(Image: AAP/Vince Caligiuri)

The racing industry is no longer untouchable after the messiest Spring Carnival in recent memory, with falling attendances, falling television numbers, falling gambling revenue and plenty of negative headlines.

Such is the breadth of #nuptothecup sentiment after 7.30’s extraordinary piece on race horse slaughter, City of Melbourne Greens councillor Rohan Leppert was even emboldened last week to put up this motion for this Tuesday calling for council to withdraw support for the traditional Melbourne Cup street parade on the Monday before the big race.

Leppert didn’t muck around with his language, proposing that council:

  1. “Condemns the systemic cruelty and “wastage” produced by the horse racing industry
  2. Directs management to amend and republish forthwith the City of Melbourne’s Event Partnership Program guidelines and Triennial Sponsorship Program guidelines with an additional class of events added to the list of ‘ineligible applications’ being ‘Events that celebrate or involve horse racing’. 

News Corp has predictably come out hard against the move but in this past week there has even been unprecedented scrutiny on News Corp’s commercial ties with the racing and gambling industries via The Guardian and in Crikey.

However, the Murdoch family’s broader international push into the gambling industry has still never been fully ventilated in Australia.

For instance, the formerly Murdoch-controlled Sky Plc is estimated to have made clear profits of more than $2 billion from starting Sky Betting and Gaming in the UK and then selling it for US$4.7 billion to Canada’s The Stars Group earlier this year.

And the family is now trying to emulate those aggressive gambling strategies in Australia and the US after Fox Corp bought 5% of The Stars Group, parent company of BetEasy, a few weeks ago and established a 50-50 joint venture called Fox Bet to roll out sports gambling products across the US.

The Murdochs, and their executives, aren’t particularly subtle about their support for the gambling and racing industries.

Take Herald & Weekly Times managing director Peter Blunden who has no qualms appearing on the Moonee Valley Racing Club website as a director with a profile that first explains he has “editorial responsibility for all publications of the Herald & Weekly Times including the Herald Sun, Sunday Herald Sun, and The Weekly Times, Leader Community Newspapers, and the Geelong Advertiser Group”. He then goes on to declare he is “a life-long racing enthusiast and currently races horses with Gai Waterhouse and Chris Waller. These have included Excess Knowledge, Viking Legend and Kontiki Park.”

Asked by The Guardian’s Amanda Meade earlier last week if this constituted a conflict of interest, Blunden got right on the front foot declaring:

As a lifelong racing enthusiast, a horse lover and unashamed supporter of the sport, I also know how to balance the challenges confronting the industry. We have led the media coverage of cruelty and integrity issues, fully aired the ABC claims and led our paper with the industry’s response. I am more than comfortable with how the Herald Sun covers racing issues, both on and off the track.

Fairfax reported in 2015 that Blunden was preparing to take over as chairman of Moonee Valley, although that has yet to materialise, presumably because of the clear conflict of interest that would represent.

Was it a coincidence that the Moonee Valley redevelopment master plan was reported exclusively in a double page Herald Sun spread in August this year, complete with a glowing editorial?

You can’t doubt Blunden’s enthusiasm for the industry based on the amount of pages the Herald Sun has devoted to racing and gambling since Derby Day:

  • Saturday: 39 pages
  • Sunday: 43 pages
  • Monday: 40 pages
  • Tuesday: 43 pages
  • Wednesday: 29 pages.

Should a gambling-driven animal racing carnival really be given 194 pages of coverage, form guides and advertising over a five-day period in Australia’s biggest selling paper? No other event gets anything like that scale of resources.

Crikey recently flagged Tabcorp’s lobbying efforts at Flemington. The company didn’t disappoint, with dozens of politicians dropping by its Birdcage marquee on Saturday and Tuesday.

However, it wasn’t just the racing element of the gambling industry which took the opportunity to wine and dine politicians. The Australian reported that about 30 MPs turned up to the Australian Hotels Associations’ five-hour lunch in a big marquee they set up in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens last Monday afternoon.

Deputy prime minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack appeared to score the trifecta, turning up in the Tabcorp marquee on Saturday and Tuesday and doing lunch with the pokies-focused AHA on Monday.

Inner city Melbourne is a long way from his drought-affected electorate in regional NSW, but what’s wrong with a four-day weekend of racing, gambling, drinking and networking with the one percenters of Australian society?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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