LONG-SERVING administrator Geoff Want has overseen his last Harness Racing Australia Annual General Meeting.
Conducted in Perth today as part of the Inter Dominion Carnival, the AGM saw Want step down as Chairman after 11 years in the position.
Pleased with the numerous milestones achieved during the past decade, Want stated there are still major hurdles facing the industry as it aims to secure a bright future.
“There have been so many challenges to overcome and a lot of forward progress made during my 11 years,” Want said. “That will continue to be the case as the industry moves forward.
“The challenges will always be there, but with the right people in place, harness racing can continue strongly.”
Citing the Equine Influenza outbreak as the biggest challenge during his time at the helm, Want regards wagering as a crucial focal point moving forward.
In 2007 Equine Influenza – also known as Horse Flu – struck in New South Wales, putting harness and thoroughbred racing into lockdown along the east coast.
Due to strict quarantine procedures to reduce the risk of exotic pests and diseases entering Australia, it was the nation’s first outbreak of equine influenza.
“Equine influenza was no doubt the most critical thing we’ve dealt with…it was very damaging to our industry,” Want said. “It crippled two states, which spent the next year trying to get interest back.
“The biggest battle was dealing with vested thoroughbred interest, which wanted to make immunisation compulsory, something that would’ve been costly to our industry.
“Vaccination does not stop a horse from getting EI, it just eases the symptoms.
“We had lot of meetings with a lot of people and managed a positive outcome by becoming a signature with Emergency Animal Disease Responsive Unit.
“We dodged a bullet with EI as it was right before the election and both parties were falling over themselves to help out. Had it been midterm I doubt the parties would have been so eager to help.”
Want has no doubt funding is harness racing’s biggest issue, with income slowly reducing.
With the sport heavily reliant on pari-mutuel wagering, the shift to Fixed Odds betting has cut into harness racing’s share of the ‘pie’.
Despite betting turnover increasing, the industry’s return has decreased.
“Pari-mutuel wagering has been the primary revenue source for the industry for many years and the returns are far better than the commission from Fixed Odds betting,” Want said. “This accounted for some 88 per cent of turnover on the nation’s TABs five years ago, but it has since plummeted.
“There has been a drop of almost 40 per cent, or $580-million, in the past five years…Fixed Odds has increased along with wagering, so the pie is getting bigger, but our slice getting smaller.
“This has had a serious impact on industry funding. Gone are the days of the industry being reliant on strong returns from dependable pari-mutuel operations, and as such, administrators must find ways of overcoming the downturn in this traditional revenue source.”
Want also believes the push to ban the whip in harness racing will eventually result in the ‘persuader’ being removed from the sport
While HRA – which consists of delegates from each state – had voted to ban the whip last year, industry participants revolted against the proposal, which ultimately saw the ban abandoned.
“The reaction to the decision to ban whips was predictable,” Want said. “It was overwhelmingly applauded by animal welfare advocates, politicians and the broader community, but polarising in the harness racing community.
“The industry will have to accept changing community standards when they occur and I have no doubt some time in future whips will be banned.
“Not because I want them to be, but because of the community…if we don’t self govern on it, the government will eventually make ruling.
“The ban decision taken at the Adelaide AGM had the unanimous support of all members. Indeed, I canvassed every delegate at the meeting and there was not one dissenting voice.”
Although he expected backlash from the decision, Want admitted he was shocked by the amount of abuse directed at him and HRA chief executive, Andrew Kelly.
In fact, one website operator not only placed the blame firmly on Kelly, he declared Kelly was responsible for industry problems which are not in the realm HRA’s jurisdiction!
Motions can only be moved by and voted on by members, while Want as HRA’s chairman and Kelly, as staff, have no voting powers.
“Neither Andrew nor I expected the abuse we received from sections of the industry and it is disappointing some people find it impossible to dissent without using threats and intemperate language,” Want declared.
“Robust debate opposing something is fine and fair criticism is acceptable, but the strident invective of a few people on social media was way beyond what could be deemed reasonable.
“It was even more disappointing, however, when some delegates at the AGM who voted for the ban attempted to distance themselves from the whip ban decision when they faced their stakeholders, despite their advocacy for it in Adelaide.”
Away from his administrative role, Want has marvelled at the feats of so many great pacers and trotters during his time as chairman, but picked a grassroots sector as his favourite aspect.
“The best thing I have seen is the product we put on every week and that’s harness racing,” Want said. “We put on a wonderful show such as races at country tracks which are full of atmosphere to Grand Circuit races with the best of the best competing.
“I’ve seen a lot of great horses during my time as chairman, but for individual performances, I’d have to select Have Faith In Me running a record time in the Miracle Mile as it was just amazing.
“But I’ve always been partial to Inter Dominion winners such as Blacks A Fake, Mr Feelgood, Im Themightyquinn, Beautide, Lennytheshark and Smolda which have all been great winners of our pinnacle race.”
On the subject of Inter Dominions, Want has provided his tip ahead of tomorrow night’s $1.1million Final at Gloucester Park.
“It’s hard to go past Lazarus with the barrier draw,” Want said. “I was at Addington to watch the New Zealand Cup and he was just awesome in that.
“He’s been the one to beat all along and that hasn’t changed.”
- PAUL COURTS