A big feature double of hurdle and steeplechase racing returned to metropolitan Melbourne on Saturday at Sandown with the Australian Hurdle and the Australian Steeple — first run in 1882 — and to the great disappointment of the anti-jumps racing fraternity, no horse was killed or euthanised from a fall.
It’s a bit hard to get on a high horse that’s galloped away from you.
Last month after a week of totally unacceptable carnage at Warrnambool’s historic May carnival, the sport was “suspended” pending a full enquiry into all aspects of it.
It was gone.
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And from a media/PR perspective those that had their livelihoods jeopardised inadvertently had themselves to blame, as they were passively standing by while they were getting smashed by their counterparts who like most lobby groups … knew how to lobby.
Sure key players like trainers and jockeys would defend their sport to the best of their ability when asked, but from an industry perspective there was no “front foot” plan.
So the RSPCA’s Hugh Wirth would be read, seen and heard in the news section of the media, while the Fran Houlihan’s of the world (trainer whose late father Jim is a Hall Of Fame member for his unsurpassed performances with jumpers) would articulately state the case in favour of its continuation to Sport 927, 2KY, Sky Channel, TVN and the racing print journo’s.
As a mate of mine said, racing people knew that the argument boiled down to 10 public deaths or thousands behind the scenes.
Then along came Butch Londregan.
The former great jockey and now “battling” trainer, confirmed a 3AW “Rumour File” suggestion that he intended to ring the knackery, get all his horses shot, and send the heads to “Ross (Rob) Hulls” (the Victorian Racing Minister) and all the radical groups against jumps racing.
Wow! Game on.
Londregan’s crude — to say the least — inarticulate, proclamation to the top-rating and highly influential breakfast show got the “those in favour” argument to the “front part of the paper”.
How many people would be left unemployed? How many families would subsequently be affected? How deeply do these horse people care for their animals? What would be the economic impact to the town of Warrnambool without their beloved carnival? Why would so many horses end up at the knackery? When horses go to the knackery, what is the process? (I heard trainer Brian Johnston explain it on Sport 927, and despite being around the sport most of my life, had no idea that it’s a three to four day horrific process that is far more unacceptable than any unfortunate racetrack accident.)
And then came the clincher that gave jumps racing oxygen:
Was this argument more about grandstanding and opportunism, rather than the love of animals? If it was the latter rather than the former, where do you draw the line? Why aren’t “they” picketing knackeries, chicken coups, or even farmers that shoot their farm dog at the end of its use as a working animal?
Simply because those arguments wouldn’t get the same amount of media coverage, that’s why. Say what you like about talkback radio, but at least all aspects of a passionate debate gets fleshed out.
So in a pleasant surprise to some, Racing Victoria approved the continuation of the sport with appropriate — and to date — affective safety adjustments.
Of course Londregan got hauled in to face the RVL stewards as his comments weren’t acceptable, but the relatively gentle fine ($5000, with $4000 suspended and six months to pay) reflected the sympathetic view the industry had towards someone fighting for a feed.
On Saturday, the training performance of Robbie Laing in getting Mazzacano to win the Australian Steeple at his first race start in two years was not only astonishing, but an injection of genuine excitement that the sport badly needed after a horrendous streak.
You wouldn’t — rightly — have read about it in “the front part of the paper” as there was nothing controversial about the race, but the fact that it actually occurred was at one stage longer odds than Mazzacano’s $4.20 starting price.
And just as Ian Chappell once said that all of Australia’s highly paid cricketers should say a little prayer of thanks to Kerry Packer for bringing their sport kicking and screaming into the lucrative professional era, winning trainers and jockeys of feature races should do the same towards Butch Londregan.
Along with an “envelope” of thanks.
“Racetrack” Ralphy Horowitz is a former producer at The Footy Show, Sunday Footy Show, SEN & 3AW.