With the wave of a pen, Australian lawmakers banned greyhound racing. Is harness racing prepared to defend itself should politicians turn their attention to it? | ecosnap / 123RF Stock Photo

Here today, gone tomorrow?

August 19, 2016

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Is harness racing prepared to defend itself to lawmakers in light of Australia’s ban on greyhound racing?

by Dean Towers

Back in July, the government of New South Wales (NSW) in Australia banned greyhound racing. There was no moratorium, grace period, or transitional money. The Minister simply banned the sport, with the support of all political parties.

How did an industry with over $3.2 billion (U.S.) bet (close to double what is bet on harness racing in North America), employing thousands of people, go from a thriving one to one that’s extinct with the swipe of a pen?

This happened, generally, because of two words, “animal” and “welfare”.

I know what you may be thinking. Those granola eating, yoga doing, New York Times editorial page nodding city-folk just don’t get it. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but in this instance, it was much more than a few activists or urban-dwellers.

Earlier this year, an expose on an Aussie television station was produced which looked deeply into the greyhound industry. A practice known as live baiting, where dogs were trained to chase live animals as prey at a young age was brought to light. That it was only a few bad apples live baiting didn’t matter. In addition, the breeding figures were examined, and the greyhound industry could not account for thousands of dogs, which likely perished because they simply weren’t fast enough.

When the NSW government began to look into the practices in greyhound racing, the industry could offer no response. The government concluded the industry was too far gone to fix itself.

“If you know people are going to fail, you don’t give them false hope,” said a government official, regarding the quick decision.

Politically this decision has been cheered. The government has noted in various interviews that they won’t lose one seat because of this issue, and in fact will probably gain some, because the general public is on their side.

Switching over to horse racing – harness racing in particular – various Aussie governments have not said anything incendiary at the present time and insiders are extolling the virtues of horse racing’s regulatory environment.

“(Racing and the regulators) are proactive in this (horse racing) space, they are really all over this stuff,” noted David Attenborough of TAB Corp.

That statement struck me when I read it; whether it’s political spin, or the truth, or something else.

Is harness racing here in North America, “proactive in this space” and “all over this stuff”?

When whip bans are forwarded by various stakeholders, to try and project a better image on the sport for the politicians and public to see, we seem to hear the same set of responses.

“Some horses are just lazy and need the whip.”

“We should not be bowing to these activists, they will never agree with us.”

“We’re hitting the saddle pad. We don’t hurt the horse. We need to educate people that whipping is fine.”

The general response is that the public is wrong about whipping, and they need to be enlightened.

“Kicking”, “boots” and “horses” are three words that should probably never be used together in a sentence in this day and age. However, when I looked into the kicking rules a few years ago, and discussed the issue with various industry insiders, I received some rather curious responses.

“There’s nothing we can do about it. Some judges call it, some don’t. The rules are different.”

“It’s just brushing a boot to a hock to scare a horse.”

“People that call it kicking are the problem. It’s no big deal.”

“Would you rather us whip them harder to make them go instead?”

Again, it seems to be someone else’s problem.

In Australia, there were great worries from the government about “wastage”, i.e. dogs that perish when they are unable to race. The government believed that the industry was doing nothing to combat wastage and would not be able to police itself in the future. There was no plan in place to re-home dogs, no regulations on breeding, and no funding mechanism through handle or slot machine taxes to help this issue along. It’s like the lights were on, but no one was home.

Does a percentage of slots money here in North America go to re-homing horses? Are there breeding regulations? How serious is the industry about this issue?

In North America, when slots are rumored to be taken away from the industry, there is usually some sort of response. Harness racing is a labor-intensive industry with many voters, who buy trucks and trailers and hay. There are sound green space arguments, there are great gaming arguments. I, personally, think the horsemen groups and industry do a fairly good job conveying information to the general public and politicians with these issues, and their work pays off.

When it comes to animal welfare issues – which, as shown above are growing in importance on both Main Street and K Street – I wonder, though. Is the industry taking them seriously? Is there a plan when these problems inevitably surface? Is the sport doing enough? I really don’t think it is, and it’s something that harness racing should begin to wholeheartedly, and with open minds and open ears, explore.

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