Queensland integrity crisis about much more than one man

9 min read
Aquis Farm's boycott of Queensland racing has brought into focus an integrity crisis which has been brewing for many years according to leading industry figures.

The resounding message which emanates from the integrity crisis which Queensland racing is currently going through is that the issues are about much more than one man.

Toowoomba trainer Ben Currie, currently facing a litany of charges but continuing to train on under various stays of proceedings, may be the man in the middle, but it is the system that the broader industry has a problem with, not Currie himself.

The complexity of his case, which has dragged on for well over 12 months since the first charges were laid, has highlighted the inadequacy of the current Queensland system to handle intricate integrity matters.

Trainer Ben Currie

It has also led to a chorus of concern from across the industry, with Queensland's biggest owner Aquis Farm announcing it would effectively boycott Queensland racing until a solution to the integrity crisis was found.

Secretary of the Queensland division of the Australian Trainers' Association, Cameron Partington told RSN that the issues with the system hark back to the Queensland's government decision to completely revamp the racing integrity system a number of years ago.

"We have got some serious racing integrity issues that have been milling since the Queensland Racing Integrity Commission (QRIC) was put in place which was three or four years ago now, after an upheaval in Queensland, which occurred off the back of the greyhound crisis up here," he said.

"We have got some serious racing integrity issues." - Cameron Partington

The system allows for decisions by the stewards, as part of the QRIC system, to be then subject to a further internal QRIC review as part of an appeals process. The next level of appeal is then to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

But the significant frustration in that system from trainers that TDN AusNZ spoke to is that not only does it make for considerable delays but also leads to inconsistent outcomes.

While the QRIC Internal Reviews usually back up the initial QRIC decisions, 18 of the 23 matters taken from the QRIC to QCAT in the past 12 months have ended up being resolved for the defendant.

"Everybody feels that the system has its misgivings. It’s certainly not a perfect system, it’s trying to use natural justice in a sporting arena," Partington said.

"It's a great thing for some participants who are charged. They can immediately file for an internal review, which basically brings with it a stay, which you can continue your business while the internal part of QRIC investigates whether the decision is fair."

"Then you've got a decision whether you can take it to QCAT… that brings with it another stay."

"With that system it gives people a chance to prove themselves innocent, if they are, and with that comes a lot of delays."

"The biggest problem is the delays." - Cameron Partington

"And that's the biggest problem is the delays. These cases are being put in the same pile as people with adjudications over their back fence. While there are delays, that brings concerns and the second part is whether QRIC is formulating the right type of evidence, gathering it and getting the case together and presenting it."

Racing minister to meet trainers

Partington said the other aspect was the lack of expertise in racing matters at QCAT, which has the potential to further undermine faith in the process.

Cameron Partington (left)

The ATA has taken up the case to talk to the government about these issues and trainers will meet with racing minister Sterling Hinchcliffe on Thursday to look at possible solutions.

"He (Hinchcliffe) wants the industry to give him the feedback on what is wrong with QRIC and more specifically QCAT. I think their fix is to bring in a specialised area of QCAT which means if it is a racing matter, it goes to someone who can fast-track it though the system. That doesn't change the system, but it will speed it up," Partington said.

"It’s something that should have been looked at many months ago before it has got to this point." - Cameron Partington

"It’s a matter of talking to the minister and saying well at the moment it isn’t working and it's clearly bringing a lot of discontent among not only trainers but owners and it’s something that should have been looked at many months ago before it has got to this point."

The complexity of the issue was underlined in the ATA's own internal issues this week, where vice-president Jim Murdoch, who is Currie's legal representative, elected to stand down.

"Jim has been a part of our organisation for many, many years and he plays an integral part in our committee because of his knowledge of the legal front," he said.

"Jim told me months ago that if there is ever any problems with me holding the vice-president position and acting in my role as barrister, he would immediately stand down."

"We had some concerns that had raised themselves and Jim immediately said I don’t want to bring the ATA into any sort of problem, so he stood down."

ATA Queensland President Chris Munce also stood down this week, citing a need to focus on the upcoming winter carnival and the growing pressure of being in the role.

Trainer Chris Munce has stood down as the ATA Queensland President this week

Aquis makes a stand

The focus on the integrity issues ramped up significantly late last week when Aquis Farm announced it would not be entering any of the horses in which it holds majority ownership in Queensland races.

It’s an action that it backed up by the majority of the industry, according to Partington.

"All trainers in Queensland are very, very frustrated and a lot of them would love to do what Aquis did and say we aren’t going to race anymore until you fix it. Unfortunately trainers aren’t the owners of the horses. If the trainer is to do that, they would put their business in jeopardy straight away," Partington said.

"All trainers in Queensland are very, very frustrated and a lot of them would love to do what Aquis did." - Cameron Partington

Aquis Farm CEO Shane McGrath, speaking to Racing.com this week, said it was a monumental decision for an organisation whose 'heartbeat is in Queensland.'

Aquis' Shane McGrath and Tony Fung

"I suppose in essence it’s not an anti-government statement, it’s not anything other than an anti-process statement. We're a single owner and we can decide where and when we want to race and what we want to do, and there are plenty of other options, but the nuts and bolts of it is, that the process that is currently in play in Queensland which leads to the integrity issues is detrimental not only to Queensland racing but I think the participants and the overall branding of Queensland racing," McGrath said.

"The process for us currently doesn't allow us to race as we don’t believe it’s a level playing field for all participants." - Aquis CEO, Shane McGrath

"We're not being judge and jury and we are not asking to be part of the process. What we are saying is that the process for us currently doesn't allow us to race as we don’t believe it’s a level playing field for all participants."

"For Racing Queensland's point of view, and the government's point of view, it’s up to them to work out what their judicial processes look like and where the parameters are for that state. Far be it for us to suggest a new plan, what we are saying is the current plan doesn’t work."

Aquis Farm's action not only resonated with leading Queensland trainers but also Lindsay Park's David Hayes, a Hall Of Fame trainer and one of Australia's most respected voices. He indicated that Lindsay Park will be recommending to its owners that they don't nominate horses for the upcoming Brisbane carnival.

"I support what Aquis said,” Hayes said. “I’ve given them (Aquis) a lot of support because what’s going on up there is not looking good at the moment."

“They (Racing Queensland) need to tidy up their act to make people feel like they want to go up there and play on a level playing field."

“I’m not barring it (racing in Queensland) but I’m not planning to go there until they clean it up."

“We’ll take a horse up there for the owners but I’m not encouraging it.”

While Hayes and co-trainer Ben Hayes and Tom Dabernig, haven’t traditionally had a lot of numbers at the Brisbane carnival, it is another significant voice in the chorus of disquiet.

The political challenge

While this week's meeting with the racing minister will look to add a temporary fix, and expediated cases such as Currie's, the trainers want a permanent fix, with a preference for a national integrity framework rather than one governed by state governments.

The danger at the moment is that the issue gets used as a 'political football' at state government level, with Queensland opposition racing spokesman John-Paul Langbroek immediately calling for premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to step in and 'resolve this issue that is gripping the Queensland racing industry and get Queensland racing back on track,' in light of the Aquis decision.

"In an industry that contributes $1.2 billion to the economy, this is something we cannot afford to keep seeing." - Queensland opposition racing spokesman John-Paul Langbroek

“We have a pall hanging over the Queensland racing industry with people being charged for up to a year and their cases not being resolved, or in other cases with people being charged and much media fanfare being exposed for being cheats, but thrown out in court,” Langbroek said.

"In an industry that contributes $1.2 billion to the economy, this is something we cannot afford to keep seeing."

For Aquis Farm, a long-term solution to the integrity issues is paramount for it to come back to the table in Queensland.

"There has been a groundswell of support for our action and we fully appreciate that but the reality is it is not aimed at any one process or any one incident, it’s just the process overall," McGrath said.

"From the Fung family's point of view, and our heartbeat is in Queensland, that's where we started out, a lot of our investors are Hong Kong based and when you come out of the Hong Kong system and the way that it is governed, integrity is everything."

"It has a detrimental effect when you are trying to attract overseas investment."