The Victorian Parliament has just enacted a law which allows the Racing Integrity Commission and racing stewards to haul in to their inquiries any, “people of interest.” No longer does this apply only to licensed persons.
Failure to attend would render them liable to fines and even jail terms
Commissioner Sal Perna told the Herald Sun he will not, “go out all guns blazing and ask questions of all sorts of people. You must use your judgement.”
Likewise, stewards, “must show reasons they have good grounds for asking a person to attend an inquiry.”
The change follows a number of hassles in Victoria, notably the Damien Oliver case, where the jockey declined to attend the Commission’s inquiry and where his ultimate penalty (by the stewards) was heavily criticised for being too late and too lenient. Oliver got 10 months for betting on another horse in a race he was riding in, something which must surely be the ultimate racing sin.
NSW gallops stewards must also be looking on enviously after they were frustrated by the refusal of big punter, Eddie Hayson, to attend hearings on the Waterhouse-Singleton case involving the fitness of More Joyous. Hayson has greyhound form after being responsible, amongst other incidents, for the Lucy’s Light scam at the Gold Coast greyhounds. However, there was no evidence of any illegality there. He simply beat the bookies by manipulating market prices with legal bets, after which their betting rules were adjusted big-time.
However, the change to the law in Victoria brings into question just how the Commission or the stewards will exercise their new powers. How do you define “good grounds”, for example? Will the practice spread to other states? And how big does a punter have to be to attract attention? A few hundred dollars will distort most greyhound pools these days.
I have no trouble with stewards implementing a “warning off” providing it is for good reason, and is subject to appeal (although whether it is policed properly is open to question). Anyway, for betting purposes, a warning-off means not a great deal in this electronic age. Racing NSW effectively “warned off” all the NT bookmakers at one stage, but it didn’t get far with that, did it? The Northern Territory Racing Commission found serious problems with First Four betting at Ipswich in the Brunker v Bet365 case, but, in the end, Queensland stewards failed to act in any way – no suspensions, no warning off.
However, giving stewards the same power as a court of law is another matter altogether. They have no particular legal training, only past experience in similar matters. Further, most appeals from stewards’ decisions can be made only to their employers – racing boards or committees set up for that purpose – which is a bit too circular in some minds. Only in a limited number of cases can offenders utilise independent tribunals staffed by qualified people. And it is an expensive process.
More to the point, there is reason to claim that greyhound stewards are often not up to the task in general. We have instanced on these pages many cases of irregular penalties for the same offense, stewards’ decisions being overturned for inconsistency, poor assessment of form, and a lack of attention to dogs racing with injuries. In some of these cases, they compare poorly with stewards in other codes. That hardly inspires confidence in their ability to deal with even more complex matters.
But we do need them. For the last 150 years, crooks have never been far away from the racing scene, and will continue to be for the next 150. I would even like to see stewards armed with greater skills and more sophisticated systems, and to pay them more, providing only that they improve their performance. After all, in essence they are the industry’s managers-on-the-spot, so we need them to do more than just take swabs and thump fighters. However, like the dogs they supervise, they need to pass a stricter test before they qualify.
So, could stewards do more?
Here’s an example (there would be many like it). The four semi-finals of the NSW Futurity and Derby at Newcastle last Friday featured substantial disruptions around the first turn*. Only one of four favourites won and many dogs were thrown off the track. Stewards saw fit to mention 23 of the 31 runners in their report as having suffered some sort of interference in that area alone.
There was nothing unusual about that as it happens routinely at The Gardens. Allegedly, the track was designed by “experts”, according to advice from NCA management at the time, yet none of those involved had any significant greyhound experience. That showed in the original bend-siting of the 411m boxes, which later had to be shifted at great expense to the current 400m position. Unfortunately, the 600m bend start; the poor 515m first turn and a flattish home turn remain unchanged. These are basic design issues.
Given that stewards have independently noted the poor outcomes, why would they not also look at cause and effect and make recommendations about needed improvements to the layout? After all, they are watching all this three times a week and are responsible for the integrity of greyhound racing. In fact, the word integrity is usually worked into the titles of steward managers these days.
One definition of integrity comes from Macquarie dictionary: “sound, unimpaired or perfect condition”. That hardly seems to apply here, does it?
Nor does it apply to Wentworth Park, Gosford, Richmond, Dapto or Maitland where GRNSW has, at huge expense, approved tracks works over the last decade, all of which have proved disruptive to one extent or another. Or at other tracks such as Casino, Lismore, Bulli and Nowra, where similar problems occur but no attempt has been made to rectify them. Nor have stewards commented, so far as we know.
That leaves us with the question of whether we can place enough trust in the integrity of racing stewards to support any future action they might take. This is especially critical as stewards are not independent of state authorities, although there is a strong case that they should be.
* (Note: In general terms, the above hassles at The Gardens are readily viewed on race videos, but it will be impossible to make out exactly which dog suffered what because the sunlight and inadequate camera work prevent viewers from identifying the individual dogs. They are all black blurs).