After running away from home at the age of 16 to Australia I was fortunate to settle in Alison Road in Sydney, I say fortunate because I lived just five minutes away from the greatest racecourse in the world - Randwick Racecourse! For the first three years I rarely missed a horse race meeting at Randwick, Rosehill, Warwick Farm or Canterbury. I lived for racing and it was the start of a 50-year love affair. But apart from Flat racing I craved my Friday nights at the Harold Park Paceway most. The atmosphere was unique and very different and sometimes this teenager, to his own detriment, would boil over with excitement. This time and circumstance was special and the place I grew up. Harold Park was never to be replicated anywhere else in the world.
HAROLD PARK PACEWAY - The Spiritual Home
Harold Park Paceway (1890-2010) was a harness track in Glebe, Sydney. It was a half-mile track where races were run over distances of 1,760m, 2,160m, 2,565m and occasionally 2,965m. Before configuration, events were run over one mile, 9 furlongs and 170 yards, 11 and three quarter furlongs, 13 furlongs and 98 yards and 15 furlongs and 92 yards - these distances were all for standing starts. For mobile racing, the distances were one mile, 9 and a half furlongs and 11 and a half furlongs. It hosted the Miracle Mile and on several occasions the Inter-Dominion and was the spiritual home of Harness Racing in Australia, something even the Victorians recognised. I was lucky to have witnessed the track in its heyday and they remain my fondest memories.
Complexities that accompany Harness Racing
I also frequented the provincial harness racing tracks but being a non-driver at the time it was always hard to negotiate, suffice it to say I slept on a few train platforms with the local mosquitoes. Since then I have always loved harness racing and the complexities that accompany it, well not all the complexities!
In a world stifled by dishonesty it did not take me long to wise up to the fact that if the driver wanted his horse to get beaten it was relatively easy to do so without alerting the stewards, general public or even savvy bettors. He (there were no women drivers at that time), could race his charge in the death seat, travel three or four wide, get boxed in out the back and still drive a finish, knowing those small margins would scupper his chances and it would look as if he had raced but got an unkind trip. Yes, there were drivers one could trust in a general sense but the golden rule was to watch the money. For example, you would be a fool to place a bet 15 minutes before a race, the picture was not clear at that point, we had to wait for the last 120 seconds and run the risk of not getting on at the price you wanted!
Understanding the rigged game
Being a mathematical animal one of my eyes never left the bookmakers boards. I immersed myself in the betting patterns and those algorithms allowed me to determine which two or three horses were genuinely racing that day. I then became a bookies' runner and quickly learnt the importance of fractions against percentages and always to gain best prices. Money made in those days determined how well I ate that week, but I consistently won more money with harness racing that flat because I understood the rigged game! As my confidence grew the Aussie Diggers would pick my brain before racing and I excitedly told them to wait for the signal. Without sounding brash I gathered a following and this consequently helped with transportation to the various provincial meetings and the obligatory schooners of grog.
Little regard to the sanctity of Harness Racing
As an edgy and selfish youngster I was impatient and had little regard to the sanctity of harness racing or even the horse. I did not care what the driver or trainer did as long as he got my bet over the line first to win me money. Remembering some of my antics, comments and conversations from that time period makes me feel ashamed! Now 50 years on only the horse matters. I actually care more about the horses than the humans (sorry about that). I cannot deal with horses being distressed, mistreated or hurt.
Integrity will never reach halo standard but that is the task!
This brings me to the integrity of the sport in the UK and Ireland in 2017 (not 1967). Do we have a product that is professional and as honest as it can be given human involvement and intervention? Are we consistent and transparent, are we moving forward? The answer is a resounding no! Unfortunately I am old and ugly enough to realise we will never reach halo standard but there are things we can do better without much cost. The Australians have a fabulous product but are asking for more money to be sunk into resources, including technology able to detail call charge records and retrieve text messages to catch driving cheats. They are determined to rid their sport of any lingering perception it is vulnerable to corruption. Collusion or driving to lose is abhorrent and a sport-killer but is actually not the worst offence, using banned substances are!
BHRC - have made a start, much more to do.
The BHRC has more to do in this regard and must work smarter and definitely tougher. The perception in the UK is the general public are much less important than the owners and trainers who are accommodated. One readily accepts the fear of losing money, owners and horses from the sport if we demand fairness and cleansing but unfortunately that is the task if we want a moral sport and a semi-level playing field. The sport has taken some measures to ensure a safe and honest contest but nowhere near enough!
Cheating endemic so council of war needed!
Our understanding is trainers rationalise cheating by convincing themselves that they are just “helping” the horse. One accepts some injections are to manage pain but other drugs are endogenous to the horse and go undetected in post-race testing. The “helping” of the horse is code for “it's not cheating if you don't get caught.” We readily accept that PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) are not exclusive to harness racing, nevertheless when in difficulty identifying and prioritising problems is always a good place to start, and we have a suggestion that will be contemptously ignored. Our sport is now desperate for an informed decision-making council of war - working alone is a total waste of time. We know it is impossible to solve all the problems at once not only because of will, but of resource constraints. We do applaud the work the BHRC are doing with integrity testing but it is now time for an equalisation of standards.
Naming and shaming
We advocate an updated to the minute historical page on the BHRC website naming and shaming the trainers who have been caught cheating with an advisory notice to owners not to use them. Let's go further, let's use upper case and bold font. If we consistently report proven facts it would not be illegal to do so! Why not liaise with the IHRA so it covers both governing bodies? Surely the sport in both countries would ultimately gain from such an introduction? On clear infringements let's implement lifetime bans applicable in the UK and Ireland for trainers found guilty of administering prohibited drugs to horses they train? Could we introduce INTEGRITY MEETINGS on a biannual basis with BHRC and the IHRA attending and exchanging ideas, and then making the minutes public? Other interested parties could be invited when appropriate. We could introduce a genuine and confidential whistle-blowing procedure and if we stand on some toes - tough, let's drive the bastards out, they will not go on their own accord...
We want more, for a start we want the IHRA to honour a promise made to The Racing Horse.
Irish Harness Racing Association (IHRA)
Over a year ago at the 2016 Tregaron August Festival we withdrew a piece at the request of the IHRA concerning integrity testing numbers in Ireland. They (IHRA) had told us the piece could be damaging whilst talks were ongoing regarding betting on Irish Harness Racing. We had originally asked them: "Can you confirm that integrity testing is as rigorous in Ireland as it is in the UK? What shape does it take and how widespread is the testing? Do all tests get sent to the laboratory and what happens from there? We are in the middle of an article and need clarification and do not want to give any misinformation. I had also asked the BHRC similar questions and thought it prudent to see where we are in 2016. I had received damning information from those that believe our sport is at best tarnished and was desperate to allay fears."
I will draft an official response - James O'Sullivan
These questions were asked a second and a third time before receiving a reply from James O'Sullivan of the Irish Harness Racing Association who said: "Apologies for the delay in responding just been extremely busy on all fronts, I will draft an official response with details of our process and some comparisons with our counterparts in the BHRC later." That last contact was on 1st September 2016 and to date we have neither received an official response nor some comparisons! It is true we are surmising but the original intervention looked a way of stopping a piece questioning integrity testing without intending to do much about anything. We could be wrong.