On Friday, the board of Racing Australia will discuss a proposal relating to the breeding industry, which is causing considerable angst and confusion.
While there may be some involved in racing who will be perplexed at this level of concern, there are many breeders furious that Racing Australia would seek to pursue a policy that gives them unchecked power over breeding. The decision to pursue such a divisive policy at a time when both the number of breeders (down 38 per cent from 2010 to 2105) and foals being born (down 24 per cent) has dropped significantly in the past five years will also confuse many in the thoroughbred world.
To understand Thoroughbred Breeders Australia’s (TBA) position it is worth first considering what Racing Australia are proposing:
Under their suggested new policy breeders would have to agree to be bound by the Rules of Racing when registering ‘mare returns’, the forms which are submitted to the Australian Stud Book (ASB) after a thoroughbred foal is born.
This is a significant shift from the current process whereby the rules of racing only cover the owners of a thoroughbred when it is registered as a racehorse.
For those who are not familiar with the ASB, it is best described as the Births, Death and Marriages of the thoroughbred world; a database in which all Australian thoroughbreds are recorded in order to be registered to race or for their progeny to race in the future. It has provided the regulatory framework for the breeding industry for more than a century
Racing Australia is also proposing that the full ownership interests in each foal are submitted to the Stud Book at this early stage, a recommendation that would increase transparency and a proposal that has been fully supported by the breeding industry since it was first mooted more than 12 months ago.
Why the concern about the Rules of Racing?
Firstly, if adopted this measure would give organisations established for running racing – Racing Australia as well as the ‘Principal Racing Authorities’, such as Racing Victoria and Racing NSW – complete control over breeding, what is essentially a primary industry.
Any new regulation that would affect breeding would simply be added to the Rules of Racing by administrators and every owner of a broodmare, foal or stallion would be forced to comply or face the possibility of not being able to register their horses with the Stud Book.
Given there is no meaningful representation being offered for breeders on the bodies that would decide what new rules are created or implemented this situation is unacceptable to the vast majority of breeders.
It’s worth remembering that organisations such as Racing NSW or Racing Queensland have been established, and their directors appointed, with regard to the task of running racing, not breeding. While there may be some breeders on these boards now, there is no guarantee this will be the case in future and, what’s more, these people are required by their duty as a director to act in the best interests of their racing board and this may not be aligned with the interests of the breeding industry.
Requests that breeders be given meaningful representation in discussions around any further rules – TBA suggested a panel of three highly regarded breeders, two to be chosen by Racing Australia, be formed to review all future rules relating to breeding – have been emphatically rejected.
Those that may believe breeding is some minor adjunct to racing should understand it is a significant industry in its own right: there are more than 10,000 people directly employed (and many more indirectly) in an industry which generates billions of dollars of economic activity each year; from expenditure on feed, fencing, stallion nominations, not to mention the sums that horses are sold for.
Consider if this was another primary industry facing an attempt to regulate it by a user down the supply chain; for example if Coles or Woolworths said they wanted to regulate dairy farmers because most milk in Australia is sold through their stores. What would the reaction of those farmers be?
Breeding is an important industry that requires a voice in its future, not a proposal to see it governed by an unaccountable group of racing administrators. This lack of representation could easily lead to the introduction of rules that are damaging to the breeding industry.
Animal Welfare and Integrity
One of the most disappointing aspects of this debate is the suggestion, put forward by some directors of Racing Australia, that if you don’t support their proposal you are against animal welfare or transparency.
Such a crass attempt to take the moral high ground is depressing in the extreme.
Nobody cares more about the welfare and conduct of thoroughbreds than breeders across Australia. Every breeder has a deep love of the animal; those who breed to sell rely on the health and reputation of their horses and farms to succeed commercially while those who breed to race or to simply enjoy a thoroughbred on their property do so for the love of the animal and invest many thousands of dollars before even getting a foal on the ground.
As for tougher regulation, TBA submitted to Racing Australia a proposal for new rules in the areas of animal welfare, transparency and integrity (all areas flagged as motivations for Racing Australia’s changes). The TBA suggestions would have ensured there is oversight for thoroughbreds before they enter racing and during their lifespan in the breeding industry.
We stated that rules relating to breeders should be in the Stud Book, the body which has regulated breeding in this country since 1878, rather than caught up in the Rules of Racing, of which there are currently 101 pages with just one mention of breeders.
We also set out possible penalties applying under the proposed rules as well as proposing the creation of an enforcement mechanism for the Stud Book and a panel to adjudicate on breaches of the rules. It is also worth noting that there are already numerous laws and agencies that deal with animal welfare across the country.
TBA’s proposal would have allowed the Australian industry to state it has the strongest regulation in the world, instead Racing Australia appears determined to bind breeders to a set of rules which are totally irrelevant to our industry. Unfortunately Racing Australia has rejected TBA’s proposal.
And what are the issues Racing Australia is trying to address? At a recent public meeting the chairman of Racing Australia, John Messara, himself a prominent breeder, and his chief executive, Peter McGauran, were asked to cite a single incident of malpractice in breeding. Neither could name one.
The role of Racing Australia
Another aspect of concern for breeders is the role of Racing Australia. In the past two years this body has morphed from the toothless tiger that was the Australian Racing Board to now owning tens of millions of dollars in assets (the Australian Stud Book and RISA, the system that trainers use to enter horses in races).
It also retains its primary function, to make the rules of racing. But is Racing Australia accountable to anybody?
If Racing NSW or Racing Victoria are doing a poor job or make a terrible decision you can visit the relevant racing minister and voice your concerns, with the possibility that this minister could use his or her powers to intervene in the organisation.
With Racing Australia there is nobody to provide oversight of its responsibilities; if it makes a bad rule there is no minister or official to complain to.
Breeders endured a taste of this 18 months ago when Racing Australia mistakenly listed a hormone as an anabolic steroid (after acting without consulting breeders). When a yearling ‘failed’ a steroid test at a sale due to traces of this hormone being detected, TBA urged Peter McGauran to review the rule before the findings became public.
His response was alarming: “It’s nothing to do with me, I only make the rules,” he said. Eventually the rule was amended – but not before the Australian breeding industry had suffered a huge amount of negative publicity
Another area of concern is the governance structure of Racing Australia. If their proposal were to succeed a situation would exist where one of the largest commercial breeders in Australia, John Messara, chairs Racing Australia, the body which would regulate the breeding industry as well as chairing Racing NSW, which would investigate commercial rivals for any breaches of the rules and then hand out penalties. The potential for conflict of interest, or even the perception of that conflict, would unlikely be acceptable in other industries of similar size and significance to the state’s economy.
This is not a personal attack on Mr Messara, a man who has worked tirelessly on behalf of racing and breeding for many years, but an observation on the situation.
It would not matter whether it was Mr Messara or another major commercial breeder; there is without question a perceived conflict of interest when one of the biggest players in an industry seeks to have regulatory control of that industry, without putting in an adequate framework to manage that perceived conflict.
There are many positions, such as judges, where people acknowledge that there could be a perceived conflict or bias and remove themselves from the situation without any suggestion that they would act inappropriately.
In NSW licenced people (trainers and jockeys) are barred from being board members of Racing NSW. This was done for good reason; how could a trainer be chair of a body that had the power to investigate and punish any rule breaches by a peer? Even if a director acted completely impartially, the perception could and would exist that they acted in a manner favourable to their interests.
Where to from here?
What is so disappointing in this debate is that the middle ground between the two sides is considerable. We both want the same outcomes; an improved regulatory framework for thoroughbreds before they enter racing and increased transparency.
But breeders will not accept a proposal that does not allow their industry a meaningful say in its future. Whether this issue ends in the Supreme Court remains in the hands of Racing Australia.
Basil Nolan, President TBA