Bookmakers should be thankful Racing New South Wales chief executive Peter V’Landys isn’t a betting man – he could have taken them for thousands when he predicted the demise of greyhound racing in the state.
NSW Premier Mike Baird announced the state would ban greyhound racing from July 1 next year after an 800-page report compiled by a former High Court judge, Michael McHugh, and his Special Commission, which investigated the industry at length.
McHugh’s report stemmed from a television report on Australia’s national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, that clearly showed horrible abuse of live animals used to bait greyhounds in training.
The Special Commission sifted through 115 hours of video footage, 151,000 pages of written material, more than 800 submissions and almost two weeks of live questioning of those involved in live baiting and other greyhound industry participants before producing its report.
The investigation found between 48,891 and 68,448 greyhounds, or almost half the dogs bred with the intention to race in New South Wales, were put down over the previous 12 years once it was decided they would not be competitive on the racetrack.
‘Systemic deception of the public’
McHugh made 80 recommendations to address the ‘wastage’ issue and many others that have been embedded in greyhound racing for decades, but interestingly, his first was that the “Parliament of New South Wales should consider whether the industry has lost its social licence and should no longer be permitted to operate in NSW”.
Baird skipped the debate. The Premier announced there would be a shutdown of the greyhound industry over the next 12 months to stop what he described as “the systemic deception of the public concerning the numbers of deaths and injuries of dogs” while agreeing with McHugh’s assertion that the industry was “no longer, if it ever was, entitled to the trust of the community”.
The jobs of the 1,000 people directly employed in greyhound racing in New South Wales will be lost, while Baird said the government would work with the RSPCA to manage the welfare of the existing greyhounds.
The uproar was predictably furious from the industry, with claims the figures provided were old and the industry had reformed since that period while others suggest anecdotal evidence was taken from a North American trainer and wasn’t relevant to the local scene.
Animal sports’ duty to the public
Others questioned the timing of the report. McHugh’s report was dated June 16, nine days before a federal election in Australia, but it was released three weeks later with Baird’s decision, which drew cynicism from media commentators, some of whom suggested the NSW greyhound industry was sacrificed to allow the government to sell off valuable land, particularly the Wentworth Park site, which sits almost in the heart of Sydney. The city boasts some of Australia’s most valuable real estate.
Baird denied those accusations, stating the tracks on Crown or government-owned land would be converted to open public space, alternative sports facilities or other community use.
A key part of McHugh’s investigation related to the idea of greyhound racing continuing thanks to a ‘social licence’ given to it by the public and government of each jurisdiction, be they city, state or country.
McHugh explored the social licence concept in reasonable depth when assessing the NSW greyhound industry’s responsibility, noting animal sports had the same duties to the public as industries such as mining, oil and forestry and other facets of business and sport.
Racing’s place in Australian culture
“In the last 40 years, many countries in the western world recognised that social institutions, whether industries, corporations, businesses or organised sports, must answer to the wider community for their behaviour and that they have a social licence to operate only as long as they perform in accordance with public expectations,” the McHugh report read.
“(A) social licence involves expectations, which may shift over time. In this way, it is possible to conceive of a social licence that may be firmly established at one point in time, but may lose legitimacy as community standards develop.”
Thoroughbred racing is in little danger of losing its social licence in the foreseeable future because of the sport’s place in the culture and history of Australia. In how many countries would a horse race literally stop a nation like the Melbourne Cup does on the first Tuesday of November.
The deeds of the immortal Phar Lap gave Australians smidgins of joy as the country trudged through the Great Depression in the 1930s, while millions were out of work while champions like Tulloch in the 1950s through to the wonder mare Black Caviar have always delighted a sports-mad nation.
More difficult to please
But Australians are changing and not necessarily for the better. We’ve become a country that is more difficult to please, a notion to which our politicians can easily attest through our recent elections. The old two-sided political sphere of the union-backed Labor Party and the conservative Liberal/National Party coalition is now threatened. Smaller parties such as The Greens and an assortment of independent senators and Members of Parliament have now made themselves important in Australia’s decision-making process by drawing attention and votes away from the old status quo.
This is where Peter V’Landys comes into the story. V’Landys was part of a Racing Australia delegation that also included Arrowfield Stud boss and RA chairman John Messara and the governing body’s Peter McGauran that met Australia’s biggest horse breeders at the Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale in April when he made this comment:
“The greyhound industry, in my view, will probably be terminated in two months’ time,” a prophetic V’Landys told the stakeholders gathered, comments that followed Messara’s early remarks.
“We’ve seen what’s happened with the dogs. You haven’t seen the end of what’s happening with the dogs. It’s going to be devastating,” Messara said.
Breeders against new rules
V’Landys later denied knowing the outcome of the report and having advance knowledge of Baird’s announcement, and that’s beside the point of this story.
V’Landys, Messara and McGauran had sniffed the wind and were trying to convince breeders of the importance of the rule changes Racing Australia was trying to introduce as part of their reaction to the greyhound industry’s woes.
Racing Australia had begun consulting stakeholders in both the racing and breeding spheres on their plan to bring breeding under the rules of racing in a bid to have all Thoroughbreds traced from the age of 30 days until the end of their life, compelling breeders to be bound by the rules of racing if they wanted to register their foals into the Australian Stud Book.
Breeders were, and still are, against the plan because of a lack of consultation before the introduction of the rules, which came into force on August 1, the first day of the new Australian and New Zealand racing season.
The TBA (Thoroughbred Breeders Australia) representatives were also unhappy with the lack of representation they have on Racing Australia’s board and a number of other points in the proposal, including the granting of the right for stewards to enter their properties and inspect horses at any time.
Animal liberation lobby
The new rules also include a requirement to report within 48 hours the death of any horse in their care that has not been retired from racing. Racing Australia has admitted it simply does not know the exact numbers of ‘wastage’ (their term) among Thoroughbreds but desires the data to respond to the animal liberation lobby, which detests jump racing, 2-year-old racing and whip use on Australian racehorses.
A TBA statement to members borrowed a line from McHugh’s report, telling readers, “sound and proper consultation is the very essence of good governance”, but the Racing Australia delegation in Sydney was keen to make its point to the other side via a slight variation on McHugh’s social licence commentary.
“In modern society, there are much bigger expectations on us now because of we’re a big industry, or a relatively big industry,” Messara said. “The [NSW] government expects a lot of us, as does society in matters of animal welfare and in matters of integrity.
“We’re under extreme pressure from the animal welfare groups and from the government.”
There is no doubting the breeders’ contention that they want only the best practice for producing the best horses. It’s not in their interests to abuse animals because, as Widden Stud principal Antony Thompson pointed out to the Racing Australia delegation, they are the primary producers of racehorses and the quality of their stock is their livelihood.
TBA is conducting a survey of its members to determine a response to the Racing Australia move.
What effect they have on the animal welfare debate in Australian Thoroughbred racing is anyone’s guess.
Author’s note: The video of the meeting in Sydney is available for viewing online. Click here to view the meeting in its entirety for an informative discussion of the full arguments of both sides.