Nov 5, 2014

Horses Carrying Much More Than A Jockey

Two horses died following the running of the 2014 Melbourne Cup. The first to perish did so dramatically. Admire Rakti began the race as favourite following its triumph in the Caulfield Cup. Less than 30 minutes later it lay dead in its stall. The Japanese horse appeared to be fine going into the final straight but then faded to finish last, walking past the finishing post. Initial reports have suggested the horse suffered a heart attack. The second to die, Araldo, suffered a regrettable misfortune. Spooked by a white flag waved too close to its nose while returning to the mounting yard, the horse reared up and hit a fence. The seventh-placed horse had to be euthanised as the break to the pastern was deemed irreparable.

Predictably hysteria ensued. There were those that advocate an end to all horse racing. But equally there were those that trotted out the naive and tired line that racehorses live an idyllic existence, free to gambol in lush green fields and pampered by their loving owners. Both points of view ignore the harsh realities of the racing industry and its role in modern life.

Mr Majestic sprints to the line through the mist

Initially I was pleased that Admire Rakti did not perform as expected. Although I had included him in a couple of my bets, my collects were far more lucrative if the favourite didn’t finish in the top three. As I happily calculated my winnings, I gradually become more interested in the horse that finished last as it became clear that he would be the big story of the day. I must admit to a macabre engrossment as I felt the horse’s death bring into focus the intimate details of horse racing. Enough with the froth and bubble of the fashions on the field and the bottles of champagne, take a look at what is happening in the real world.

There is an implicit hypocrisy practiced by those, including myself, who expect and want a horse to win yet prefer not to see the animal injured or suffering. How much is too much? We want the horse and the jockey to take risks, to muscle for position. But we don’t want the jockey to take too many risks lest they become another fatality. We want the horse to be ridden hard in the home straight. But not too hard, and with not too many strikes of the whip. After all, we have the best interests of the horse and the jockey at heart.

But the degree to which we want the horse and the jockey to suffer and take risks is an extremely grey area. It becomes greyer still when our level of investment, both emotionally and financially, changes. Had I gambled more than my usual $20-$30, I might have been more willing to see the horse suffer for the win. If I had invested a large proportion of my year into importing a horse from Japan and preparing it to win the Melbourne Cup, perhaps I would like to see my jockey take a few more risks. It is very difficult to remove emotion and say it is ok to whip a horse with a forehand motion five times during the race (excluding the final 100m), but the horse will be suffering too much if you do it six times.

The horses approach the string to start the race at the Kiwanis Charity Cup Race Meeting, Port Vila, Vanuatu

What is seen during a race is but a heartbeat in the life of the horse. A great many people devote a great many hours in stables the world over so that horses are prepared for races of all different stature. Largely, the race-going public has very little idea as to what occurs during preparation. In the more successful stables, methods are a closely-guarded secret lest competitors get an advantage. It is pertinent that Racing Victoria employ veterinarians. A veterinarian’s job is to inspect stables and perform out-of-competition blood and urine testing. On race day they complete pre- and post-race checks and tests. Implicitly, Racing Victoria are saying that not all trainers can be trusted with the welfare of their horses. If the lives of the racehorses were as idyllic as we are told, veterinarians would be largely redundant.

This point about a hidden world can be made another way. A continuing defence of a high-profile drug cheat was that the health risks of using PEDs was too great and after surviving cancer it would be stupid to take the risk. But he did. And he is a human. Horses are also given medications. Where would we, the race-going and betting public, draw the line between appropriate medicating and cheating? Where would Racing Victoria draw the line? Where would a veterinarian? Where would a trainer with his livelihood on the line? In 2003 six elite cyclists aged between 16 and 35 died of heart attacks. How many fit, young racehorses are dying of heart attacks?

Horses head off down the back straight at Numara Eliya races

Banning horse racing is patently absurd. It is akin to public transport advocates calling on cars to be banned. What would we do with all of the horses/cars? How would we compensate and transition the trainers/mechanics into a horse/car free society? What would happen with the existing economies? How would we control a black market in racing/driving? The task is so large as to be impossible. We will continue to drive cars and race horses for the foreseeable future.

A ban on racing would also unfairly impact a great many owners, trainers, jockeys, farriers, and veterinarians who genuinely love animals, are concerned about the welfare of horses and treat horses impeccably. While I am sure that not all racehorses live a bucolic existence, I am also sure that a large equine number do. Removing the ability to raise money from racing would undoubtedly have a negative impact on the welfare of numerous horses. Quite correctly, a number of people have pointed out the inability of animal welfare activists to provide for the welfare of horses should racing no longer exist.

In fairness, the RSPCA, Animals Australia and the Coalition For The Protection Of Racehorses do not call for a blanket ban on horse racing. Assuredly some of their members do, but the organisations draw attention to some of the lesser-known facts of horse racing. They also call for a ban on jumps racing and a ban on whips. The methods that they use are sometimes confronting. I have no doubt that they would prefer an animal uprising à la Dana Lyons’ classic Cows With Guns, but until animals can advocate for themselves these organisations will see it as their duty to publish shocking billboards.

The crowd looks on at the Kiwanis Charity Cup Race Meeting, Port Vila, Vanuatu

The solutions to the complex problems arising in horse racing are not clear. The perfect storm created by economics, speciesism, fatuousness, greed and vice are but a microcosm of modern life. Perhaps if we were able to solve problems in racing we would be able to create utopia. There are two things I could suggest to improve on our dystopian world. The first is with ever-greater money should come ever-more scrutiny from both the media and officialdom. The second? Ignore the D-grade celebrities, marketing marquees and sundry veneer, they only serve to obscure a world we may not be proud of.

Oct 16, 2014

A Toothless Tiger In Alice Springs

Tiger Airways suddenly stopped flying to Alice Springs on July 22. Tigerair Australia CEO Rob Sharp insinuated that the decision was due to a lack of demand.

“The commercial reality is we are a volume business and to build a sustainable business in the Australian domestic market we need to see a sustainable level of demand for our services,” Sharp said in a media release on May 2.

Sharp’s comment significantly simplifies the economics of the decision and blames the consumer for not purchasing Tiger’s product. But this over-simplification allows Sharp and Tiger Airways to painlessly exit Central Australia while leaving residents short-changed.

The beach at Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Tourism NT spent about $700,000 promoting Tiger’s services to Alice Springs. Tiger Airways negotiated with Alice Springs Airport and the Northern Territory Government to ensure a collaborative approach prior to flights taking off in April 2013. Tiger Airways was eager to use the opportunity for marketing when it announced services from both Sydney and Melbourne would occur four times each week. Despite the significant use of public resources and the marketing benefits to Tiger Airways, the good news barely lasted a year.

Put simply, a review of Tiger’s network concluded that the plane and staff being used to fly to Alice Springs could make more money on a different route. The decision to no longer fly to Alice Springs was not because the route is unviable, but because there is more money to be made elsewhere. It is potentially more lucrative for Tiger Airways to focus resources on taking a greater percentage of a busy route, for example Sydney-Melbourne, than a stable route into Alice Springs.

Sharp explains this in terms of growth.

“We remain focused on building a sustainable platform for growth, which includes measured growth in line with consumer demand,” Sharp said.

A full plane flying into Alice Springs four times per week has no ability to “grow”. But increasing a percentage of market share between Sydney and Melbourne allows for the potential perpetual growth shareholders and boards so desire.

A dingo on the drive into Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Since Tiger Airways stopped flights to Alice Springs, accommodation occupancy rates have plummeted. After being in business for over 10 years, backpacker hostel Annie’s Place closed after battling to fill their rooms. Part-owner Janice Knappstein highlighted Tiger’s decision as a huge factor.

“We went down to about 25-30% occupancy rate,” Knappstein told ABC Local Radio.

General Manager of Tourism Central Australia Jaclyn Thorne said similar problems were occurring across Alice Springs.

“Everybody is having a challenging season, they’re around the 40%, 50% occupancy at the moment and that’s been in the last month or so but certainly before then they were having some good occupancy rates up to 80%, 90%,” said Thorne to the ABC.

But it is not just Tiger Airways’ departure that is creating problems for Alice Springs’ tourism industry. Decisions made by Qantas and its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar are also having an impact.

Qantas now has a monopoly on flights to Alice Springs from all major Australian cities. With no competition there is little price pressure. Rather than let Jetstar create competition on the Alice Springs route, Qantas allowed their subsidiary to serve Uluru with its low-cost flights in direct competition with rival Virgin Australia.

From June 29, Jetstar began flights direct from Melbourne to Uluru return four times each week. They also increased the number of flights from Sydney to Uluru return to four times each week. Less then one month later, Tiger ceased their four weekly return flights from each city to Alice Springs.

Although Uluru and Alice Springs are 468km apart, the decision by Jetstar immediately had an impact on tourists flying with Tiger to Alice Springs. But it had little impact on the Qantas services to Alice Springs, and ultimately strengthened Qantas’ monopoly.

Cooling off at Ellery Creek Big Hole, MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Uluru was recently announced as the most expensive place to stay in Australia. In a survey of hotels worldwide, it was also announced as one of the most expensive places to stay in the world. The resort at nearby Yulara has a monopoly on all layers of accommodation, from camping through to luxurious. The resort is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation and managed by Voyages Hotels & Resorts.

The remoteness of the resort make it an expensive operation to run. Voyages must, of course, charge accordingly. The Indigenous Land Corporation have little incentive to risk degrading the World Heritage Listed region by opening up more land for development. Thus, the monopoly and resultant expense are likely to remain.

In the same survey, Alice Springs was named the cheapest place for hotel accommodation in the country. Alice Springs is as remote from Australia’s major cities as Uluru. With numerous types of accommodation to choose from, there is no hotel monopoly in Alice Springs.

Mt Gillen's escarpment overlooks the town of Alice Springs, Northern Territory

There is a great deal more to Central Australia than one giant sandstone monolith. While Kata-Tjuta is near to Uluru, to travel solely to these incredible sights significantly diminishes the Centralian experience. Further, these icons of the Red Centre can only remain affordable for tourists when serviced by a vibrant Alice Springs and Central Australian community. By flying in and out of Uluru and not exploring beyond its environs, tourists contribute to a decline in other Centralian locales. In turn, this impacts on the future affordability and availability of Uluru.

But, for their part, airlines “servicing” the region need to look beyond their petty competitions. Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar and Tiger need to temper their knee-jerk reactions to each other’s short-term decisions. There must be a greater understanding that the viability of flying to Central Australia depends on a multitude of inter-related factors. An airline’s business does not operate in isolation. Nobody will fly the routes at all if it becomes too expensive to stay in a hotel when there. A renewed focus on providing a service to the community is vital for tourists, residents, and businesses alike.

Sep 16, 2014

Being Ruled By The Rules

Brent Harvey’s one match ban for a bump on Joel Selwood brought to mind another incident. A number of months have elapsed since the Jack Viney bump occurred but it highlighted a contradiction in the way the general public want the game officiated. On the one hand, players and supporters were appalled that Viney was charged with rough conduct and initially suspended for two matches. In the context of the passage of play, Viney had few options but to contest the ball and, unfortunately, break the jaw of Adelaide’s Tom Lynch. But increasingly the general expectation of society is that players and umpires must participate to the letter of the law. According to this philosophy, Viney’s bump was negligent, contact was high, and the force was medium. He should have been suspended. Similarly, according to this philosophy Harvey should not play this weekend.

Leaving the MCG after Richmond Tigers defeated St Kilda Saints

A common refrain from those criticising umpires is that all supporters expect is for them to be consistent. The impossibility of consistency is quite clearly lost. No two incidents that occur on a football field are ever the same. The events preceding it are different. The actions within the incident have differences. The events afterward are different. Further adding to the differences is the simple fact that each game is different. Some games matter more than others. The teams and players are different. The atmosphere is different. The conditions are different. Clearly, each and every incident in a game of football is unique.

Nevertheless, in a bid to pander to the expectations of consistency the AFL and its umpires increasingly look to the rulebook. They analyse the rules with a legal eye and interpret them as “accurately” as possible. They tinker with the rules to make them “clearer”. Nowhere can this be demonstrated better than with the push in the back rule.

The push in the back rule’s purpose is three-fold – to stop a player being pushed out of a marking contest, to stop a player being pushed into the ground when bent over attempting to collect a loose ball, and to stop a player being pushed as they run, kick or handball. But the subtleties and nuances in this began to create confusion. With an eagle eye, the interpretation for marking contests was changed. No longer could a player have hands in an opponent’s back. This interpretation ignored the facts that it was possible to have hands in the back without pushing, just as it was possible to push in the back without hands. Changing the interpretation and trying to update the umpiring did not improve the confusion nor did it decrease the ire of fans.

Daniel Zinn clears for Barwon Heads Seagulls in their match against Portarlington Demons

At the heart of this contradiction is a simple problem. The application of rules is always subjective. We expect that it is possible to be objective and finite, but it is not. Human judgements must always be made. There is not one aspect of the game where it is possible to be purely objective. Even scoring has an element of subjectivity.

Video review was expected to be a solution. What is frightfully obvious is that it is almost as hard using video replays to determine the “correct” decision as it is in real time. A collective groan is expelled by the crowd each time a review is called for, largely because they know the review will not improve the situation and will prove inconclusive. As an aside, it appears that to reduce ridicule of the flawed system, the video umpire now often confirms the goal umpire’s decision when footage is inconclusive.

This fascination with the ability of the law to be conclusive and finite is having dire consequences. Most obviously in the Essendon supplements scandal. The Bombers have taken ASADA to court, not to argue the substance of the issue, but on a distantly-related legal technicality. At the legal hearing, well-paid Senior and Queens Counsels will argue about a law and its application but not about if Essendon players took illegal substances. To a great many fans of the game, it will be a profound shame if Essendon is able to avoid producing the truth behind their supplements program due to a legal technicality.

Trent Cotchin watches as the umpire bounces the ball, Richmond Tigers vs Carlton Blues

Arguing over specific features of the laws also occurred in the Viney incident. The rules were pored over and analysed in depth. Was the conduct accidental, incidental, intentional, reckless or negligent? Was the impact severe, high, medium, low or negligible? Was the contact to the head, groin or elsewhere on the body? Was there any residual, additional or deductible points? On it went. A great many intelligent people trying to apply an objective system to a subjective situation.

When the Match Review Panel decided on a two match suspension for Viney, howls of protest erupted decrying the death of the bump in AFL football. The precedent set by the MRP would send shockwaves through the competition. Players would pull out of contesting the ball, fearing similar punishment should an accident happen. But precedents are a funny thing – they are only useful until the next precedent is set. A similar incident could happen in the very next round and the MRP could establish a brand new precedent.

Pre-season promises count for little in football

Arguing about umpiring decisions in football has been occurring since young Aboriginal men ran around playing Marn Grook. It will continue for as long as the game lasts. But to improve the level of debate a couple of things must occur.

The AFL, the MRP and the umpiring department should cease pretending that they can legislate and officiate as though beyond human error. All involved should confront this inadequacy, and communicate that their decisions are made with the opinion of a human who may well misinterpret rules and situations. Mistakes should be acknowledged but will never be eradicated.

But on the part of supporters, there needs to be renewed understanding that those officiating are applying objective rules in a subjective situation. Ultimately, the judgement will rest with a human who must be lauded for trying. As supporters, the best that we can hope for is that those adjudicating are truly independent and have the best interests of the game, the players and supporters at heart.