Bob Hawke was nonplussed. He’d just gotten off a typically eloquent speech in front of a claque of media, and no-one had a question for him.
Well done Jeff Kennett. You said a lot of things which administrators needed to hear and you said it their backyard. But one solution you offered would cripple the industry much faster than doing nothing.
A welcome change from his rent-a-quote style mutterings about the AFL, Kennett was articulate, accurate and empathetic in his address to trainers at Racing Victoria’s Open Day on Monday.
Two weeks ago, a lack of activity from the Kennett front leading into the Open Day had me concerned about the hardline approach he’d voiced earlier. Considering his political background, flopping on his stance would have come as no surprise.
But impressively, Kennett allayed any scepticism about political motives when he lambasted the racing industry which invited him to be their guest speaker. In classic Kennett style, he launched about a dozen provocative headlines.
And true to classic Kennett, it is unlikely anything will eventuate from his comments.
His political expertise has granted him the subtle skill of speaking scathingly about administrators for their past deeds without offering sustainable solutions.
Among Kennett’s multi-pronged diatribe he took aim at Racing Victoria for their handling of the Damien Oliver saga, he took aim at the “useless” Australian Racing Board, and he took aim at corporate bookmakers when he declared them a “cancer in our society”.
While Kennett’s aforementioned arguments are indisputable, his stance on the future of the industry and subsequent solution were puzzling.
“I have come to the conclusion if the industry continues as it is currently structured it is unsustainable beyond five, six, seven years,” Kennett said.
“It’s important that the industry comes together and makes a decision quickly [about the rising costs and decreasing revenue]. If you don’t do it, the industry in five to seven years will have shrunk dramatically.”
While his five to seven year estimation is unsubstantiated rhetoric which would require more professional research, his solution to the problem raised at least one set of eyebrows.
“If an individual owner has not paid his dues then all those horses linked to that owner should be suspended until fees are paid.”
In an era where syndication has enabled anyone to own a racehorse, the majority of horses are owned by multiple owners. Suspending a horse due to one owner not paying up makes no sense and would drive ownership numbers down in droves.
While syndication has brought more owners to the industry, it is a double-edged sword which has increased the burden on trainers. When those owners do not pay their fees, the stable must cover all unpaid costs in fairness to the owners who are paying up.
In a world where all horses make money, this wouldn’t be a problem but the reality of racing is a substantial amount of owners are purchasing a vastly enjoyable experience more than a financial prospect.
When bills don’t get paid, financial burdens cascade onto trainers and issues, both mentally and financially, arise.
Racing Victoria in association with the Australian Trainers Association and BeyondBlue, where Kennett sits as chairman, have jointly launched the Trainer Wellbeing Program. The program, which aims to educate trainers of emotional wellbeing and business management, will commence in September with four 90-minute workshops.
But the lead-up to spring is hardly an ideal time to be hosting events like these, which have a long-term focus. Short-term solutions are needed.
The recurring theme among all stress-related mental illness is the financial burdens.
Centralisation of suppliers is one area Racing Victoria and other administrative bodies should look into. It may come at the chagrin of private suppliers which rely on the free market economics but industry-subsidised resources would plummet financial burdens in the short-term.
Service costs often out of the control of trainers are: vets, transport and to a lesser extent farriers.
Industry-organised centralisation would mean Racing Victoria, for example, supply trucks from Victoria’s major training centres to that day’s race meeting. Where trainers lose flexibility, they could have enormous cost savings. The same could be applied to vets and other service providers.
Trainer subsidisation could then be applied on a sliding scale relative to the trainer’s circumstances. Because the services could be industry managed, it would enable accounts to be settled over much longer periods – potentially years – while lengthy debt collection processes play out in the judiciary system.
These trainer subsidies would be a short-term solution but they would enable trainers to keep ticking along with their jobs with significantly less financial burden. It would also be much more sustainable than suspending horses with unpaid accounts because those owners have most likely given up on the horse.
It was fantastic to hear Jeff Kennett voice many of the things which needed to be said in a public forum as a person of notoriety. His criticisms were valid and his concerns authentic, but Kennett must encourage more ownership rather than less if he has a genuine goal of improving trainer welfare.