By Robyn Louw
Many years ago, we were away on a family holiday along with my aunt and younger cousins. The baby of the family was at that exploratory stage where they were still finding out about their body and every so often my aunt would have to admonish them to stop. Eventually my cousin, clearly frustrated, retored “But mommy, it’s nice!” To which there wasn’t really an answer because of course the child was correct and what they were doing was perfectly normal and natural, but so began the tedious process of explaining what society does and does not deem acceptable behaviour and how we need to modify our behaviour in order to fit in.
Of course, what society does and does not deem acceptable behaviour changes as society evolves and (hopefully) becomes more civilised and educated and thoughtful about its environment.
And I think therein lies the crux of the matter for racing. Society is changing and so is what is deemed acceptable and racing is increasingly coming up against the issue of changing social and ethical norms. While there are increasing numbers of welfare groups and folks out saving the rainforest, using roll-on deodorants and campaigning for less packaging on our groceries, at the same time modern society and the urban sprawl means that we are less and less connected to the natural world and to the natural food chain.
Modern life is all about convenience. We are so used to buying ready meals and neatly packaged, sanitised everything that no-one really has to consider the real source anymore. Eggs come in boxes (not out of chickens), milk comes in cartons (not out of cows) and our meat comes beautifully packaged in sanitised and easy to use portions with a happy cartoon figure – if anything – of the animal that died for your dinner. There is a fundamental disconnect, but the consumer aspect of it means that large groups of people / consumers have strong opinions about things that they do not really understand. People will happily criticise a handler leading a colt around a parade ring in the strongest terms despite never having handled one in their life and whether it makes sense or not, this poses a problem for racing and that problem is going to increase unless we take steps to address it.
We live in a democracy and society dictates the rules. That’s fine, as long as society is sufficiently educated and informed. Otherwise things tend to go a bit pear-shaped. It is quite possible – if not entirely likely – that society will dictate the future survival of racing, so if we want to keep the general public on our side, we need to keep telling them what we do and how we do it. Also, if we can jack up our ideas on how we do things and keep improving them before they become an issue, so much the better.
When man originally domesticated the horse, it was first as food, then as transport and latterly also to help with agricultural pursuits. In other words, we could justify using them to help progress industry. However, with the invention of the combustion engine, that has long since changed. We now make a conscious choice to have horses around because we find it enjoyable – and profitable – to do so. If you drill right down, then it can best be hypothesized that we do it because of Churchill’s fundamental premise that ‘there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man’. We no longer need them for transport or agriculture, but we like having them around because ‘it’s nice’. And as far as racing is concerned, because there is money to be made.
Sadly, racing places an inordinate amount of emphasis on our prize money. While that is not unreasonable – we do offer big stakes – if it’s all we focus on, it tends to give people a skewed idea of what we’re all about.
There are inherent issues with what we do because we do use / exploit (?) animals for profit (so do most people / industries, but somehow the fact that we so blatantly adversise the fact that we make money betting on it makes us look bad). Also, i think the huge emphasis on prize money (as we’ve seen in the Pegasus World Cup and now The Everest) adds to that. As an aside, the Breeders’ Cup is a big money festival, but it places the emphasis on the sport ‘The BC World Championships” – not “The World’s Richest Race Meeting”. The huge emphasis (that we as the racing industry) place on prize money gives the public this bizarre perception that racing is all about money and that people in racing have lots of it, which is a skewed point of view.
I believe Les Carlyon put it best when he wrote, “As a financial proposition, it is about the redistribution of incomes. It is socialism in a form so subtle you hardly notice it. Hundreds of millions are supplied each year by businessmen from Melbourne to Manchester, from Dublin to Durban, by surgeons and solicitors, gold miners and merchant bankers, and by tax avoiders from all over.
The treasure they contribute is then redistributed slowly, little by little each month so it doesn’t look too obvious, to jockeys, trainers, vets and farriers, to clairvoyants, chiropractors and grooms, to bottlers of magic elixirs, feed merchants and float drivers. Eventually, the working classes have acquired most of the surplus income of the bourgeois. When the cycle starts, the horse people provide the experience and the owners the cash. When it’s complete, the horse people have the cash, and the owners have the experience.”
Ok, that’s obviously just a bit of fun, but the point is that we do race horses, so if we cannot / will not do without them, then we have to accept a responsibility to do our best by them to make the exchange a fair one and therein lies the rub. Overall we are seen to take, rather than to offer a fair exchange and employing the word ‘fair’ brings us back to what society deems this to be.
Unlike my young cousin, sitting on a horse is not normal, nor are most of the things we ask them to do (or how we house them, feed them / exercise them etc). While they are certainly physiologically adapted to be able to run at speed, doing so at prescribed times, for prescribed distances on prescribed tracks and carrying prescribed weights simply because humans find it fun to watch them do so is not particularly normal.
However, while most outsiders (and even sometimes the insiders) focus and get distracted by the monetary aspects, what is often forgotten is that the track is our testing ground for improving the breed.
Racing is an industry, based on a sport, which uses animals for our entertainment. However, our entertainment is coupled and is (or should be) secondary to our primary objective, which is to use the sport as a mechanism to improve the breed. Again, that places us in an invidious position. Competitive sport at its highest level, irrespective of the discipline, is about conditioning an athlete to perform a specific task to the maximum of its physical capability. We race because we seek the strongest, fastest and soundest and those then go on to the breeding shed to try and improve the generations to come. Prize money is secondary and – strange as it may sound – pales into insignificance in comparison to what good stud animals are worth – which is as things should be and that is all well and good.
The problem we face is that not all can, will or even should excel. The ones who are not as good, or fast, or strong will, by necessity, fall by the wayside. That’s what the system is designed to do, so by necessity there is wastage. That’s a tough sell in anybody’s book, particularly given the fact that even the good ones we push to the point of catastrophic breakdowns (as seen again recently with Many Clouds). It’s how we deal with that wastage that is the issue ,
To be blunt, in defending racing, we are essentially trying to excuse the inexcusable which is generally why we tend to fail, but it’s imperative that we keep trying if we want to survive for any length of time.
At the recent ITBF in Cape Town, Dr Iris Bergmann gave a presentation on sustainability in the racing industry and asserted that racing operates under a ‘social license’. She said, “We have to meet community expectations. The idea of a competitive animal sport operating in its own bubble is archaic.” I think she is correct.
As long as we are able to conduct racing in a socially acceptable manner, we will be allowed to continue. If we do not – and with the glare of the public eye, it increasingly seems that we are falling dangerously short – well, the future doesn’t look too rosy.
Horses are not needed for industry anymore. We use them for sport, for our pleasure and for our profit and we discard away the waste. There is no getting away from that and we cannot dress it up any other way. So how we treat the animals and how we discard our waste needs a long, hard look. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it needs constant attention. Let’s refer to it as our corporate responsibility, if you like. Everybody’s doing it, but racing seems to think it has a ‘get out of jail free’ card in this respect. If we want to take, we also need to give – not to charities, but to the horses we use.
By increasing / wanting to increase our profile as a public sport and by wanting / depending on public support (fans as well as betting turnover) we are also inviting scrutiny of our sport as a whole. With the advent of the internet, social media and camera phones, logic dictates that we are likely to see more and more issues arise going forward, which means more questions are going to be asked. If we don’t want to keep getting caught with our pants down, we should start thinking about answers.
One internet commentator opined that ‘horse racing is an easy target – only because they let themselves be.’ So let’s not. You cannot window dress if what’s below is ugly. So we’re going to need to take a long, hard look at some of our operational practices and make some tough decisions about the horses the industry does not want or no longer needs.
These are not comfortable subjects, but equally not ones we can dodge forever. Sticking our heads in the sand is really not the solution, or by the time we pull it out, we’ll find out we’re standing alone.
Racing is frequently accused of being a corrupt, cruel addictive sport reeking of elitism that has no place in today’s society and somehow it has become generally acceptable for people to say so and for people to believe it, because racing does so very little to stand up for itself (probably out of guilt, because we know the accusations are at least partly true). So how do we change that? Quite simply, we need to do better. We need to discuss the difficult questions and we need to find answers so that we all know where we stand and then we don’t have to feel embarrassed to be part of the industry anymore.
However it’s difficult to work through these things – they are not easy issues to sort out. They are also not cheap issues to sort out. And racing seems to have a curious inertia when it comes to facing the difficult problems and where there’s always money for stakes, new facilities or flying in celebrity jockeys, when it comes to the welfare of our horses – which, incidentally, all this is built on – we suddenly suffer from short arm syndrome. Surely spending the necessary time and money is worth it in the long run if we get to keep doing business?
The bit (well, one of the many) that I find eternally frustrating about racing is that the second there is any criticism it’s deemed as being ‘bad’. Criticism is not bad. Criticism (particularly when it comes from the public – our customer base – is (free!) feedback and an invitation to change and it’s patently obvious that we NEED to change (as per the whip debate which has raised its head again). We have to just bear down and deal with these issues head on and sort them out. It’s exhausting because they just keep coming, but isn’t that great? Because doesn’t that then help us to improve and be the best we possibly can?
Again, these are not easy issues to sort out and the solutions are not going to be cheap and there is an argument – rightly or wrongly – that wealthy owners only care about winning and do not care too much for the details of what it costs to get there. So what to do about that? I suggest the industry is going to need to take a long, hard look at its ownership body. And again, we’re back to those society norms again. People tend to be a product of their environment. People only behave a certain way because they think they can or because they think they can get away with it. Because their enviroment allows it.
So then you need to look at changing that environment to shape people’s behaviour so that they behave differently, or create different social norms for them to conform to. You can seldom MAKE anyone do anything. You have to make them WANT to.
That’s going to take leadership. Good, strong leadership. We need to put good people in place, who set good examples and inspire other people to join in so that they can feel good by association.
Not for nothing is racing referred to as the Sport of Kings. It was originally the preserve of the great and the good. I think we perhaps still have some of the ‘great’, but we have lost some of the ‘good’. Perhaps it’s time to work out how to make racing a respectable community again. One that stands tough on welfare, tough on looking after our own and is not afraid to stand up for the sport and the industry that we love. That’s certainly something I would want to be part of.
THE GAUCH: ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
By Hans Ebert
Call them part of the Old School of horse racing, but, like in music, and every art and sport, there’s no substitute for experience, and still so much that can be learned from them- racing heroes and legends like Michael Kinane, Brent Thomson, Gary Stevens, Mike Smith, Felix Coetzee, Douglas Whyte, and Darren Gauci.
The Gauch rode at his last race meeting on the weekend at Caulfield. Even if he hadn’t won the second race on the aptly named Goodwill, The Gauch would have bowed out a winner, because of everything he’s achieved, and how he’s conducted himself, on and off the field.
Despite their incredible CVs, these are professionals who wish to help those coming up the ranks, and unselfishly share with them their knowledge. We’re lucky to have many of them still involved in the sport. Of course, there are always one or two upstarts who start to believe their own publicity and quickly stumble and fall from grace. We have seen this happen time and time again, and we’re seeing it happen right now with a certain popular apprentice who was the toast of the town last season. This season, the work ethic is apparently gone, the head has ballooned, how what was achieved and by working with whom has been forgotten, and suspensions have overtaken the winners.
After thirty five years of race riding at the most highest of levels, for Darren Gauci, it’s the start of the next logical step of his career- to impart his experience and knowledge with the next generation of young Australian riders. And here’s what’s key about him, Whyte, Coetzee, Brent Thomson and others in this exclusive club: They never stop learning. They’re not know-it-alls. They’re not selfish. They’re humble. They’re complete horsemen. They’ve done it all and seen it all.
Many executives in racing clubs could learn much from them- about leadership, about not playing politics, hell, about actually riding in a race, and how to stay grounded and humble. Why certain jockeys shouldn’t be racing executives, or, and it might be a stretch, even run a racing club is baffling. Wait: It’s because this is the way the “organisation chart” has always been, and no one has thought of framing it any other way.
The last time I met up with the Gauch was a few months ago in Melbourne. We’re hardly longtime friends, but we met for a drink and a casual chat. What struck me most was his humility and, how, like The Babe and The Cat aka Felix Coetzee, he holds Joao Moreira in such awe. He’s a fan. Listening to the Gauch describe Moreira’s riding style, his tactical nous, and his determination to win showed someone who has achieved so much of his own, but still respects talent when he sees it- just like we must always respect those who have years of experience and success under their belts.
Horse racing needs mentors for young riding talent as well as mentors for its executives, both junior and senior. When these people are generous and giving with their time, only the most foolish and naive will not grasp this opportunity with both hands to become better at their jobs. MBA’s and other titles behind names have their time and place. Often, they are meaningless compared to graduating from the Academy Of Street Smarts.
As the brilliant race caller Greg Miles said after his last race ride on Saturday at Caulfield, “Thanks for the memories, Gauch! You’re a legend!” And how great it is going to be for all those who are going to learn from this legend- one of the greatest judges of pace- ever- and a true gentleman of horse racing.