Evolution of Australian Harness
In the space of a decade, harness racing had attracted a small yet devoted core of participants. By 1860 sufficient interest in the sport had grown to the stage where the first race meeting in Australia exclusively for trotters could be held at Flemington in Melbourne.
The ambitions of this pioneering group of enthusiasts were, however, constrained by the absence of a large horse population to sustain regular race meetings and the informal nature of harness racing continued.
By the 1880s imports and local breeding had overcome the initial limitations. Around the same time, the legalisation of the on-course totalisator provided a boost to wagering activities and harness racing soon gained recognition as a valid field of sporting and commercial enterprise.
Over the next twenty years, the growing popularity of harness racing attracted entrepreneurs who saw the sport as a purely commercial opportunity. Numerous proprietary racing ventures were established and the increase in competition and prizemoney spurred the development of racing and breeding.
Private venture harness racing was successful and at times scandalous. In the unregulated environment of the times, speculation and unethical practices were rife.
As a consequence, it soon became evident that greater regulation of harness racing was essential to maintain the wagering public’s confidence in the legitimacy and reliability of the sport.
The formation of the Principal Trotting Clubs in all States provided harness racing with its organised administration aimed at regulating the sport in the public interest.
Over the next decade, rules were standardised, more clubs were formed and racetracks developed as harness racing consolidated its position as a major gambling and social activity.
Harness racing’s development was rudely arrested by the outbreak of the First World War. All racetracks were closed between 1916 and 1918, and the diversion of manpower and resources to the war effort had a severe impact on the sport which took over a decade to overcome.
A period of slow growth ensued after the war and it took the introduction of regular radio coverage of harness racing in the 1930s for harness racing to regain lost ground.
Radio coverage extended harness racing’s reach by making it more accessible to the public. It could not, however, overcome the competition that harness racing faced from other forms of racing. Thoroughbred racing in particular had by this time secured the prime race days of Saturday, Wednesday and public holidays.
The limited popularity of harness racing on the other available days constrained the development of the sport and created a need to seek alternatives.
The major breakthrough came in 1949 with the introduction of night racing. Racing under lights was immediately popular and provided harness racing with the means it had been seeking to increase its popularity without engaging in direct competition with thoroughbred and greyhound racing.
The position of harness racing was further consolidated during the 1950s with the abolition of proprietary racing and the establishment of the TAB throughout Australia.
These two developments set the final preconditions for the surge in popularity of harness racing during the following decade.
By the 1970s private ownership of television sets was sufficiently high to make regular free-to-air broadcasting of harness races commercially attractive.
The commencement of television coverage created tremendous interest in the sport and the high water-mark in course attendances was achieved as public awareness and appreciation of harness racing peaked.
The popularity of harness racing during this period attracted greater investment in the sport and during this period most major facilities were upgraded.
By the 1980s microeconomic reform, in particular deregulation of the broadcasting industry and privatisation of public enterprises, brought with it a raft of social and economic changes that continue to have a profound effect on harness racing.
The introduction of cable and satellite broadcasting created immense competition for the rights to televise sporting events. Racing tended to fare better than most sports and the establishment of Sky Channel as a dedicated racing network extended the reach of harness racing to an estimated audience of over 2 million viewers per week.
At around the same time, the TABs were being privatised and publicly listed. As part of this process, State Racing Distribution Agreements were concluded which established new parameters for the provision of racing in general and distribution of funds to the industry as a whole.
The broad reach of Sky Channel and the proliferation of TAB outlets led however to a change in wagering patterns.
Course attendances decreased as it became easier to wager on harness races from venues such as hotels and clubs.
Further to this, the distribution of all racing through Sky Channel effectively increased competition between the racing codes and made the continuous provision of quality racing programmes a paramount consideration.
While the larger clubs thrived in the new environment, the flow-on effects of the changes to the racing industry had a dramatic effect on the fortunes of most smaller and provincial clubs.
By the end of the 1990s, it was becoming clear that harness racing was beginning to contract in a number of important indicators such as attendance, breeding, foal numbers etc.
Broader social and economic changes allied with the impact of technology had changed the environment in which the industry operated.
In addition to this, increased competition from a variety of sources and the absence in the past of initiatives to grow the sport began to pose a threat to harness racing’s long-term viability in its current form.
The familiar landscape of the past has been irrevocably changed and new thinking and new directions are required to reinvigorate the sport.
State Government legislation has provided the first step in this new direction by transferring responsibility in the main to industry based but Government appointed Boards who will with their State Principal Clubs manage harness racing. The creation of independent State Controlling Bodies, often with industry representatives is giving the industry itself the ability to undertake significant commercial reform. They are taking stock of the current position of the harness racing industry. Then determining suitable long-term goals and the direction in which it needs our industry to head in order to reaffirm our position as a continuing vibrant part of racing throughout Australia.
In doing this, existing structures and mechanisms that have their roots in less commercial and competitive eras have been assessed for their suitability as the means of carrying harness racing forward over the next stages of its development.
Current and emergent issues and problems have been examined as part of the process of establishing the basis for a more stable, dynamic and forward-looking harness racing industry to guarantee its future. In this way whilst recognising the place of history and tradition the commercial and social needs of harness racing’s modern environment will be met to provide an enhanced capability for those industry participants whose livelihood is dependent on the corporate actions of the key entities that form the membership of the Australian Harness Racing Council.
Source: Adapted from HRNSW Strategic Plan FY2004-2006 Draft, HRNSW, 2003