouchables and, well, the Touched.
Sadly, all this has become part of racing’s DNA. The racing and non-racing community are fatigued with racing. They are also fed up with the abject failure of administrators to clean up the industry- and this includes the one-way street corporates are allowed to slither along while making their own rules as they go. How on earth many corporates have been allowed to be a law unto themselves shows an industry with scant regard for the protection and interests of the little people- those people who keep that interest in racing alive.
The enthusiastic willingness of the racing media, particularly in Melbourne, to sensationalize racing’s negatives, promote the self-styled martyrs, and be completely blind-sided by the Shylocks of racing, helps ensure racing continues to be marginalized.
That aside, there is so much more that could and must be done to market the Championships. For a start, providing the Carnival with certainty for dates each year would be a very good start.
WHIPS RULES TURNING FARCICAL. BUT WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
If ever the farcical new whip rules were exposed for what they are, then the stewards’ reports and fines issued to some of Sydney’s and Australia’s best jockeys for breaches of the barely comprehensible new whips rules last Saturday, provide compelling evidence of the farce that has been dumped on Australian racing by Racing Australia.
Hugh Bowman, Kathy O’Hara, Blake Shinn and Tommy Berry, all fell foul of exceeding the number of times with which they could use the whip on their rides over the final stages of the races they rode in last Saturday at Rosehill.
The four jockeys are experienced, highly successful senior riders- and taught to ride “the Australian way”, where words like “punishing ride” come into play along with visions of Mick Dittman aka “The Enforcer”.
Bowman and Berry are multiple offenders. Bowman has expressed the complete frustration of his fellow riders to NSW Stewards, who have threatened to resort to extreme measures such as suspensions, and even confiscating part or all of jockeys winning percentages. Whaaaaaaaat????? If either of these options were to be used, it would provoke another bitter fight which Australian racing just does not need- and will result in industrial action.
Surely, the time has come for Racing Australia and the State Governing Bodies to review this farcical rule limiting the number of strikes to a certain number within the last 100 metres of a race, and amend it to a certain number of strikes during a race. The last 100 metres is a critical stage of a race, and jockeys in Oz have cited the new whips rules as the difference between winning and losing a race, notwithstanding the absurdity of a jockey having to keep a mental note of how many times he or she has used the whip over the concluding stages of a race.
Jockeys schooled a certain way cannot suddenly be expected to also be mathematicians and robots during the course of a race while also doing the best they can to win it on a thousand pound animal.
Anyone else notice the number of “gentle” finishes in a race these days? Why? A jockey just might think their “quota” of time at the “whipping post” are up. And if and when this happens, the hapless punter loses out yet again.
If these whip rules are here to stay, perhaps, looking ahead, and at the next generation of jockeys coming through the ranks, there is a need to take a leaf from the riding styles of great South African riders like Basil Marcus, Felix Coetzee and Douglas Whyte, all non-whip riders and who, instead, use their upper body strength.
And then there’s the Magic Man- Joao Moreira, who navigates a path for himself in a race the same way that Lewis Hamilton competes in a Formula 1 event. He doesn’t bash a horse around with arms flaying all over the place. It’s the São Paulo school of riding.
In Australia, if these whip rules are to exist- even with much-needed amendments- it really might be time to start making gradual changes as opposed to demanding complete change- overnight- and expecting everyone to relearn what they have spent years learning and fine-tuning. And, as usual, these arbitrary orders and rules come from those who have never ever sat on a horse. Make sense?
Another setback for the misplaced obsession with internationalizing the Championships: a stewards inquiry opened into a possible bleeding attack suffered by the solitary potential international competitor – Japan’s Tosen Stardom. Stating the bleeding obvious again, the timing of the Championships – coinciding with the commencement of the European flat racing season, the Dubai Racing Carnival, and so close to Hong Kong’s second International racing week with the QE 2 Cup, Champions Mile and Sprint Championship, will always be an understandable deterrent to having the world’s best horses travel to the land down under. And to then close Sydney’s workhorse race track Canterbury for use as quarantine centre for a month just doesn’t make any sense, whatsoever.
It just beggars belief that Sydney’s premier mid-week race track has been put out of business for one month just to serve as a quarantine centre for one solitary international visitor, who is now in grave danger of missing the race. Surely common sense – a rarity in racing and among racing administrators, should be given an airing?
Where’s Joao Moreira? We’re struggling to work out why one of the world’s best jockeys – just a similar nine hour flight away from Sydney as Zac Purton and Brett Prebble, two world class jockeys based in Hong Kong, who have been riding at the Sydney features over the past few Saturdays- isn’t riding in Sydney.
Apart from his imposing record and total dominance in Hong Kong, Moreira is no stranger to Group One wins in Australia- and his presence would be a huge boost for the Championships. But something has soured the Magic Man’s flying visits to the land down under and into the open arms of a fawning racing media with even word that Moreira might move there permanently. Remember all the hype and hoopla?
Surely, his non-appearance has nothing to do with those rumours from the days of yore when the brilliant Brazilian was said to be all set to ride exclusively for Sheikh Mo, and suddenly became persona non grata with a number of leading stables in Oz? And did all these politics, and offers to ride non-winners, make Joao say to himself, “Screw it. Who needs it? I’ll stay put in Hong Kong, where life’s been great to me, break even more records, and keep all options open to getting on the best world class horses from Japan”. Joao Moreira is no fool. He isn’t known as “The Smiling Assassin” for nothing.