OUR industry is going through an important phase, especially in relation to our whip-free agenda.
As Chairman, I will keep all of you informed of our status and progress as we lead the way in this new phase, and I will continue these updates periodically as part of keeping you up to date.
One of the roles of Chairman is to look ahead; to ensure that this industry is in the strongest position to withstand constantly-changing participant and community expectations.
I sincerely believe that the whip-free direction set by our Annual General Meeting late last year is a vital step in helping to secure our long-term sustainability.
Here is why.
A rationale and value proposition for our industry
It is not often that the opportunity arises – and is seized – to control our own destiny.
For our two-centuries old industry, that opportunity is here.
Members representing every State jurisdiction and Principal Club of our industry seized that opportunity on 20 October 2016, when the AGM of Harness Racing Australia voted unanimously to end the use of the whip in racing.
All of us in the Australian harness racing industry have always strived to lead.
That has meant leading in standards, in entertainment, in community mindedness, in social awareness, in welfare, in sensitivity to our horses …. and, leading in profitability and sustainability.
It is the last word – sustainability – that we can easily lose sight of in the daily running of our code.
Sustainability means simply this: that we will still be here, viable, entertaining and socially accepted and endorsed as an industry for this century and beyond.
Admittedly, that’s the long view: but it’s a view we need to have.
What does it take for that future to be secured?
Over the past decade or more, our own industry and certainly the community outside our industry, has become increasingly sensitive and demanding in its expectations of good animal welfare practice.
The signals are all around us. All industries that have animals in common are responding and adapting to these expectations.
The companion animal industry is under intensifying pressure to breed, keep and transport animals in conditions that meet community expectations. Sub-standard puppy farms, for example, have spurred community outrage and owners have been heavily prosecuted under tight new regulations governing the breeding of companion animals.
Other entertainment industries, like circus, are removing animal involvement altogether, while meat production industries are undergoing transformations in transparency and in the standards applied to husbandry and processing.
Whether we agree or not with the tactics employed by some media, they will scrutinise and expose practices that may once have been viewed differently but now offend community expectations.
Indeed, we are all intensely aware of the impact of one media exposé of the greyhound racing code. Let’s not for a minute equate harness racing whip use with live baiting. That would be ridiculous.
However, the point here, is that all codes, and all animal industries, are subject to the same rising community expectations of welfare, and the community’s reassessment of practices.
In horse racing codes, the use of the whip has continued to increase as a target of animal welfare activists and disapproval among the broader community.
The HRA Members (State Controlling Body and Principle Club representatives) attending the AGM have observed this general trend of expectations and activism and disapproval of our sport.
Hence, the decision to be whip free is really a decision to seize the opportunity to respect and align with this trend to protect the image of our code … and to do so before we are forced.
Whether other codes here and elsewhere are moving in equal measure is not the point.
They are all subject to the same global trends, and they will all have to align with expectations at some point, either proactively or by regulation.
There is no doubt that, given the right circumstances, governments are willing to act. The greyhounds code has faced extinction.
Although the eventual turn of events saw the industry survive, this is a code that in NSW is now working through 121 radical reforms and separate recommendations by a Commission of Inquiry.
It is not the same industry it was before February 2015 – and it has not won the kudos of acting proactively and pre-emptively to fix itself.
In contrast the harness racing industry has been proactively working on a range of welfare issues including whip use for many years.
Since 2010, HRA has progressively modified whip use and in this time the performance and speed of our horses has never been better. So, we believe that any performance-based case for using the whip is unsupported.
The new position on the whip will help protect our code’s sustainability and our image, and keep us on the right side of history in the eyes of critics and the wider community.
The value to the industry
Whip free races will be one substantial reason why younger fans entering the industry will feel secure investing for the long term, and will maintain close links with the industry.
It’s no secret that Generation Y is extremely sensitive to animal welfare issues, and by removing this one issue we remove a significant obstacle that helps to secure our sustainability.
Further, the fact that the industry’s move against the whip has attracted vocal support and endorsement in animal welfare circles itself signals that our sustainability is better protected.
It means that highly-influential and respected voices that could damage our image are, instead, allies rather than leading campaigns to force change or limit the industry’s growth.
Even now, animal welfare activists target other codes on issues, including whips, but not harness racing.
Whip free racing will also provide our code a positive and promotable point of difference.
This is a marketing advantage that we may choose to leverage in future, that will attract, not scare away new investment, and will again contribute to the industry’s sustainability and revenue potential.
There is little doubt that other jurisdictions have already taken close notice and will consider following suit. This is because they too see the writing on the wall: Do it yourself, or have it done to you.
The Swedish Government, for example, has already asked its industry to show cause as to why it should not ban the use of the whip in that country.
Other European nations, too, are continuously re-evaluating and moderating whip use.
In any case, Australia will remain the first to show the way, and that kudos will remain with the harness racing industry and will support our industry’s claim to responsibility, leadership and sustainability.
How will it work?
The industry has legitimate concerns about how harness racing will operate without a whip. HRA believes all these concerns are worthy of attention and is committed to working through them collaboratively.
Of high concern is the question of safety – of horses, drivers, trainers and spectators.
It has always been HRA’s intent to require a safety device of some kind to be always carried by drivers. Maintaining safety on the track, in training and in general movement is paramount.
Not only is it needed to safely control a horse that shies, but we know that horses may need to be coaxed over drains, through gates, across roads, to get into position behind mobiles, and away from danger to itself or others.
HRA has commissioned the development of a prototype safety device that will continue to evolve with input from the industry to design a tool that can achieve the safety required. This device would be available for use during races for safety purposes, but not to coax a horse to run.
The prototypes are due to arrive in coming days, and we will have consultation with 12 leading driver representatives from all jurisdictions and conduct a series of research trials.
We will make this entire process as transparent as possible.
The consultations, and the trials, will be videotaped and made available for viewing and assessment by all participants. The driver representatives, and the drivers themselves who will participate in the trials will report on their experiences, as will stewards.
These trials will assist all of us in answering any questions about horse control, as well as the viability and appropriateness of the safety device.
It is also valid to question whether the quality and spectacle of a race may be affected, but there are clear reasons and examples that suggest it’s unlikely to be a concern.
For example, Norway, where the whip was banned by legislation in 1982, is the only other country that does not use a whip in racing.
For decades, it has still sustained a competitive and viable industry, both domestically and internationally with its horses and racing product being successfully exported, attracting an international wagering audience and fan base.
Norwegian exports have demonstrated that they can win without a whip in Norway and under the whip in the US, as well as the reverse with international horses regularly competing successfully in Norway. Again, this suggests that the whip is not critical to a horse’s willingness to perform, and that horses can be competitive with or without the whip.
It’s important to remember all horses will race under the equal conditions. Norway shows us that, with all horses competing without whips, there will still be a competitive race and a winner at the end.
Recent independent research has also suggested that punters will be unfazed by whip free racing.
Similar views have been expressed by senior wagering experts and harness racing punters.
For example, Tabcorp believes whip free racing is unlikely to affect wagering turnover because, as with any rule change, punters will quickly adapt and adjust their betting approach.
These views also mirror our previous experience throughout the various whip rule modifications since 2010, none of which have negatively impacted wagering despite initial concerns to the contrary.
One of the key things HRA will be focussing on is to develop clear guidelines on how and when a safety device may be used in racing and training, and the conditions of its use. HRA will discuss that with the driver representatives and get feedback from trials.
Also, the National Rules Committee has drafted a rule that will be discussed as part of the routine consultative processes.
In short, we have a journey to go on in the coming months.
But the plans, consultations and trials are ready to go and participants in the industry will have ample opportunity to follow the progress as it happens and provide valuable input.
We look forward to your involvement and engagement and to keeping you updated.
But mostly, we look forward to young, fresh entrants into a viable, sustainable industry that will continue with the social respect it deserves, and under its own terms, for many decades to come.