Lessons From Randwick

So far the Singleton-Waterhouse saga amounts to a rap over the knuckles to each and son Tom the being told to be careful.

But will the most important question remain unanswered? Why did a horse compete when obviously not fit, even though it was declared fit by the trainer and two vets, one of whom was independent of the trainer? Remember that the got involved initially because of the fracas between the owner and the trainer, not because of the horse’s performance. The alleged illness issue only followed on from that.

So the experts decided on fitness but who supervises the experts? The only answer to that is the stewards. That’s their job. Yet, although they have since noted the paperwork failures, the RNSW stewards have so far stopped short of delving further into that conundrum. The public, particularly those who lost money on the deal, will not be happy with that.

In contrast, it brings to mind a very public spat in when stewards pulled a horse out of the Melbourne Cup, on the advice of their own vet, despite meeting furious objections from the trainer, David Hayes. It all revolved around the interpretation of the state of the horse’s hoof. But where there was doubt, the stewards acted in the interests of the racing public – correctly so. This would suggest that, in Sydney, if the stewards were not previously aware of hassles with a well-backed horse, then they certainly should have been immediately after the race and acted appropriately.

On the other hand, consistency is hard to find. The same Victorian stewards got no applause for their slow and arguably lenient handling of the Damien Oliver case, which involved possibly the worst sin of all – a jockey not only betting but betting on a horse competing in the same race. Very confusing.

Greyhound stewards, from state to state, are prone to apply different penalties for similar drug offences. Nor have they really acknowledged the problem of minute traces of substances emerging from public feed sources, as has occurred at the gallops. Dogs racing with chronic injuries also appears to be a non-subject.

Acting as a is not a simple task. They have to be part policeman, part prosecutor, part judge, part track manager, part father figure, part animal expert, part weather forecaster, part veterinarian, part ombudsman and part public advocate. A big problem in doing that is that they have to report to and are instructed by state authorities, who may or may not have exactly the same interests. Stewards are not genuinely independent, although some may claim that is so. Witness, for example, the noisy public statements coming from the RNSW on the Waterhouse case. Note also that stewards do not issue licences, although they may cancel them, thereby removing the right to work of the offender. That’s serious stuff.

In a perfect world, it might work like parliament and the judiciary, where one sets up laws and the other on them, and each is deliberately kept separate from the other. But then, who would hold stewards responsible for their actions? You can’t hire and fire judges willy nilly, so the law itself is their real master. That’s not so in racing.

For that matter, nobody short of parliament holds racing authorities responsible for what they do. Arguably, that supervision is very light indeed. There are laws about who has what power and what their limits are, but nothing specific about how well or how efficiently they go about their business. Ministers are much happier just handing out prizes at feature events. It’s all very subjective and not remotely like the hoops that public companies have to jump through in the course of their daily business.

And board members are liable to change with the colour of government, further ensuring a short term approach to business in an industry which desperately needs vision and planning, and which is simpatico with what is going on in the big world. Shareholders, or stakeholders as many like to term them, don’t get much of a look-in. Racing authorities’ reports to the public tend to be waffly and self-serving. Financial figures are hard to fathom for non-experts, while statements and releases concentrate on good news items alone. Survival gets more prominent treatment than progress or a good return on assets.

However, the more puzzling matter is that rules vary from state to state, without apparent reason other than that that’s the way the individual bosses like to have them. As with the above stewards example, one lot can be tougher than another, and abuses are not uncommon (see article “It’s Time, Comrades”, May 9). Indeed, the current disputes and inquiries in Queensland are likely to go on for some months yet.

All of which make a case for two changes: first, we should have a national stewards organisation where justice is done, and seen to be done, consistently. Second, a racing commission for each is needed to oversee everything, including the stewards, to better satisfy the public wish for consistency and transparency – a bit like the Federal Police and the High Court, if you like. Both can still be responsible to the Racing Ministers Council but on predetermined terms and conditions. Perform or suffer the consequences!

This would be a vast improvement on the relatively powerless national bodies we have today. Their brief extends to not much more than racing rules, yet each state still implements its own variations on those.

In company with that responsibility, stewards may need more and broader authority, greater training and tighter pre-qualifications – again, a bit like appointees to the High Court. So be it. Theirs is a critical job.

The underlying issues are twofold. Horses and dogs are not interested in state borders, which they cross more often than grey nomads, while today’s punters no longer need to be on the racecourse, or even in the same country. And racing’s organisational structures belong in the dim, dark ages when owners wore top hats, trainers and jockeys knew their place, and the public were allowed in on sufferance.

State jealousies would need to be put aside, of course, but such reform need not interfere with the local income streams which both governments and racing codes need so badly. In fact, they would be likely to improve by recapturing some of the market lost to poker machines palaces and casinos.

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