Racing industry's integrity at stake

New Zealand's harness racing industry has been shaken to the core as leading trainers and drivers face court appearances charged with either connection to race-fixing or supplying drugs.

Eight harness racing identities and two people linked to the racing industry have been charged, leaving many in racing shaken and stunned.

The action by police follows an investigation by the Racing Integrity Unit, itself having been accused in the past of over-reaction. This time, the unit seems to be correct.

New Zealand has a supportive Minister of Racing in Winston Peters, but even he has been shaken by the latest revelations.

Mr Peters expressed deep disappointment and called the arrests a sad development. New Zealanders need to have confidence the racing industry has integrity and is not above the law.

The investigations and arrests show how important it is to have a strong, independent authority like the Racing Integrity Unit to ensure offending behaviour is brought to light. There needs to be confidence the system is working.

But is it? How can punters be assured the money they spend on a horse or a greyhound will be spent in a fair contest? It will be a sad day when people assume the outsider coming in and paying a huge dividend has done so because a deal was made before the race, or illegal substances have been used to enhance a performance.

All codes of racing have their own dark pasts, and it appears the industry in general refuses to learn from its mistakes. Fortunately, scrutiny is closer and penalties are severe.

Last year, a leading Canterbury harness trainer was fined after his horses tested positive for excess cobalt, something the trainer said was not his fault. The excess cobalt was contained in feed.

Leading greyhound trainers have been banned and fined for feeding illegal substances, including methamphetamine, to their animals, prompting calls of why the code is allowed to continue in its current form.

Recently, the racing industry received a major report from Australian John Messara recommending many New Zealand thoroughbred racing tracks close, with a consolidation in major centres. In the South, this could mean closures of courses like Timaru, Waimate, Oamaru, Omakau, Winton and Gore, depriving those communities of the economic benefits of having industry participants in the district. So far, harness and greyhound racing have escaped any major suggestions for change but it appears their time is approaching quickly.

Something must be done to lift the image of an industry which generates millions of dollars of annual revenue for the country. The doubt about race fixing must be removed. It will not be easy but the betting public of New Zealand deserve to know the animals are being treated humanely and the races are being run in an open and fair manner. Pressure is mounting to stop the use of whips on racehorses, yet jockeys and drivers continue to be fined for excessive use of the whip. Quality horses, such as Winx, in Australia, can win consecutive races without star jockey Hugh Bowman doing anything more than guiding the horse with his words and actions. Why then do not other jockeys take the lead from Bowman? Because the pressure to win at all costs becomes too great.

Wherever gambling is involved, money changes hands and people will try for the unfair advantage.

Mr Peters, a firm supporter of thoroughbred racing, will know the value the harness racing industry brings through export earnings.

Race meetings are a sideline to the real money invested in the breeding and training of horses to go overseas. Without the assurance all is well within the local industry, opportunities will start to lessen. It is important all racing codes lift their standards as quickly as they can. Leaving the codes as they are is not an option.



The idea is not to break the law. Criminality cannot have an improved 'image'.