Racing

Trainer Darren Weir’s fall from grace over the possession of electronic shock devices has stunned horse-racing enthusiasts both here and overseas. But could it help efforts to clean up the sport? By Peter Hanlon.

Darren Weir and integrity in racing

Trainer Darren Weir and jockey Michelle Payne after their 2015 Melbourne Cup win with Prince Of Penzance.
Credit: AAP Image / Julian Smith

Farmer Stephen Everett has dabbled in racehorse ownership for 20 years, managing syndicates that give regular folk cause to trek to tracks from Mildura to Moe buzzing with the thrill of having a runner in a race. Ninety-five per cent of his horses have been trained by Australia’s leading trainer, Darren Weir.

When a January 30 raid of Weir’s Forest Lodge stables at Ballarat, by detectives from the police Sporting Integrity Intelligence Unit and members of Racing Victoria’s integrity team, discovered “jiggers” – hand-held devices that give electric shocks – Everett was gobsmacked. Weir’s operation, which had grown to more than 600 horses and 150 staff, was one he associated with care, not cruelty.

“I’ve only got to look at the condition of his horses,” says Everett, who lives at Swan Marsh, west of Colac. “I’ve been going up there for 20 years, and his horses are immaculately looked after. The people who take care of them, if something goes wrong it’s like a member of the family has died. If something was going on, if there was cruelty to a horse, they wouldn’t be there.”

Everett says he’ll happily put horses back in Weir’s care when the trainer’s four-year ban for possession of electric-shock devices ends. He admires not only Weir’s horsemanship, but also his commitment to giving owners – whether their investment amounts to the entire animal or a hair on its tail – the chance to win a race, be it at Flemington or a bush picnic meet. The Weir marquee at the Ballarat Cup each November, open to anyone with a stake in his horses, has been an annual reminder for Everett that racing attracts more good people than bad.

From his vantage point at the higher-stakes end of the ownership scale, Terry Henderson agitates for integrity in racing with an eye to the damage scandals – such as the cobalt saga, which ensnared leading trainers Peter Moody, Mark Kavanagh and Danny O’Brien; the Aquanita doping scandal; and the Weir raid – have done to the reputation of Australian racing. Nearly a third of the 90 horses raced by Henderson’s OTI outfit are based in Europe. What their connections tell Henderson troubles him greatly.

“They’re aghast at some of the things that go on here that simply don’t go on in Europe in the training ranks. They taint our whole industry,” says Henderson, whose clients pay handsomely for shares in horses that target the biggest races. “We have enough problems with the Melbourne Cup, with the number of horses getting injured or dying. The appeal of the Melbourne Cup to the top-level trainers in Europe is certainly on the wane.”

Henderson had eight horses with Weir before the Ballarat raid. He isn’t as magnanimous as Everett, and has used the fall of Australia’s biggest trainer – who left school in the Mallee at 15 for a life as a horseman – to push for greater education of trainers in the hope it will help effect cultural change. “We send them into business with a very low level of skills – not so much to get horses fit, but to run a business with the sorts of demands that are on a business today. That’s where they fall short.”

The stance brings to mind a story of a steward being questioned about the intelligence of a certain trainer. “Mate,” the steward said, “he used to be a jumps jockey. He’s spent half his life falling on his head.”

Amanda Elliott, chair of the Victoria Racing Club, has spoken of the “brand damage” the Weir story inflicts on the sport, and her surprise at discovering there are 900 registered trainers in Victoria. Leading what she termed “a troglodyte’s life” of 2am alarms and endless hours on the road can make a person edgy, to say the least. Shortcuts become appealing, whatever the risk.

For those outside racing’s at times insular tent, “getting” the caper can feel like being a rugby union greenhorn trying to fathom what constitutes a penalty beneath a heaving mass of bodies. A case in point is cobalt, a naturally occurring trace element banned in human sport because of its ability to improve performance in a way similar to the hormone erythropoietin.

Australian racing has a legal cobalt limit, although scientists disagree on whether it is performance enhancing for horses. Henderson says debating the threshold misses the point. “They could say giving a horse a cup of tea is illegal, and if you then give a horse a cup of tea – even though it’s not going to do anything – it’s still illegal,” he says.

Perception can damn racing unfairly. One close observer points to a disconnect in the public mind between the success stewards and regulators enjoy, and the notion that they’re part of the problem. He cites our contrasting reaction to turning on the nightly news and regularly seeing beaming police showing off their latest drugs haul. “Compare that with what has been a very, very effective sting in relation to Weir, and rather than being recognised for taking on the biggest trainer in Australia, and catching him, and resolving the thing in 10 minutes, people say, ‘Racing Victoria is in crisis.’ ”

He thinks we can tend to conflate “Racing Victoria” with “racing in Victoria”. “Yes, racing in Victoria must have some problems if someone as big as Weir is committing what even racing people think is a pretty nasty offence. But Racing Victoria needs to get on the front foot and turn themselves into the coppers sitting in front of the packs of cocaine, and say, ‘This is a very successful operation, and no one should fear that Racing Victoria turns a blind eye to the biggest names in the game.’ ”

Des Gleeson was racing’s chief steward for 12 years before his retirement in 2008. In an ideal world, he says, racing would be people paying good money to buy into horses, who prepare and compete on an equal playing field with their rivals. He notes “the chemist has always been one step ahead of the analyst”, and advocates for constant ramping up of research and development.

Strong penalties are the best deterrent, although Gleeson observes that Weir pleading no-contest to his charges meant stewards were unable to question him on what other horses he might have subjected to illegal methods. For some, all of his winners – most notably Prince Of Penzance, which at long odds claimed the 2015 Melbourne Cup with Michelle Payne aboard – will forever carry an asterisk. “The fact that he was caught with these three jiggers, it does put a question mark over a lot of his winners,” Gleeson says. “You don’t have those things for decoration.”

Vigilance can be fraught. Gleeson’s successor Terry Bailey, now chief steward in Singapore, had bullets fired through the front door of his Templestowe home during the 2015 spring carnival. His hardline approach to catching cheats won him few friends in the training fraternity. Henderson admires Bailey “as someone who was trying to do his job” and is pleased racing’s current integrity department appears to enjoy greater support from the sport’s governing body.

Weir’s woes may not be over. A police investigation is ongoing, and the integrity unit has reserved the right for fresh prosecution if further evidence is uncovered. Henderson admits his love of the sport has been tested, but blanches at the prospect of being driven out of the industry “because of cheats”.

Another insider spoke of the “medium-term pain we have to have”, reasoning that it’s better to flush the ills out into the open than operate under the old adage that the best way to keep the crime statistics down is to not look for crime. “Now that they’re looking really hard, getting coppers to put in covert cameras, you’ll catch more people,” he says. “I’d be very surprised if any trainer thinks it’s a good idea to use cobalt, or top-ups of sodium bicarbonate. Or to use jiggers.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "Sport of pings ". Subscribe here.

Peter Hanlon
is a former Age sportswriter turned freelancer and bus driver.