Author: John Berry
This column has been overtaken by events; the plan had been to discuss the Eclipse Awards in the USA, which were particularly interesting this year because we found ourselves with the seemingly unthinkable situation of a Triple Crown winner not being considered an automatic winner of the main Horse of the Year award. One would have thought that the Triple Crown would be the Eclipse Awards’ equivalent of the ‘card that is so high and wild that he’ll never need to deal another’ that Leonard Cohen suggests any dealer is watching for in ‘The Stranger Song’. This year, though, we saw Justify winning the Triple Crown (while remaining unbeaten) but then never running again, while the frailty that is implied by a racing career which lasts less than four months was shown up by the sustained toughness and excellence of Accelerate whose 5yo season in 2018 yielded no fewer than five Grade One victories culminating in his authoritative victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The voters clearly faced a dilemma about how much toughness and soundness should count towards their selection and how much lack of racing should count against it. As it turned out, we didn’t find ourselves with the seemingly unthinkable situation of a Triple Crown winner failing to secure Horse of the Year honours because Justify received 191 of the 249 first choice votes. The whole thing had, though, given us plenty to think about. We had better move on from that, however, because we have had a much bigger pause for thought since then, courtesy of the news that Australia’s leading trainer Darren Weir has been arrested by the police and charged by the Victorian stewards of several charges, most notably the possession of a ‘jigger’ (a device for giving a horse an electric shock, the theory being that a few zaps of electricity might incite a horse to ‘over perform’ through fear) while the other items seized included a bag of cocaine and an unregistered firearm.
This is obviously a hammer blow for the reputation of Victorian racing in particular and Australian racing in general, bearing in mind that Weir was the wide margin winner of the trainers’ premiership (both metropolitan and state wide) in Victoria last season as well as easily topping the national numerical rankings. Obviously it will take time to work through any prosecutions brought against Weir by either the stewards or the police (or both) but in the interim it seems that Weir will not be permitted to have runners. This is totally understandable as few would feel comfortable with runners appearing from a trainer who has just been arrested under suspicion of conspiring to defraud the punting public, and particularly not in circumstances as unsavoury as these.
One would have thought that the stewards’ swift action would be hard to fault but, needless to say, there are some who disagree. Arguably the strangest take on the issue was provided by Terry Henderson, the head of the successful OTI Syndication business (which had several horses in Weir’s stable when the balloon went up). For no obvious reason, the gist of his observations seems to be that the stewards have to bear a part of any blame that may exist because they do not provide trainers with any ethics training. This doesn’t really make any sense because they provide something much more important: a very comprehensive rule book. If the rules are the letter of the law, then ethics can be seen as the spirit of the law. And it is clear which the stewards have to police: the letter of the law. Trainers can be charged with breaking rules, but they can’t be charged (more’s the pity, some might add) with unethical behaviour if they are not breaking any rules.
Making sure that the participants obey the rules is the stewards’ job, but prime responsibility for the settings of a trainer’s moral compass has to lie with the trainer himself. While it would be asking too much of the stewards to take action against trainers who stick within the letter but not the spirit of the rules, it’s not unrealistic to hope that owners collectively might be an influence for good in this respect. In other words, one would like to feel that trainers who have a good reputation for playing the game fairly might be patronised ahead of those whose morals seem to fall short.
From my observations around the world, the opposite applies. Time and again one gets the impression that most owners would prefer to patronise trainers who achieve significant success while (because of) ‘sailing close to the wind’ than those whose achievements are less ‘high profile’ but whose reputation for playing the game fairly is undisputed. Plenty of people might feel that the popularity of Darren Weir (who had 600 horses under his care at the start of last week) does nothing to contradict this supposition. On that basis, it is hard to feel sorry for those bleating about how unfair it is that the owners of these 600 horses can’t see their animals race until they have been moved to other stables.
A much more sensible view was articulated by Cranbourne trainer Michael Hibbs who tweeted his views beginning with the sentiment: “You know what really gets me riled is owners who call for integrity but have horses with people who have none …”. Similarly sensible was Jake Norton, whose view of the Thoroughbred Racehorse Owners’ Association complaining about the supposed unfairness (to the horses’ owners) of the scratching of the horses was expressed thus: “I have sympathy for the owners of scratched Weir/McLean horses but surely TROA’s priority is to protect the interests of the hundreds, if not thousands, of other owners with horses engaged, not those whose trainers, and whose horses’ training regimes, are under question?”
The Darren Weir debacle is not the first major integrity issue ever to have rocked the sport and it won’t be the last. Of all the points which it does raise, though, arguably the most important is the question of how on earth can owners collectively have so little concern with morals that a trainer whose practices are seen to be ethically very questionable can have had 600 horses under his care?