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

Posted by Paul Moon in Blog | Leave a comment

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 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."

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.

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 committee resignation, casualness or nonchalance to the mix there is only one for the sport to 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. They are the litmus test to harness racing in South Wales and if 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.


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