A silly little sledge that buried bigger industry ideas in turf war

Tuesday's "silly little man" sledge from Amanda Elliott was disappointing in that it lowered the tone of what could have been a constructive debate – but it also took attention away from an important message she raised that has been lost in this cross-border spat.

What about the horses?

Victoria Racing Club chairperson Amanda Elliott and Racing NSW CEO Peter V’LandysCredit:SMH

When racing leaders start talking about stakeholders, whether it is owners, breeders, trainers, stable staff or jockeys, somehow forgotten, ranked only below the punter in importance, are the equine athletes that put on the show.

The Victoria Racing Club chairman said a lot on Tuesday, unfortunately it was the verbal barb aimed at Racing NSW chief Peter V'Landys that caught most attention, but she drove at something far more significant in the long term.

"The glorious sport of racing is so much more than arguing about prizemoney. It's about the beautiful animal that sits at the centre of it," said Elliott.

She was right, and it will be interesting to see which state best grasps this concept and balances its prizemoney with long-term projects like training centres and the crucial area of aftercare.

Animal welfare issues and changing community standards are racing's biggest threat. The situation at Santa Anita in California earlier this year, in which a string of breakdowns on a substandard racing surface led to government temporarily shutting down racing, stands as a cautionary tale.

As do the troubles faced by NSW greyhound racing in 2016 when a media investigation uncovered animal cruelty and the sport was threatened with a government shutdown. When similar investigations are aimed at racing, the sport needs to ensure its backyard is genuinely clean.

It was the greyhound live-baiting scandal that was the catalyst for racing to take a look in its backyard, and Racing NSW subsequently implemented a retired racehorse prizemoney levy of 1 per cent of all purses – an amount that obviously continues to grow with every Peter V'Landys prizemoney boost – and is now being poured into concrete investment.

Racing NSW have purchased a series of properties including a 1050 hectare farm dedicated to aftercare in the state's central west and Bart Cummings' former Princes Farm in Hawkesbury, which will be used as a jockeys' academy.

Racing Victoria matches the NSW levy with its "Off The Track" program and operates under the principle that "there’s a home for every healthy thoroughbred". RV spent $3.3 million on aftercare projects last financial year, estimating they have found homes for 90 per cent of retired racehorses in the pleasure, equestrian sports and breeding sectors. Living Legends at Oaklands do a terrific job educating the public, but deserve more industry support.

Which brings us to racetracks, where, as in Santa Anita, the potential for harm is high to the industry and more important than perception, risk must be minimised for the athletes, both human and equine.

Announcements about new track irrigation systems might not be as sexy as launching another rich race with a weird name, but they can be just as costly, often requiring long-term commitment, and are perhaps more vital.

RV estimates the Victorian industry has spent on average more than $50 million per year on infrastructure projects, which includes investment in training centres, one area where Victorians would claim they are winning the war with NSW. Spending more money doesn't necessarily mean success though and there seem serious issues with Seymour, among other concerns.

Australian training centres as a whole are woeful compared to other first-world racing jurisdictions. It isn't just handicapping issues or pedigree that allow imports to dominate the cups. the horses have been trained in facilities most Australian handlers don't have access to.  Ballarat's uphill gallop, built for
$2.4 million in 2011, has been a tremendous success.

That uphill gallop is a step ahead of any industry centre in NSW, but Elliott's "silly" comments and the Melbourne Cup prizemoney boost also overshadowed Racing NSW plans for a Newmarket-style training centre in the southern highlands.

It was an idea that showed V'Landys isn't just all big, brash statements, or style over substance. Still, it was just another V'Landys idea, not yet a reality, and Victoria is already investing in projects at Pakenham, where more than
$50 million has been spent, and Cranbourne, although the future of Sandown – a pristine and reliable racing surface, but on land that has property developers rubbing their hands together – is uncertain.

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