The Mother Country Has A Lot To Answer For

Two things got to me recently. The first was when I was relaxing with a cup of tea in the late afternoon and the TV came up with a series called Upstairs Downstairs, a drama about a high profile family in 1939 London. The “Ups” were titled folk while those who served them worked and slept in the basement. Each had different entrances, different clothes, different accents and vastly different ambitions. But the key was that both halves seemed perfectly happy with their lot, neither wanting to be anything else. And they took pride in what they did. What a world many of our forefathers came from! Still, I suppose you had to be there to understand it.

Secondly, it has been impossible to miss the celebration of Gough’s reign, one which will probably never end. Fair enough, too, despite the problems he met on the way, partly his fault, partly due to the dunderheads around him. They listed most of his achievements, some accurately, some not, but none more impressively than in Noel Pearson’s moving address at the memorial service. No matter what your allegiances, a DVD of that ceremony would be a worthwhile addition to the family archives.

However, one event they missed was the ending of legal appeals to the UK Privy Council. That move had started earlier but was tidied up during the period of the Whitlam government. Genuflecting was no more. Australia would decide for itself.

Of more interest personally was the contemporary elimination of the entry on Australian passports of the term “British Subject”, following immediately after “Australian Citizen”. I had never liked this much and, while travelling, had long refused to write on my immigration card that I was anyone’s subject. Airport officials never seemed to mind.

Youngsters reading this will never know what they missed, limited as they are to watching their aunties wave flags as Princess Someoneorother drives past (most of whom are not Royals anyway).

But they should, because our entire racing system emerged from the green fields of England; from Epsom, Ascot, Newmarket and so on. 1856 saw our first race club – a forerunner to the Australian Jockey Club – formed up in Sydney’s Hyde Park. A few chaps in top hats had got together and had side wagers on the prospects of their horses.

Nothing has changed since. They are still doing the same thing today, as are the Poms.

Sadly, Gough was never interested in racing, although his offsider Lionel Bowen was. So was Hawkie, Robin Askin, Andrew Peacock, the late Russ Hinze in Queensland and many other politicians, more recently Victorian Premier Napthine. Yet none of them ever queried the way racing was put together although they did give them a hand from time to time. Hawke even part-owned a Vanuatu bookie at one stage. That would not have pleased the establishment but they pretended it was not happening.

(Ex-Premier Jeff Kennett has queried the system in no uncertain terms but he is an ex-politician and did little when he was in charge – something he now regrets).

Traditional raceclubs rolled on regardless, the biggest always pointing the way for state authorities to go. Their leaders were dominant and usually had the ear of the heavies in government, if not the support of the hoi poloi who supplied the wherewithal to fund their races.

So, in effect, 156 years of thoroughbred racing and 87 years of mechanical hare racing have led to nothing more than a repeat of 1856. Modernisation was mostly confined to off-track technological developments sponsored by private firms and individuals who found it necessary to make a decent living, somewhat like the “Downstairs” mob. Even though the birth of the internet and online bookies in the 1990s shook up the industry, the status quo generally continued.

Is it any wonder that in the last 20-odd years, racing’s market share has dropped remorselessly? It is still happening although newcomers have siphoned off trade from the traditional TABs and oncourse bookies. Basically, it is now a game of musical chairs. One pinches from the other while the size of the pie stays the same or declines. The establishment just watches.

This sort of non-progress would be completely unacceptable in any other industry. Directors and management would be out on their ear just as quickly as the Australian public dismissed Gough. But at least he left some good ideas behind.

The tragedy is that talent is always available somewhere. No better example could be found than Noel Pearson himself. His speech out-Goughed Gough but unfortunately he had long since left his rewarding lawyer’s post in Melbourne to look after his own communities in Cape York. He might have had to clean up his act a bit but what a Prime Minister he might have made!

Can racing find a comparable leader? Someone who speaks a modern language and who doesn’t own a top hat? It is time.

Paul Kelly in The Australian captured the theme when he picked out Pearson’s comment that “this old man’s vision” was unique among his generation in pioneering the long delayed but epic changes needed to make Australia full and inclusive. He went on: “(Hawke and …) Liberal prime ministers such as Howard and Abbott know they must operate as successful reformers. In a fast-changing world there is no option”.

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Incidentally, horse racing has never really been the “Sport of Kings”. The present Queen perhaps, but her old man was not fussed. And I can’t imagine the next King – the Prince of Wales – nicking down to the local TAB for a bet. In practice, greyhound racing has a better claim to the title, from the time of Richard II through to Henry VIII who demanded that members of his court first complete a three months apprenticeship in training greyhounds. Then all the way on to Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s consort) who commissioned paintings of his greyhounds (some by Lucian Freud) and had a statue of his favourite dog, Eos, mounted in the grounds of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.