THE thing with the Special Commission is that you can’t be sure what it is trying to do. Every so often, the big chief – Judge Michael McHugh QC – injects a question of his own into the interrogations, thereby offering a clue about the objectives. For example, he is interested in 6-dog fields in the UK, bend starts and injury numbers.
Once or twice he even hauled his henchmen back on track, interrupting their never-ending queries about which “I” was dotted and which “T” crossed. All for many tens of thousands of dollars a day. The value hardly seems to be there.
So far, two patterns have merged.
(1) A tiny handful of participants – i.e. trainers and the like – have been pressed to elaborate on live baiting and on sloppy paperwork, particularly to do with euthanised dogs. In part, this also emphasised poor supervision on the part of GRNSW, especially prior to the February sackings.
(2) GRNSW is under the gun in respect to dubious instructions to stewards (about reporting track injuries and deaths) and to earlier welfare policies which were poorly written or disseminated, at least by comparison with what the RSPCA would like to see and what the new regime at GRNSW prefers.
Given that hundreds of trainers and breeders are involved in this state and tens of thousands of pieces of paper moved around, it seems that the Commission will next extrapolate from these limited examples to condemn the industry for its several faults. It can hardly interview everybody.
In respect to policy matters, that is perhaps acceptable. In respect to personalised issues, it is risky. The bad apples are seldom a reliable indication of the worth of the barrel or the farm they came from. It might just be that they were handled badly.
It is now a major concern that several witnesses have confirmed that stewards were instructed by “top management” not to record track deaths on their meeting reports. Supposedly, this was left to the track vet to describe on his own report direct to head office. Whether or not this happened, it seems to have resulted in understated statistics.
This column is not surprised at the understatement. From time to time, in scanning of race results, we have found race falls not recorded as such. And quite recently we pointed out Victorian examples of euthanised dogs which went into the Fast Track records as “Retired”. In any event, there are numerous examples (many mentioned here) of incorrect statements in stewards’ reports. Their assessments of betting patterns or form variations are curious, to say the least.
Still on the matter of statistics, the Commission gave great space to the RSPCA representative who in turn quoted a variety of figures on injuries. However, he did not say what sort of injuries they were, only that they were culled from stewards’ reports. Many of these would be minor items requiring run-of-the-mill attention from trainers and others. He did not offer comparative figures for other dog breeds so the relevance of the greyhound data is suspect. (The RSPCA was similarly vague in evidence to the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry).
Importantly, all official witnesses, including the GRNSW vet, were scathing of the use of “muscle men” owing to their lack of qualifications. To the extent that they were allegedly involved in injections and related treatments that may be understandable. But when their attention concerns looking over dogs to determine muscle soreness and the like, the critics may not know what they are talking about. I am not qualified to talk with any authority but a lifetime on the edges of the industry suggests to me that they are a hugely valuable resource without which dogs might suffer and racing might grind to a halt. Certainly, they offer a skill which is valued by all trainers, and at a modest cost. To suggest that affected dogs should be taken to an expensive vet is not really practicable and many would argue that muscle men have superior skills in their speciality.
Also of interest is that the RSPCA witness (who is not currently a practising vet, but a policy “expert”) quoted information from a veterinary conference at which GRV vet Dr Linda Beer supplied figures and talked about injuries. Readers might recall that we have mentioned several times that GRV was running an investigation into hock injuries. Dr Beer is the person doing that.
However, whatever the results of that investigation, and whatever was discussed at the referenced conference is unknown to the public or to industry participants. Everything is kept in house, so to speak. The Veterinary Association website is no help either as its reports are privy only to members who are authorised to sign on. Broken hocks are counted but apparently not acted on, so far as we know. This is yet another example of the secrecy policies typical of racing authorities (see comments on steward’s reports above).
How Management Works
All of which throws up the question of separating the integrity function from the hurly burly of commercial activity – as some official inquiries have suggested. Yes, it is arguable. Previously, we have offered the view that they should not be separated as all these guys are part of the same team and should be pushing the same barrow and benefitting from the same intelligence.
Of course, underpinning that view is the thought that racing authorities should be run by competent and well balanced managers with good communication skills. Sadly, that trust may be misplaced if NSW is any guide. Or Queensland, for that matter.
But, wherever they sit, stewards and other trackside staff still have to report to a manager we can trust. Is there any guarantee that a separate boss would be better than one who controls the whole authority? Again sadly, there is little logic in that assumption either. (The saga of convicted Chief Steward, Rodney Potter, comes to mind. In that case, ICAC also strongly criticised poor supervision by authority managers).
The challenge is surely to make sure that whoever is in charge is fully accountable and transparent in the policies and decisions he makes. Or sack him and get someone who is.
In today’s environment, that is barely an achievable target. The boss – i.e. the CEO – is responsible only to the board, but for exactly what we do not know. Even so, that board is also dependent on what the CEO tells it. That may be more or less, depending on the subject and the personalities. And, on more technical matters, the board may not have a clue anyway, yet only it is legally authorised to make management decisions.
Go back a decade or two and you will find those so-called CEOs were titled Secretaries to the Board and had no more authority than a senior clerk. History has changed that a little but today’s structure is really no different – only the salaries have grown.
In any event, to expect a board which meets every two weeks or so to be conversant with what happens around the traps, including live baiting, lies somewhere between hopeful and ridiculous. OK, Queensland was an exception but the guy concerned was an active owner/breeder, which may never happen again.