Is There Something Not Right In The Stewards Room

Craig Williams aboard Catchy after the Blue Diamond. Photo courtesy of Geo Hillis Photography.

Craig Williams aboard Catchy after the Blue Diamond. Photo courtesy of Geo Hillis Photography.

It’s a cliché, but clichés get to be clichés because they are generally correct. The saying the “Perception is Reality” is a pretty good example, and right now that can be applied to the goings on in the Racing Victoria Stewards Room. And, after the Flemington meeting last Saturday, the perception has to be that the relationship between the Chief Steward of Racing Victoria and the senior jockeys is frosty - at best!

When a senior jockey – and a respected senior jockey at that - is suspended, and feels the need to deliver a “spray” at the Chief Steward over the suspension and the way the hearing was handled, then there is a real need to look at why that happened. Craig Williams copped a charge for careless riding, and put forward the defence that his riding was “competitive”, not “careless”. That cut no ice with the Stewards Panel and Williams is now out of business for 10 meetings. Fair enough, that’s part and parcel of racing, and has been going on forever. What hasn’t been going on forever, is the jockey verbally lashing out at the Chief Steward, and the Chief Steward responding!

Being responsible for managing and enforcing the Rules of Racing isn’t an easy job. To be effective, stewards have to be sensitive to the issues they are facing and simply must have respect for the participants in the racing industry in order to be able to expect respect for themselves and their role. In Victoria, right now, that mutual respect seems to be a little thin on the ground!

Let’s look at some facts – things that have been collecting comments over the past couple of years.

There is the fact that Peter Moody chose to walk away from an industry he had been in all of his life, and walk away from an outstandingly successful training business, rather than continue to train under the regime managed by the current Chief Steward. Those comments are on the public record.

There is the fact that Danny O’Brien commented that he was looking forward to having his appeal in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal against a cobalt disqualification heard by an “adult” court and to cross-examining Racing Victoria’s integrity people, something not allowed at his hearing before the Racing and Disciplinary Appeals Board. Those comments are also on the public record.

There is the fact that somebody was sufficiently aggrieved with the Chief Steward to take pot-shots at his home. Not in any way to be condoned, but it happened!

There is the fact that Damien Oliver disputed a charge of “reckless riding”, lost and copped 20 meetings. Oliver put the case that he was in danger of being pocketed by two stablemates and stated quite clearly that he would have been negligent in not moving out of that position. Like Williams, that argument didn’t work, and Oliver expressed his frustration.

There is the fact that, as of today, 14 jockeys are under suspension in Victoria, 13 for careless riding and 1 for substance abuse. 5 of those jockeys could reasonably be termed senior metropolitan riders, two of whom have international experience. In NSW, 7 jockeys are currently under suspension with only 1 who could reasonably be termed a senior metropolitan rider. Are Victorian jockeys nearly twice as careless as their NSW counterparts? That would certainly be surprising.

There is the fact that the Chief Steward lashed out in the press last year against Peter Moody and the Melbourne Racing Club chief, Brodie Arnhold, for their negative comments about the industry’s integrity regime.

And there is the Danny Nikolic saga.

Everybody wants racing to have integrity. Everybody wants racing to have a “clean”

face. But the paternalistic policing style of stewardship in Racing Victoria disappeared long ago in other States, and so it should have.

It’s informative to watch videos of the races that caused Williams and Oliver such grief and angst. The determination of what is “careless” and what is “reckless” or “competitive” is always subjective, and one doesn’t have access to the Stewards footage, but after watching those replays over and over again it is difficult to see that the offences that were penalized were all that different to incidents seen in many, many races that go unmentioned by Stewards.

The bottom line is that the kind of unedifying atmosphere that appears to be present around integrity issues in Victorian racing just doesn’t seem to be there in other States. Could it be time for a change in attitude from Victorian Stewards, or simply a time for a change at the top?