Tough at the coalface but racing must fight

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday January 1, 2010

Max Presnell

While Australian politicians burned hot air in Copenhagen recently over carbon emissions and climate change, coal dust continues to move on the Hunter Valley, Australia's major thoroughbred breeding ground.Thus quelling the "black gold" rush is high on my wish-list for 2010.The Thoroughbred Breeders Association, with Peter McGauran as playmaker, is attempting to find common ground with the mining companies as coal expands. In November, around 500 people, most on horseback, took to the streets of Scone in protest against an expansion that promises to wreak havoc, not only on thoroughbred breeding in the district but also agriculture.My garlic supplier, Patrice Newell, stressed on the day that "water is far more valuable than coal" in Australia.No doubt the smug state politicians will point to the scoreboard: coal being Australia's No.1 export bringing in about $55 billion in revenue for 2008-09. Exported thoroughbreds tallied 2650 for a mere $100 million. The coal industry employs 30,000 but an estimated 100,000 indirectly. Thoroughbreds do all right with 64,000, yet the mining magnates play the employment card.McGauran has been quoted on the "total incompatibility" of an open-cut mine close to a stud farm. "Coal dust of an open mine can destroy a stud operation several kilometres away, let alone a few hundred metres [away]," he said.So much for coexistence, up close and personal, anyway."The degree of physical separation must be far greater for studs than other farming enterprises because of the devastating effect of the visual impact and coal dust, not to mention the water, noise and traffic issues," McGauran added.Darley's Henry Plumptre is also well and truly in the fray. "We are expecting a long struggle to save and preserve these premium breeding areas from the devastating effect of coal mining," he maintained.Overall, Australian racing is faring better than most in the recent economic blight. For instance, some horse studs in the Kentucky bluegrass country have been forced to switch to chickens. Still, the waft of chicken manure is preferable to coal dust.Other wish-list items are: Whether it comes through the courts or commissions, the industry should get a fair and reasonable kickback from the Northern Territory corporates and Betfair, who have been living high on the racing hog for years. Back in 1999, the NSW Government held crisis talks over an estimated $1 billion going out of the state, mainly into Northern Territory coffers. I don't know whether the tax on them should be gauged on turnover, profit or toss of the coin but surely payments should start and be retrospective, too. Betting turnover here has gone well considering the tough times. Total wagering for 2008-09 was $14.44b up from $12.64b the previous year. How much better would it be with all betting operators paying a fair due to a great industry on which they thrive? A big, Hong Kong-style betting pool. The Victorian branch of Tabcorp topped $1.5m for the Big6 at Caulfield last Saturday but going on Honkers exotics, this was mere chicken feed. Of course, it could improve substantially if NSW and Victorian pools were joined but different government policies, such as for paying commissions, rule this out. Now the West Australian Government intends giving bonuses of $50,000 to big punters. According to The West Australian, "Punters willing to commit to gambling $500,000 or more with the WATAB will receive 10 per cent rebate from next July." The move is being made to "match returns offered by the plethora of online gambling organisations which have sprung up on the internet". The average punter, the lifeblood of racing, will have to make do with the usual dividend and, I hope, civility. A positive move on the Australian Jockey Club-Sydney Turf Club merger. Regardless of the decision, Canterbury cannot be sold. There are big plans for Randwick and Warwick Farm. But for Randwick, in particular, where will the funds come from? AJC vice-chairman John Cornish has a grand strategy to return Randwick to headquarters status. We wish him success, and hope he will come up with a scheme accepted as well as his Warwick Farm masterpiece. Survival of jumps racing. Obviously, it can't be doctored any more. On purely personal grounds, I'd hate to see it go but fear it will happen. So we must prepare for the last hurrah, a visit to Warrnambool for the Grand Annual Steeplechase, one of the world's great races although gelded by recent changes. Keep the bookmaker pulse beating on the Randwick rails. Once regarded as the best pitch in racing, it now has only 10 operating on the locals and four interstate. Australian racing was built on healthy competition between the bagmen and the tote, our system being regarded as the best in the world. Alas, compared to the once bustling Rialto, Randwick is now more of a ghost ring, and what will happen when the stalwarts Mo Conlon, Harry Barrett, Con Kafataris, Jeff Pendlebury and Col Tidy hang up their bags. Back in 1920, 419 bookmakers operated at headquarters with 144 in the paddock enclosure. By 1957, it had dwindled to 286 (90 in the paddock). In 1992, it had dropped to 67 but with no vacancies on the rails. At that time, Barrett was the leader of the ring with $731,036 average turnover per day for 60 meetings year, while Tidy, Kafataris, Pendlebury and Conlon were in the top 10. With great respect, it's like Dad's Army. But may they continue to march. No more changes to the whip rule. With the padded fly-swatter and limited above-the-shoulder strikes before the 100 metres, officialdom has gone far enough to appease the squeamish. Back-handers have come into fashion and there is more hands-and-heels riding - pleasing aspects to come out of this negative, wowser-motivated innovation.

© 2010 Sydney Morning Herald

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