Harness Racing in Australia -
These two factors of harness racing and Australia are each fair challenges but combined are more formidable and complex. You can understand that I can only generalise the character and practices that exist in the various systems. The challenge is to explain a country spread over 7.7 million square kilometres with a boundary of sea of 40,000 kilometres and a population of 20 million people divided into six States and one Territory.
Each State has its own legislature and from those flow Statutory Bodies which control and regulate racing in Australia and specifically for harness racing, as I address it here, this means the creation and enforcement of rules, integrity procedures of registration as well as control of race fields in programmes and of conduct during racing and in the industry. Legal appeals against these processes fall to the responsibility of the Statutory body's procedure in each State. In this State and others, Racing Clubs programme and conduct the meeting whilst Stipendiary Stewards of the Regulatory Statutory Body control the actual conduct of the race, its processes, and the behaviour of the participants with a clear objective to protect the integrity and public perception of the Industry. In some other States the Controlling Body conducts some of the race meetings, whilst still fulfilling its integrity procedures.
The enforcement of the rules is paramount for the Controlling Bodies of each State. All States strictly enforce absolute drug free racing and drug usage is met with penalties including disqualification, suspension periods or fines. Repetition is heavily punished. Australia insists on and strictly enforces drug free racing.
Structurally, each State links by membership to and within the national forum of the AHRC - Australian Harness Racing Council - where in recent years we have seen the development and adoption by the States of a set of national rules and national handicapping system. Under this Body the integrity of the Australian Stud Book and the Breeding process are controlled. The Stud Book is maintained by its preparation and production, as well as the control of horses' names and registration nationally of race performances and times achieved (refer to AHRC On-Line). Under each State, kindred bodies are affiliated for breeders, trainers and regional associations and some of these have national associations.
The Club System
Within the Australian structure, the heart of harness racing is contained within the Club system where voluntary labour and town spirit sees the continuance of 112 Country Clubs throughout Australia. Local Committees and voluntary workers, lots of farmers, townsfolk, trainers as well as Local Government Councils are responsible for all of those peculiar oval tracks seen from the air as you travel over the flat plains and undulating slopes of our outback countryside. From these come the horse supply for the city tracks where the big betting turnover and prizemoney are the pot of gold for some, but the sport's spirit and fun are around those feeder tracks and it is there where the evening bonfires after the races present the tales of champions past and present and provide the highlight of an evening of pleasure for these country communities.
Each State has a principal Metropolitan track and as well some cities have further nearby suburban tracks. One of the major differences between Australia and New Zealand and the rest of the Harness Racing World is the use of city tracks. Where in USA and Europe prolonged weeks or months of racing occur on a particular track, our principal tracks operate continually throughout the year, but only on 2 or 3 days per week. Stabling and training on-course on these tracks in very unusual with racing stock coming for each race meeting from outer suburbs of the city and from country areas often over long distances of over 200 to 300 miles on the day of the race.
Betting and Totalizator (TAB)
As I have said, these tracks are where our main focus of betting and prizemoney are, but our racing industry's funds supply has changed dramatically in recent years. TAB totalisator off-course betting shops are the Industry's main revenue source and the TABs maintain in cities, suburbs and towns, betting shops and betting outlets in gaming clubs and pubs. These State TAB operators are privatised and run by publicly listed companies, but this is a recent phenomenon. Racing's mainstream of income and its prizemoney come from off-course and on course betting on the Totalisator (or Pari-mutuels).
The funds stream has now been broadened and strengthened as racing has gained right of access to gaming and slot machines. Casinos are outside that stream, but gaming in Australia has an infrastructure of licensed social clubs and pubs where most of the gaming is conducted.
To a lesser extent, nowadays, licensed bookmakers also provide on-course betting at fixed odds. Bookmaker activity on course is a declining feature of our racing and this is a sad consequence of the increased off-course betting shops and television viewing in our gaming clubs, hotels, pubs and homes. Bookmakers in my opinion (an opinion not shared by all) are a traditional highlight for our on-course attraction, providing colour and entertainment as well as that fixed gladiatorial opportunity of battle between two participants - the bookmaker and the punter!
The extensive network of the TABs is highly effective and is integrated with ownership of telecasting throughout the States and into the hotels, homes, licensed clubs, pubs and betting shops. Race meeting telecasts extend throughout States and across borders to throughout Australia, where each State TAB regime operates. Betting types and varieties are enormous in type with win and place, quinellas, trifectas, superfectas, pick fours, doubles, exactas, mysteries, etc. There is no simulcasting or similar arrangements in Australia.
On-Course and Off-Course Communication Technology
For our punting public, Radio is a constant feature of racing communication, lasting the years. Dedicated Radio Stations supply form, trends, race calls as well as the results with comment. Newspapers provide formguides, but very little editorial material of interest to the general public. This decline in the printed media reflects changing media ownership and editorial policy. Great change has occurred with Communication and Entertainment. Because of our strong off-course betting and our dependence on it for providing a strong infrastructure of supply and product appeal, Australian Racing is, and has been for the last 20 years, in a position where great challenges face the future of racing. Internet betting has further highlighted the commercial dangers and opportunities facing us and we had better be equal and better than that challenge if we are to maintain our high fund flow to the industry.
Betting revenue flowing away from our controlled trading area and through internet betting to sources who have no responsibility for supplying revenue to the racing industry of this country and yet use our product, presents grave dangers to our future. Australia's racing product with its established infrastructure to supply racing with integrity is product of considerable value and must be protected for the racing industry of Australia.
Highly sophisticated technology now tells the public why they need to go to the track and social change tells them they should not travel, drink and be entertained. Betting at home or in local venues of betting shops or clubs are now stripping our on-course crowds. Because of the need for the crowd to be elsewhere, Racing Administrators are still to find the balance which provides our owners with the thrill of the crowd's acknowledgement of him and his horse. Sky Channel televises the majority of racing directly into these venues and homes on a subscription basis.
Racecourses have become large restaurants and function centres, licensed gambling and gaming clubs and social sporting centres. Greater utilisation of the heavy investment in racecourse infrastructure is required if the commercial existence is to be justified. What has this to do with racing? - prizemoney!
Prizemoney has increased enormously in New South Wales and Victoria upon privatisation and public floating of their TAB operations. Throughout Australia around 2,048 harness racing meetings per year are conducted with approximately 16,000 races, and prizemoney stakes have risen to $79.6 Million in 2003/2004. This has currently generated great industry interest for supply of racing stock, but where will the owners be if recognition of their "ego needs" is not satisfied? Individual Owners have disappeared in large numbers and are being replaced in recent times with syndicates and multiple partnerships. Owners are the lifeblood of racing.
With prizemoney running at these levels it has sent out a strong signal to the Breeding industry. It is there we need a dramatic turnaround. Economic factors affecting our farming and rural areas, where our supply strength exists, has meant a major decline in foaling numbers.
Breeding numbers in harness racing have plunged from around 13,000 foals in 1981 to just over 5,500 in 2003/2004. Economic recessions, drought and bushfires have had an impact and now perhaps the current optimistic economic outlook in Australia may assist an upturn to low numbers of recent years. However, this optimism is not seen to extend to our country areas at present. Rural production, sales and exports have been drought affected and our breeding base is in those areas. Like all racing people optimism always returns.
The real optimism will be driven by the recent upsurge in prizemoney flowing to racing on privatisation of our TABs. Recent years have seen an upsurge in imports of stock from New Zealand to Australia and again prizemoney increase has influenced this. The influence on breeding has a five year arrival time. Prizemoney drives interest in breeding, but a breeding decision today is a five year time span to be earning return at the races from that breeding decision. Confidence that the breeding investment of today will provide a return must be built on assured revenues and today those revenues are more assured than ever.
Investments in supply of sire stock have already been evidenced with greater quality than ever. Mare numbers have been successfully kept up in recent times by policies of encouraging fillies and mares racing being adopted on a national basis. We will still be encountering problems in supply of racing stock in the short term, but in the longer term positive marketing measures will overcome this.
Breeding bonus systems exist in all States, but vary considerably in style and format in each State. Most have been based on Sires Stakes or State-bredSchemes with residency of the sire determining the eligibility of the racing stock for the scheme. Breeding technologies and rules have changed radically in recent years including unlimited sire services, artificial insemination with chilled or frozen semen, also unlimited both in quality and origin as well as rules for embryo transfer.
Many administrators have been addressing changes to the breeding incentive schemes of the individual States and have developed schemes based on residency of the mare as well as that of the stallion. Some States have already moved in that direction. Stallion and semen quality have lifted enormously in recent time and the quality of stud farms, agistment farms and laboratory services has spectacularly lifted in recent years. This is ongoing.
There has always been a culture in Australian Harness Racing to avoid a spectacle that becomes repetitive. Variety is the spice of life! Whilst most starting methods are from a mobile barrier many clubs will include standing starts as an alternative addition to a programme. Distances will vary from 1 mile (1600 metres) to as much as 2 miles and over (up to 3,400 metres). Whilst mile ratings are used for every race (actual times) are recorded as well as for the full distance.
Tracks vary considerably in size with most around half mile (800 metres), but larger sizes near 1000 metres are now being built and others are seeking to create larger sizes and tracks over 5 furlongs (1000 metres) and more. There is considerable difference of opinion and much discussion on sizes of tracks. At Harold Park we have a Daniel Coon designed 800 metres track and enjoy the cauldron of up close action. Other than in rural areas or inside galloping tracks, the trend to larger tracks has been frustrated by high value of land inside metropolitan boundaries. The large track has yet not produced evidence that it provides increased betting turnover on which the racing industry depends.
Speed Time Culture
Like other countries, particularly USA, Harness Racing in Australia is obsessed by speed times, but prizemoney is still "King" in the survival stakes. Despite races being run and measured in metric distances times are kept in mile rates to accommodate international comparisons with USA and NZ particularly.
Time records vary by State and track and like USA we love to grab a World record (unique though the distance might be). We try to declare a World Champion before they do, and even after they do if we can. Time is "King" in the ego stakes of being the fastest.
Both Pacers and Square Gaited horses race in Australia with a predominance of Pacing. Many of you will recognise the names of Stallion sires of many of our horses. These stallions are very predominantly USA in origin, and it is hard to see this changing in the near future although we have started to give our own young Stallions better opportunities and some European trotting sires already have a presence in this region.
The harness horse is why we are here.
Source:The general information Paper entitled "Harness Racing in Australia" was presented by A.J. McGrath, then President, NSWHRC at the 1999 World Trotting Conference, Sydney, Australia, 23 November 1999. It has been edited & updated.
Last Updated: 15th April 2005