Almanac Horseracing – A reflection on the current state of racing

I have followed horse racing since I was a little kid. I inherited the love of the sport from my father, who like me was a (generally) unlucky small punter, who just liked the atmosphere of the races and the excitement achieved when your knowledge and understanding of the form resulted in a winning bet.


I remember being taken to the races at Bendigo and Ballarat years before I was old enough to bet. At Dad’s funeral I learned that my cousins, all a few years older than me, had also learned to love the horses and a bet from him.


As with most people who try to follow racing somewhat seriously, I have steeped myself in reading histories, watching old films and videos, collecting various memorabilia, and studying the complexities of it all. If you want me to, I can bore you silly for an hour or more with a discussion of the class system as it used in Australian racing, and how it doesn’t always appear to be what it seems at the surface. Anyway.


As with any sport, it’s easy to become a fan of the stars. Dad had a big thing for Bart Cummings and Roy Higgins. I, being a generation younger, followed David Hayes’ horses, even before his Hong Kong years, and always felt more confident if Darren Gauci or Simon Marshall were aboard my selections. My first sporting hero was a horse, Vain, the wonderful young colt trained by Jim Moloney in ‘69 and ‘70. In more recent years, because of my Ballarat connections, I followed the Robert Smerdon and Darren Weir stables closely. And hence, my discomfiture with racing, and the reason for this piece.


Anyone who thinks a bit can work out that because of the amounts of money involved in horse racing, there will be corruption as some people try to cheat the system. The history of Australian racing, and I assume that it’s the same in other countries, is awash with stories of ring-ins and swindles, betting scams, money laundering and rigged races. But for all that, believing these incidents are fairly rare, punters still risk their cash every day, trusting that mostly it’s fair.


Occasionally a jockey is quizzed by stewards about a particular race ride, and sometimes the jockey is suspended. Often punters are left wondering why the stewards would worry about a 50/1 chance “not being permitted to run on its merits” when we could point out plenty of times a favourite has been rolled because the jockey got it wrong, but nothing happened.


And yet we still open our wallets and trust that this race will be fair.


And then two of Australia’s most successful and best-known trainers are disqualified for blatant cheating. Smerdon was responsible for years of illegal raceday treatments (bicarb drenching as I understand it) designed to give his horses an edge. Weir was disqualified after choosing not to defend charges of using jiggers to improve a horse’s improvement through the use of electric shocks in training to provide a Pavlovian response on raceday (nothing to do with delicious meringue-based dessert).


Over the years, the Smerdon stable had a reputation for pulling off spectacular betting plunges. Follow the money. I believe there is an investigation into betting activity with international bookmakers on Weir runners. The Weir stable had hundreds of horses in training at any one time, and often had multiple runners in a race. Plenty of punters over the years have lamented backing the wrong Weir horse in a race.


The sad thing in all this is that both these men are geniuses with race horses. Smerdon won his first Group 1 race as a relatively young man when Lets Get Physical won the Blue Diamond Stakes. He has trained a string of great horses over the years, including the wonderful Mosheen. He was extraordinarily successful with jumpers and won the Grand National Hurdle on multiple occasions. One of his best jumpers was the prophetically named Some Are Bent. Now there is a question mark over many of his successes. Darren Weir, before he was Australia’s winningest trainer, was renowned as a brilliant horseman, and had served his ‘apprenticeship’ in training with some big names before trying the game himself. His placement of horses in suitable races was exemplary. He could get the best out of most horses by taking them to quiet country meetings where the owners could celebrate a Maiden or a BM58 race win. His best horses, of course, were in the biggest, most prestigious and richest races. So many of those wins, whether they were at Moonee Valley or Mildura, will now be questioned.


As a very small weekend punter, my confidence is shot. I have no idea how safe my bets are. I don’t know who is cheating and who’s playing honestly. Why should I risk my money?


If the Racing Integrity Commissioner can shut down the biggest names (where of course rumours abound) how many smaller players are they missing? How common are illegal raceday treatments? How many trainers are shocking their horses to terrify them into running faster? How many irregularities are not passed on to the stewards? How many training deaths go unreported, and so are not investigated?


I still enjoy watching the races on TV, and having a day out at the track, but I don’t think I’ll be spending my hard-earned any more in the hope of landing a winner. Besides all the information made available to punters, it’s what is unknown, even by the Integrity Commissioner, that means winning is even harder.


As I write this two interesting events, one of which was expected but is nonetheless disappointing, have come to light.


Winx returns to racing in the Apollo Stakes at Randwick today (16 Feb 2019). There are 8 horses in the race, and SIX of them, including Winx, have the same trainer, Chris Waller. I’m not suggesting Mr Waller has ever done anything dodgy or illegal, but isn’t it possible that another trainer in the same situation could manipulate the event quite easily? What is the Integrity Commissioner’s position on one trainer having so many runners in the one race?


In Toowoomba, Queensland’s top trainer Ben Currie, whose father and foreman was disqualified last year, has been given a “show cause” by the stewards in that state, suggesting his reign and career might also be coming to a very quick end.


Racing is in a bad, untrustworthy place at present, and it saddens me.


This article was first published on the Middle-Aged Spectator’s blog.


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Retired teacher and sports fan originally from Victoria, now in southern inland Queensland. AFL, cricket, MLB (and anything else where I might have an opinion) Gold Coast Suns


  1. Greg Sheehan says

    Loved the article,
    I’m a twice a year racegoer and a Cup better so not as concerned as others but have friends who think a day at the track is heaven. It is those people that will be put off and if they go so will racing apart from the big races.
    Then again perhaps as Jack Elliottt would sign off on his World of Sport spot each week, “and isn’t that what is all about”.

  2. Ta Damien, as a mug punter and race horse part owner it’s intriguing reading. however i’m not sure if i totally accept that racing is in a bad,untrustworthy place @ the moment.

    Gambling by it’s very nature opens itself up to all sorts of nefarious, unscrupulous behaviours. Weir, Smerdon, two big falls from grace, and what more will come out re Weir? But these ones being caught continues a litany of this behaviour within the industry. Chris Munce’s episode in Honkers shows the global ailment of dodgy behaviour in racing. Seriously could you put $ on any horse Damien Oliver rides? the case of Brain Cox one of the most respected trainers around the border region, show that bad behaviour is not to far from the surface in any industry where lots of money turns over. Did i hear some mention what about money laundering and racing ?

    Damien it’s a mugs game, but it’s also a pastime millions of us love. Racing will , by its very nature, experience its charlatans. I ‘ll follow the fortunes of my horse, have a small flutter here and there, but have no illusions about it. Enjoy.


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