Betting throws suspicion over every sport
It’s hard to know what performances we should celebrate
Makybe Diva didn’t. Black Caviar couldn’t. And Winx won’t. Racing cannot break free from the debilitating image of rorting perpetrated by buffoons, business and stable types ever sniffing around for a quick buck.
The industry’s naive belief that if you give the racing boffins a champion horse they will give you a revival in interest is — and always has been — as bankrupt as the absurd pretence that whipping does not hurt horses.
No matter that it is a multi-billion-dollar business that employs a slab of the nation from heel to ear, bush to the city. No matter that its integrity is challenged every day even though it’s a significant driver of the national economy. Racing is lashed by a common belief that it is a sport of trickeries.
So no matter how fastidiously it preens racing’s image, and racing can produce some of life’s tingling times, the sport’s newly rubbed twinkle is always one corrupt practice away from another drenching. By mud.
This week eight people were charged with 271 serious breaches of racing rules. The charged include elite trainers Robert Smerdon, Stuart Webb and Tony Vasil. Racing Victoria finally stood down Smerdon and Webb yesterday. The fate of the others charged last Tuesday has not been determined.
God knows why the RV board dithers. Of course, they should all be stood down. These are not football players accused of a bit of biffo at a nightclub; rather they play roles integral to the sport’s integrity.
The health and spirit of the sport is in the hands of trainers and their staff. The charges go directly to the honesty and fairness of the sport. All of those charged must be stood down until their guilt or innocence is established. Confidence in the game’s integrity would wobble if they are not.
And Mike Symons, chairman of the Melbourne Racing Club but also on the board of Aquanita, the company that runs the business side of the operations of Smerdon, Webb and others, should walk away from both positions until the matter is resolved. He has no other choice and it is stunning and troubling that he remains. It does not point to any guilt but certainly to a feeble grip on the expectations of governance.
None of this is to suggest that anyone so far mentioned is guilty. What Symons does with his hat stand is ultimately his business. The eight charged are expected to defend their positions earnestly and vigorously. Nonetheless just the laying of the charges is another belting to the flank of racing’s image.
That accusations have been formalised is not a surprise. Colleague Brendan Cormick exclusively revealed to readers the gravity of an investigation which started last October. Last Wednesday Cormick wrote that the probe began when Smerdontrained mare Lovani “was observed being treated by a stablehand upon arrival at Flemington on October 7. What ensued was a far-reaching, threemonth investigation. Veteran trainer Robert Smerdon gave evidence on the day but not Greg Nelligan, who was caught redhanded with a plunger (syringe).
Nelligan was asked to surren- der his mobile phone for forensic examination and it is alleged it provided data in the form of text messages that revealed more than 100 episodes of race day treatment offences that were signed off with messages confirming the horses had been given sodium bicarbonate and a supplement to combat lactic acidosis and tying up. The treatment, known as a “milkshake”, gives horses an illegal edge.
It is an old treatment but one that is considered mostly efficacious but illegal after tipping certain levels.
Of course, the charges alone are a brutal bruising to racing but if it is of any salve the ambitious sport recently began The Everest, a sprint race worth $10 million, the third-richest race in the world. The Melbourne Cup, with a win-
Sport has gone past the point where its performances, statements, achievements and promises are accepted in good faith
ning purse of $3.6m, has the fifth highest purse. The sport is not yet out on its hooves.
Racing is not the only sport harassed by critics. It appears the harder administrators of racing, tennis, cricket, football, AFL, league, union, cycling, athletics et al, clean up their games the dirtier they are perceived. Sport has gone past the point where its performances, statements, achievements and promises are accepted in good faith.
Racing’s 271 charges laid last week should underline the capabilities, determination and ubiquitous strength of racing’s integrity team. It should be a positive. But it isn’t. The community registers it only as another example of entrenched cheating in racing. It is not seen as a cleansing. Nods and sighs. Who would want to be a part of such dirty dealings?
History will show it was not Lance Armstrong who knocked cycling off its wheels. It is the cheats that have followed. Alberto Contador and Floyd Landis. The world awaits a decision on Chris Froome, four-time winner of the Tour de France, who has just recently tested positive to double the allowable level of asthma drug salbutamol.
It is not that the investigators are cleaning the sport up and winning the contest with the chemists. Most performances in cycling are questionable. If something as grave as that conman Armstrong’s corruption of the sport doesn’t stop others cheating, then you have a sport with immorality so ingrained it cannot be either dug out or covered over. You feel for the men and women who compete strictly by the rules.
In December the English press wrote that there would be attempts at match-fixing in the third Ashes Test. And $245,000 would buy you the moments where bookmakers would set up spot-fixing — a run-out here, a no-ball there. The ICC is investigating. Not a scary thought.
But it makes you watch cricket with squeezed eyes. That was an odd choice of shot. Why has that field been set? Curious change to the batting order.
Two years ago the Australian Open tennis was overrun by claims that eight players in the
main draw had been mentioned in past or current investigations. The BBC and Buzzfeed story said that they had a “cache of documents” in support of their allegations. The sport’s most influential body, the Association of Tennis Professionals, investigated. Apparently. Best it could be called was a drop shot. There was no serve and volley.
We could go on because corruption in every sport is building. The amount of money bet on games, shots, points, decisions, catches, goals is exploding. In part because all sports embraced betting. They say having control over betting gives them a level of security they would not otherwise have. But the serious ramification is that it appears sport wants people betting. Even encourages it. Attract the dollar and you attract the spiv.
So here we have modern sport. Racing Victoria runs a long investigation, finds people to charge and breaches of rules. It should encourage confidence in our sports. But it doesn’t.
Sport may soon be fiction. Are you ready to suspend belief?