This is a dark time for the image of racing in this country. However, it is not that the problems are new, it is just that racing, as an industry, has hid so many skeletons in the closet that the door can no longer be shut, and we can all see inside.
In what should have been the gala festival for the sport, both forms of equine racing have been rocked by media reports alleging illegal gambling by leading jockeys and doping horses with EPO.
Damian Oliver was charged on Tuesday for placing a $10,000 bet on a horse he was riding against, as reported in The Age on Melbourne Cup Day, and within the week the Herald Sun reported that EPO doping of horses is rife among top gallop and trotter trainers, and has been for a long time.
Now leading trainer Robert Smerdon has been fined $10,000 dollars for treating a horse on race day, while overseas, champion jockey Frankie Dettori has been stood down as it has been confirmed he tested positive to an illegal substance in France, reported to be cocaine.
Historically, equine sport has always had a dirty side. The great Phar Lap’s death in 1932 has always been controversial, as were LKS Mackinnon’s attempts to skew weights against ‘Big Red’ during his life and towards colts, one of which was his own, Carradale.
In 1939, 3XY radio’s Harry Solomon called a race wrongly (after all other radio stations’ wires had been cut) in order to announce his own winner of the race (and get the bookies to pay out).
The Fine Cotton affair in 1984 is probably the best known of the failed attempts of trading off one horse for another, or using a ‘ring-in’.
There is also a history of repeat offending, offenders being linked to past offenders and ‘colourful’ individuals or, as reported in the Herald Sun, major players being ignored in investigations as to avoid finding the truth.
Back in 1993, Frankie Dettori was found by London police to have been in possession of cocaine. Robert Smerdon was fined in February this year for using banned substances on a horse.
Gai Waterhouse might be a clean trainer, but her husband, Robbie Waterhouse, was part of the Fine Cotton affair, and her father, Tommy Smith, was suspended for five years as a trainer for doping horses.
Jim Cassidy was suspended in the mid 90’s for fixing races with a drug dealer, and more recently for having marijuana in his system. Again, to ignore the obvious link is almost negligent.
Racing Victoria’s handling of the on-going Damien Oliver scandal has been an absolute disgrace. The best Oliver could come out with was that the allegations were ‘hurtful’, and Victoria Racing Club’s Dale Monteith saying the publication shouldn’t have been released on Melbourne Cup day.
Sorry Mr Monteith, but if you have murdered someone, the police don’t wait until you have finished your dinner and show before they arrest you.
The Age has now published that Racing Victoria’s CEO Rob Hines knew about Oliver’s bet in the days before the nation stopped for the Melbourne Cup, meaning this whole scenario could have been averted.
Is it a coincidence that all parties concerned used the term ‘due process’ to explain why it took so long to charge Oliver? Or did the racing industry, once again, circle the wagons?
Suffice to say, the goodwill Oliver accrued ten years ago when he won the Cup after the death of his brother has been thrown out the window, despite what Channel Seven’s John Letts thinks.
The sceptic in me says perhaps the Herald Sun ‘sensationalised’ the doping scandal in response to The Age exposé on Damian Oliver. The story itself does not mention any sources.
The problem for racing now is that it will be more of a shock if the allegations are proven untrue. It puts question marks over some of the great horses. Was Makybe Diva really that good to be the first to win three Melbourne Cups?
Even though the racing industry is being dragged through the mud, it is doubtful much will change.
For starters, no one knows how deep the organised criminals have sunk their roots into the industry and what effect it is having.
There are jockeys racing at the moment who are being investigated for being linked with underworld figure Tony Mokbel. Do not forget about the murder of trainer Les Samba, which is believed to involve organized crime.
Secondly, it is such a high revenue earner, and not just for jockeys and other insiders having a punt, that most stakeholders are afraid to rock the boat.
Betting agencies and the government could stand to lose millions in revenue and taxes if confidence in horse racing is shaken too hard. This will lead to great caution from either of these stakeholders supporting any meaningful actions to clean up the industry. Look towards the deafening silence of Rob Hulls, the Minister for Racing.
They should not fear, however. The very nature of gamblers, especially problem gamblers, is that they will still bet as long as there is the promise of a return.
The industry knows that to make revenue all it needs is a race, the promise of a winner, and a strong sense of denial.