Harness Racing in the UK & Ireland (2017) – Stalled or Broken?

Posted by Paul Moon in Blog | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

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

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!

Dishonesty

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.

Harness Racing

Little regard to the sanctity of Harness Racing

As an edgy and selfish youngster I was both ignorant and 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 (and not 1967). Do we have a product that is professional and as honest as it can be given human involvement and intervention? Are we at least 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 NOT ACTUALLY THE WORST OFFENCE - USING BANNED SUBSTANCES ARE!.

BHRC - have made a start, but there is much more to do.

The BHRC are on the case and we applaud the work they are doing but they must work smarter and definitely tougher. We know some stewards work hard, very hard. Some work full-time, attend meetings taking integrity tests, and then sit on enquiry panels to discuss those tests and other infringements. We are also reminded that they are a sport with small resources and no outside funding, but it is time to review then change the penalties laid down in the rule book. Banning and suspension is the only deterrent to those giving horses banned substances - not cash penalties.

Perception

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 that must be worth paying. The sport can only truly prosper if it is moral, clean and takes place on 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. Today we find ourselves in difficulty and prioritising problems is always the best place to start. We have a suggestion that will be contemptuously ignored but we are 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, so although we have already applauded what the BHRC are doing with integrity testing it is now time for an equalisation of standards.. So what does this mean? 

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 despicables 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. As we understand things all tests taken in the UK are actually sent for testing at LCH in France, which is an accredited laboratory but in Ireland it is our information that only a few tests/samples taken are actually tested. We will explain...

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."

http://www.irishharnessracing.com/integrity-testing-2016

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 and promise to publish in full any future correspondence.

We have to choose what we want!

The Racing Horse received emails of examples of trainers being punished in one country then repeating the offence in another. How can that happen? We were given examples of banned persons being allowed onto racetracks against BHRC rules whilst BHRC officials are present. Whether it is pulling horses, drug cheating, undesirables within the sport on the course or off, racing on roads (absolutely detest that) and the accidents that accompany it - the perception remains that harness racing is neither clean nor professional and unfit/not in a condition to receive commercial help/advantage. We have not talked about many other aggregate factors that compound the problem including cancelled meetings being the norm and some without any bookmakers. If you add a committee's casual disregard to the mix there is only one way the sport can go.

Chelmsford does not WANT the harness community, what a surprise?

Only in August Chelmsford Racecourse had to pull the plug and cancel the Le Trot races at the two final meetings. TROTBritain received the following letter from the CEO who said: "On a personal level I’m very disappointed that we haven’t been able to take the trial forward but the reports I received, both verbal and written left me with no choice. (Here follows confidential quotations from course security documenting the unacceptable behaviour of a minority at the entrance to the course and during the racing, and the widespread obtaining of food by fraudulent means). We have a policy of zero tolerance against anyone exhibiting bad behaviour. It’s my view these can’t been seen as isolated incidents and worse was sure to follow if we didn’t take the decision we did. Rightly or wrongly the overriding impression that our people have is that trotting attracts a large element of people that we just don’t want at Chelmsford City. So it is with regret that I have to say this is not for us but you have my very best wishes in your efforts to establish trotting as a pastime in the UK which can be safely enjoyed by all." The BHRC said: "It is clear that without this problem being addressed successfully there is no future on this route to expansion."

More positive integrity results at Chelmsford & Musselburgh!

If that was not enough the BHRC have received positive integrity results from samples obtained at that meeting. Disciplinary procedures will be undertaken in accordance with BHRC Rules and Regulations. Before that the BHRC received a positive integrity result from a sample obtained at Musselburgh on 22nd July 2017. The substances identified are a Class 3 and a Class 2 substance in the Uniform Classification Guidelines for Foreign Substances. As will all of these type of things we only see the tip of an iceberg.

Tregaron flying the honesty flag

A glimmer of light comes from the team at Tregaron who are trying to do their part. How a small market town of just over 1,000 population puts on the fabulous August Festival at Dolyrychain and find over £50,000 in sponsorship and prize money is beyond us, they should share their template. Their experiment with a fair live draw is to be applauded but the net result is they get punished, those with a bad draw do not turn up and neither does the people who follow them.

It seems most tracks are struggling to gain new interest yet we have a great sport to market. We are desperate for that bold new task force to clean things up. The Racing Horse does not confess to being an expert on the local harness racing scene and we apologise if it appears we are rubbishing harness racing. WE LOVE IT and why it breaks our heart to see what is happening at my local Amman Valley track. Last season there were given three Bank Holiday fixtures but could not complete one of them and they must lose those next season and be given other less taxing dates. To do nothing should not be an option. Unfortunatly, they are the litmus test to harness racing in South Wales and if the recent trend is taken literally bodes ill for the sport in the region.

GOING FORWARD, HARNESS RACING IN THE UK & IRELAND NEEDS A BRAND NEW UPDATED CODE OF UNIFIED CONDUCT, MORE TRANSPARENCY, HONESTY AND MUCH MUCH BIGGER PENALTIES TO TRANSGRESSORS! It's not going to happen is it? The tragedy is that we love this sport so much and most of the people in it, but because of contamination the sport in the UK cannot move forward like other countries. Potential subscribers see a sport that is insular, looks after self-interest, is unattractive commercially with little or no regard to the customer. It sees a sport that refuses to tackle dishonesty and is soft on drugs. If we removed goodwill from the volunteers who share our love for this sport, it would cease to exist...

The Racing Horse would love to hear the views of spectators old and new, of owners, trainers, drivers and stewards. Please email paulmoon@theracinghorse.co.uk and we will promise to keep all information confidential unless otherwise expressed.

Today's Pacafi: click here

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3 Responses to Harness Racing in the UK & Ireland (2017) – Stalled or Broken?

  1. Stuart H says:
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    I agree with some of your comments but the picture of the dead road horse is unnecessary and in bad taste. How many will die over jumps today in comparison?All sports have a certain number of undersirables too.

    • Paul Moon says:
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      Stuart

      You are completely right, the picture of the dead horse is in bad taste, in fact you have put it kindly because it is much worse than that. It is odious, stomache-churning and sickening! I weep when I see pictures like that and I weep when I hear about them. I could easily have sighed, tutted, grimaced, I could easily wish evil things on the perpetrators. I could talk about it to those prepared to listen and I could have said: “I do wish horses were banned from racing on roads because it is a tad dangerous” but what would I have achieved? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

      Stuart, I cannot contain my anger when I see an image like that and for the life of me I cannot understand why I am in the minority. Why are we casually accepting this ghastly maltreatment, for me it is detestable and cruel. The picture is meant to prick a conscience or two and raise awareness and your comments suggests I am halfway there. By the way that was neither the worst picture I could have shown nor an isolated incident.

      Comparing how many horses die over jumps with racing in traffic on concrete is foolish! There is no reasonable correlation. This is what the apologists will say and I do not accept the link! Now, I am not saying you approve of road racing per se, but using that language gives those who care less about horse welfare succour, and those morons will count you as a supporter waving a big flag!

      Of course all sports have undesirables, it is the way of things. I am not sure in what context you are using this phrase however? Are you referring to those who drug horses, those who cheat generally, the behaviour at Chelmsford or those who kill horses on roads? They are not weighted the same so unable offer a response.

      Thanks for your comments, I am very grateful you took the time to read the piece. I have already admitted I do not have all the facts but was expressing a considered view from a supporter and follower. I do believe that morally the piece was very accurate and the only way to go. I appreciate I will upset a few but genuinely hope that harness racing can find new/any traction in 2017. I keep asking myself, given that we have a wonderful sport, where are the new supporters?

      Paul Moon
      The Racing Horse

  2. Stuart H says:
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    My undersirables comment was about the idiots at chelmsford that spoilt it for the rest of us. I do not condone road racing or support it , its a job for the RSPCA and the police to stop not the BHRC.

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