So strong has been the link between racing industry “identities” and the Catholic Church, the Australian racing industry has often been dubbed “the Catholic Church at play”  for a century or more.

Today it is more a case of racing and the church being “at war” over the visit by Pope Benedict XVI for the World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney next year.

Royal Randwick Racecourse was identified when Sydney won the right to hold the event as the venue for the major rallies to be attended by the Pope simply because it is the only inner city location capable of holding up to 500,000 people at the one time.

But it seems nobody told racing industry “stakeholders” that Sydney’s leading racecourse will have to be shut down completely for up to three months to prepare for the event and for the clean up afterwards.

Randwick is not just Sydney’s leading race track, it is also the leading training track, with around 650 horses trained there by 25 trainers at any one time.

When it was realised, just a couple of weeks ago, that the trainers and their horses will have to be relocated for three months just to cater for a couple of Papal rallies, all hell broke loose. And relations between Catholic trainers, owners, jockeys and other racing personnel and their Church has been under growing strain ever since.

The cost of relocating 650 horses, their trainers, farriers and so on to other Sydney and even non-metropolitan tracks has been estimated at up to $50 million. Even if that is an ambit figure, it will be a multi million dollar exercise in any event, and the one body incapable of meeting that right now is the Australian Jockey Club (AJC), which revealed last week that its finances are in a parlous state.

The AJC Committee is busily trying to duck responsibility for a public relations and financial disaster. The finger is being pointed at Chief Executive Tony King who retired last Monday. King is the brother-in-law of the last Catholic Prime Minister of Australia (Paul Keating). His acting replacement claimed yesterday that King “ran with all the Government-style issues”.

The trainers have sought legal advice on how to prevent the AJC signing off on an agreement with the NSW Government and the World Youth Day organisers on the use of Randwick for the event. But even if the advice is favourable, the NSW Government will simply introduce legislation to validate the agreement.

Now the trainers are planning to call on Alan Belford Jones to use his radio “influence” to block the closure of Randwick, but he is not back on air for another week, and the deal may well be signed, sealed and delivered before then.

Perhaps they could call on the services of Richard John Sinclair Laws, who has “robust” views on Cardinal George Pell and the Catholic Church generally?

Closing down a major racetrack and training track for three months might also affect TAB turnover, and if that happens the distribution to the racing industry will be cut.

But the immediate challenge is to come up with a compromise that satisfies the Church, and some very unhappy, and very prominent, members of its flock.

And the only realistic way for that to happen is for the NSW Government to pick up the tab for relocating the trainers and their stables. In an election year, perhaps the Federal Government will rush in to share the “burden”?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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