A call for greater transparency

by Brett Sturman

All too often, horseplayers are left with unanswered questions following races. Regarded as “grandstand goofs” by a certain Internet racing personality, there is a thought out there that bettors shouldn’t complain about the driver’s decisions in the outcomes of races because we have no idea how things are playing out on the track.

In other words, why should drivers or trainers need to explain themselves for performances of their horses to some guy with a $2 win bet or $0.20 hi-5 gimmick wager. There’s no question, in my opinion, that despite some posturing to the contrary, most tracks don’t value the bettor nearly as much as other race participants. With all the slot money, you could argue if tracks should even care at all.

But what may seem beyond reproach or simply unnecessary in North America, is commonplace Down Under in New Zealand and Australia.

Two weeks ago at Gloucester Park in Perth, Australia, the amazing Lazarus won the $1.1 Inter Dominon final trainer/driver Mark Purdon aboard, but it was preceding race that earned Purdon a 26-day suspension. In that race, the Purdon-driven 1-9 favorite Ultimate Machete shifted into the 2-path in the first turn as to not get caught on the inside and in the process forced another horse wide who already appeared to have position.

Aside from the vast differences as to how the Australian stewards handled the matter compared to how it would have been addressed in either the U.S. or Canada which is an entirely other column in itself, a comprehensive detail of the evidence was listed on what’s called the Stewards Report for that race night. The Stewards Report in Australia bears some resemblance to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) reports now issued for Woodbine and Western Fair, but it takes the AGCO report to an entirely different level.

The Stewards Report in Australia and an almost identical report from the Racing Integrity Unit in New Zealand show an unbelievable amount of transparency and accountability for every race card in their countries.

Looking at the report at Gloucester from the night of the Inter Dominion, the very first comment listed states “Trainers with multiple runners in any one race were questioned in relation to their intended tactics.” Of course we’ve come to expect horses with the same connections or interests to work together to some degree (or at least not work against each other), but here it must be stated in advance. This is done so that the public can be made aware of these strategies and use that information accordingly. Such a notion would be unheard of here in the US.

Pre-race tactics are only a small part of it, as drivers in these Down-Under jurisdictions are routinely questioned for in-race tactics and questionable decision making, even if there was no ill-will. It’s in the content of these reports where stewards question drivers on the very things that an everyday bettor may wonder.

From another report in the same timeframe as the Gloucester one, a driver was questioned for the seemingly innocent action of allowing his horse to become blind-switched. It stated, “[Driver] was questioned as to why he remained in a two wide position near the 800 metres and allowed [another horse] to improve to his outside which resulted in [his horse] being held up until near the 300 metres. [Driver] stated he believed the final half of the race would be run in a quick tempo, therefore he elected to remain two wide rather than move three wide and be wide in the final lap in quick time. He stated he was trailing [another horse], which he believed would continue to take him into the race and was able to come off that horses back near the 300 metres and into clear running.

In that example, no disciplinary action was taken yet the public was still able to hear an explanation for the drive. This is important because sometimes this information will show up on an AGCO report or on the USTA fines & suspensions, but only if the incident results in some action taken.

How many times after races are we left wondering why a driver did this or didn’t do that? Why was the race favorite never involved? In Australia and New Zealand, all of those questions are answered. In browsing through other reports, every different scenario that you have questioned during a race are in there.

Where it gets really good is when it comes to protecting the betting public. Let’s say a horse takes back 5 straight races and now in the same class he suddenly blasts out and goes wire to wire. A driver and trainer will absolutely get called in to explain the reason for a dramatic “change in tactics.”

Similarly — and something you’ll never see in the US – connections will be forced to explain any sudden change in a horse’s form, for better or worse. So many times, we are left to guess with what to do with a horse that was inexplicably poor one week and right back in the next week, but explanations for these situations too are required by the stewards.

Here’s another big one that the public in the U.S. or Canada would love to know. Trainers report to the stewards and it’s published as to how a horse is training in the time leading up to a race. Issues such as abscesses or sickness are reported and then relayed to the public. In North America, we have no idea about any of these things until after the fact, if ever. The Meadowlands and WEG solicit trainer’s comments through Twitter, but obviously that is reported on social media holds up to anything compared what is given to a jurisdiction official.

On top of it all, each card’s report lists all horses that received post-race blood and post-race swabs, which if done in North America would quell the argument that certain trainers receive preferential treatment at certain tracks.

By providing this level of transparency to the public, it clearly inspires confidence in the racing product and as a result people can feel safe betting more into it. There’s many lessons to be learned from it all that would go a long way to restore the integrity of racing locally.