NRL kicks off again on Thursday night! And the big question hasn’t changed from last season. Please, please, please – can we have some consistency in refereeing decisions? The answer, given the changes announced recently to the duties of the guys in the Bunker, and the attitudes of those governing the game, is probably not, and that’s a travesty. In terms of consistency in refereeing, NRL 2017 may well turn out to be NRL 2016 revisited.
But is racing all that different?
It’s still subject to an appeal on March 13, but as things stand right now, James McDonald has swapped the plum post as No 1 Rider for Godolphin for 18 months disqualification imposed on him after a guilty plea to a betting charge.
Certainly, it is not the way either James or Godolphin would prefer things to be, but it is fact, and it does beg some questions about the way racing is conducted, the integrity of the sport, the attitudes of some of the major players and the relationships that exist across the industry.
When you think about the size of the bet – a $4,000 net profit on a $1,000 bet – and compare that to the loss of income from a contract with Godolphin that has now been terminated, you have to ask James a simple question. What on earth were you thinking? To be fair, James has probably been chasing that answer for a while now! And when you remember that the past few years have seen quite a few high-profile jockeys sidelined for similar offences, it is fair to ask if there is an underlying problem that needs fixing.
Quite simply, the jockeys that have been disqualified over betting breaches don’t appear to be needing the extra cash, and the amounts involved have been minimal in comparison with the potential earnings over the disqualification periods.
So, where is the problem?
One idea is that, in many of the instances, there is clear evidence that the jockey has been influenced by an unlicensed person, usually a big punter. How does that happen? Are jockeys so lacking in self-confidence that a coat-tugger can sway their better judgement? Does there need to be a level of monitoring around who a licensed person associates with? And how fair would that be? How would it be policed?
It’s absolutely true that there is no point in introducing a rule that can’t be policed fairly and evenly. But when there is clear evidence, as there is here, that the jockey has been manipulated by a punter, then perhaps, and for the joint benefit of the jockeys themselves and the industry as a whole, that kind of restriction might need to be looked at. Somehow, it seems unlikely that the individual named in the James McDonald case would be fronting up to compensate James for loss of contract or loss of income.
Racing needs punting. But racing also needs to be seen to be as transparent and open as possible. For that to be a reality, there has to be a level of integrity shown by all participants, licensed or not, and there has to be away that a lack of ethical behavior on the part of an unlicensed person can attract a sanction similar to the penalty whacked on the licensed person. That hasn’t happened here, and, under the current structure, it can’t happen.
The racing bodies, perhaps, don’t have the power to change this. But it’s a fair thing to ask - if we all need licences to drive a car, own a firearm, operate certain businesses, to be jockeys, trainers and stablehands – why a licence to be an owner of a racehorse, or to be a punter above a certain level, is an unfair proposition. And if those licences existed, then sanctions against those who are obviously influencing others who are susceptible would be possible and meaningful.
Then let’s look at the penalty - 18 months. It’s fair to point out that James grew up riding in New Zealand, where jockeys are allowed to bet on horses they are riding, and frequently do. It’s equally fair to point out that New Zealand prize money, fees and industry opportunities are considerably smaller that in Australia. But James isn’t in New Zealand, and he has been granted a reduction in the mandatory disqualification period for his offence for all good reasons. Unfortunately, the fact that James is a champion jockey, a dual Sydney Premiership winner and contracted to Godolphin all come together to make an 18-month disqualification much more financially damaging than it would be for a bush rider. But then again, the bush rider would be unlikely to have built up the financial cushion that may be available to a top rider.
The fact is that the transgression happened, was admitted, and the penalty given. Is it fair? Well, that’s a subjective question, but a high profile brings with it a high level of responsibility, and it is incumbent on leading riders, trainers – and for that matter – owners, not only to appear to be straight, but to be seen to be so.
Then let’s look at the other 18-month penalty handed down recently to Josh Cartwright. It’s quite clear that the poor kid was doing it tough and working far too hard at far too many jobs. Talk about burning the candle at both ends – and in the middle as well! It’s also quite clear that he was under a great deal of stress, whether it was self- induced or not. There is sympathy for that plight.
But the fact of the matter is simply that Cartwright’s action in deliberately steering his mount into others in the race was literally life-threatening, not just for the other riders directly involved but for himself as well. McDonald’s bet certainly didn’t place anyone’s life or limbs in jeopardy.
And then look at the differences in penalties handed down in the two major racing jurisdictions of NSW and Victoria. Last October 12, Damien Oliver was banned for 20 meetings for reckless riding, lost an appeal and sat out the Spring Carnival. One week later, Glyn Schofield copped 5 meetings for careless riding, went for a stay of proceedings, was successful in that and duly won the Victoria Derby on Prized Icon while under that stay of proceedings.
In Victoria, a suspended jockey can start the suspension immediately after the last race of the meeting involved if the trainers and connections release them from their rides. This can mean that the rider can get back from suspension in time for a big race. But that’s not allowed in NSW.
I’m not even going to speculate on what the stewards would hand out to a 3-kg claimer who – twice in 3 weeks – failed to ride his mounts out to the line. But we know that, when Hugh Bowman did just that, there was a slap on the wrist with a feather.
It’s a ridiculous lack of consistency.
The issue really is whether this kind of unfortunate situation is actually manageable.
The answer is that it can be managed, to a reasonable level. But that would mean a re-think of how all of us can be involved in racing, not just a tinkering with the existing Rules of Racing. This is something that the Racing Minister shouldn’t leave to Racing NSW, and vice versa. Maybe racing needs a broader licensing platform with broader sanctions, and maybe we all need to accept that for the betterment of the industry.
Right now, the worst thing about this unfortunate situation is that the inconsistency inside jurisdictions, and between jurisdictions, breeds a public cynicism that isn’t helping racing’s image.