Readers of Dick Francis novels know that it is all in the opening line. Take this one for example:
“The Earl of October drove into my life in a pale blue Holden which had seen better days, and danger and death tagged along for the ride”. (Opening line to For Kicks – Dick Francis)
Like a ‘heart starter’ shot of caffeine, this is how a cracking tale of one man pitted against a host of enemies in the racing world would invariably begin. There were so many ways to nobble a horse, whilst the hero, often with a ‘secret sorrow’, struggled for survival.
My favourite hero was Sid Halley who featured in five Dick Francis books. A former champion jockey turned private detective, Sid lost a hand earlier crippled in a racing accident at the conclusion of Odds Against, courtesy of further damage inflicted by the sadistic villain.
Dick Francis is the grandfather of a now honoured tradition of crime stories written in the shadows of the local race track. The Guardian, in a wonderful 2010 obituary for Dick Francis, explains that by the end of his life, in Britain alone each new book would sell 100,000 in hardback and 500,000 in paperback. He and his wife, Mary Francis (rumoured to have ghosted his work), were very rich.
More recent honorary mentions must go to Peter Temple, for his Jack Irish books, and to Peter Klein for his excellent series set against the background of Australian race tracks, featuring his hero and secret pizza shop owner, John Punter.
In the context of the cobalt saga engulfing Australian racing, and in the spirit of a good Dick Francis novel, Matt Stewart wrote recently in the Herald Sun that the “walls are closing in…on the industry itself”. There was a risk, he wrote, that in the eyes of the international fraternity Australian racing might soon be the “badlands of world racing”.
However, this doomsday scenario, whilst appropriately recognizing the serious issues associated with cobalt, does not sit comfortably when viewed against the context and history of racing itself, not just in Australia, but around the world.
Cobalt saga gained early publicity in the United States
For those recently emerged from a cloistered Abbey silent retreat, cobalt is the latest substance trainers are using to give their horses an advantage.
A seemingly innocuous trace mineral found in B vitamins, with qualities both performance enhancing and toxic, cobalt gained international significance when the Meadowlands, a privately owned race track in the United States, banned trainers and owners whose horses had shown elevated levels of cobalt.
The Meadowlands case also gained attention because New Jersey did not have penalties for cobalt use. The owner of the Meadowlands, Jeffrey Gural, had therefore been paying for his own in-house drug testing on horses competing at his New Jersey and New York tracks, and banning those he considered detrimental to the sport of racing, in his capacity as a private property owner.
Announcing the sanctions earlier in the year, the Meadowlands explained that, in relation to owners: “It is our hope that by making the owners responsible as well as the trainers, it will send a message to others in the industry that they should think twice before using a trainer who has been suspended in another jurisdiction.”
The Meadowlands also said that its own testing had revealed that when an excessive amount of cobalt is administered to a horse, it can be very harmful. Side effects could include cardiovascular issues, potential nerve problems, blood thickening and thyroid toxicity. It added: “We are quite certain that trainers and veterinarians using Cobalt were well aware of this.”
To that end, “plain and simple”, the Meadowlands announced: “If you are found to be giving your horses an excessive amount of this substance, you are not racing at any of our three racetracks… This is not about catching trainers that are cheating, this is about keeping our equine athletes safe and healthy and providing our betting public and all of our participants a product that is on a level playing field.”
Recent Australian investigations into Cobalt use by Australian trainers
Meanwhile, cobalt was quietly finding itself on lists of banned drugs around the world. On 1 January 2015, the Australian Racing Board (ARB) set a threshold for cobalt of 200 micrograms after Racing Victoria reported some cases where horses had returned a result above this threshold. This was considered generous given that Hong Kong Jockey Club has a threshold of half this amount. The Australian Veterinary Association supported the ARB decision.
Soon, trainers were being charged for cobalt use, with Newcastle trainer Darren Smith the first Australian thoroughbred trainer to join this unenviable club. An appeal to the NSW Racing Appeals Tribunal against his 15 year disqualification was recently dismissed.
The cobalt story has been part of the racing news scene for some time. However, mainstream media is now following the story after five Victorian thoroughbred trainers, including Spring Carnival favourites Mark Kavanagh, Danny O’Brien and Peter Moody, were charged in relation to elevated cobalt elevations in nine horses in total. Those charges are pending, have not been determined, and the allegations are denied.
Following a joint media release by New South Wales and Victorian Stewards in relation to the decision by veterinarian Dr Tom Brennan that he wished to correct some of his evidence (said to be relevant in Victoria to the investigations into Mr Kavanagh and Mr O’Brien), mainstream media is now closely following each new development.
Cobalt media coverage – Dick Francis would be proud
We are now in a world of breathless headlines about the potential impact of cobalt on the Australian racing industry: “Cobalt Crisis: racing’s blackest day” (Patrick Bartley, Fairfax), “Horse racing under cobalt cloud” (7.30 Report, ABC) and “Racing must eradicate doping from its stables” (Editorial, The Age).
Indeed, so we are left in no doubt about the seriousness of the issue, The Age Editorial warned: “The integrity of a healthy sporting industry, one that is integral to the reputation of Melbourne as one of the world’s great sporting capitals, is at stake. So, too, is the confidence of millions of punters and the reputations of many hundreds of people who work in racing.”
Followers of integrity issues across the three sporting codes will have seen similar, breathless headlines in relation to greyhound racing earlier this year. The demise of greyhound racing was predicted following an exposé by the ABC Four Corners program into abhorrent live baiting practices.
However, recent reports indicate that greyhound racing has experienced a recent increase in wagering activity, albeit likely influenced by a continuing thoroughbred media rights battle (see report here).
Any publicity is good publicity – Let’s test the theory
The old marketing principle that ‘any publicity is good publicity’ is largely considered a marketing myth. The world is replete with examples where bad publicity has led to business failure.
However, the principle of ‘any publicity is good publicity’ might well hold true for the sport of kings. After all, thoroughbred racing’s own mythology and story telling is inextricably linked to scams, nobbling, and underhanded deals. Is it not what the punting public expects?
More than 30 years ago, some poor strapper was charged with the task of applying peroxide, white paint and brown hair dye to Bold Personality so the much faster horse could be substituted for Fine Cotton in what was then Australian racing’s most infamous scandal. One of the ‘masterminds’ was later discovered crouching in a cupboard in his sister’s house in Victoria after skipping bail.
Former Sydney race stewards chairman John Schreck reportedly said about the Fine Cotton scandal: “Truly, Dick Francis could not think up something like that”.
The public lapped it up.
Of course, lest we be considered parochial, race fixing issues can be found in other places too, such as (potentially) Evangeline Downs, Louisiana, where three jockeys have recently been arrested and charged for their roles in an alleged race fixing scheme, specifically, Willful Pulling of the Reins and Cheating and Swindling. These are, of course, only charges. Here is the video footage of the impugned race so you can form your own view:
In the United Kingdom (the home of Dick Francis, of course), should there be any ‘tut tutting’ about Australia’s cobalt saga, it might be wise to recall that it was only two years ago that the powerful Godolphin team had their own “dark day for racing”.
As the BBC reminded us in “Drugs in racing: Godolphin doping scandal – one year on”, 11 of Godolphin’s horses were revealed to have been injected with banned anabolic steroids. Founder Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, was said to be “absolutely appalled“. More positive tests followed, a separate drugs controversy unfolded and two Newmarket-based trainers were banned for a total of 13 years.
In the context of cobalt, Australia is definitely not alone. United States’ racing media is also asking, in light of the Meadowlands revelations, whether cobalt is horse racing’s scandal of the year.
Academic theory on Negative Publicity
Marketing Professor Jonah Berger (Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania) has examined with colleagues from Stanford University the Positive Effects of Negative Publicity. They concluded that there was quite a complex relationship between publicity and business success.
For example, Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone estimated that negative publicity cost Mission Impossible 3 more than $100 million in ticket sales (Burrough 2006).
However, intriguing examples contradicted these findings. A wine described as “redolent of stinky socks” saw its sales increase by 5% after it was reviewed by a prominent wine website.
Similarly, although the movie Borat made relentless fun of the country of Kazakhstan, Hotels.com reported a “300 percent increase in requests for information about the country” after the film was released.
To evaluate when negative publicity can have a positive effect, the researchers analysed the effect of negative New York Times book reviews. For well-known authors (e.g., Stephen King or John Grisham), negative reviews decreased sales, but for unknown authors, or people releasing their first book, negative reviews actually increased sales. By a whopping 45%.
The researchers explained the results on the basis of “the psychology of attention”. That is, negative publicity can help in the same way positive publicity can: By making a product or idea more top-of-mind.
For more examples, go to Jonah Berger’s blog, and his post entitled: Miley Cyrus’ Best Career Move. Ever. For those who remember the 2013 MTV Music Awards, you will know what he is talking about.
As the racing fraternity debates the merits of Victorian racing’s decision to favour free to air television for racing vision over the previous Pay TV incumbent, all in the interests of creating new markets, could it be that main stream media stories about cobalt could aid this cause?
According to Jonah Berger’s research, this could be right, in that negative publicity about a sport previously in the realm of a ‘niche market’ could make it top of mind for casual race goers and those previously uninformed about the sport.
Right thinking people want to link questions of integrity to business success. Otherwise, for the hard working stewards, officials and volunteers who work to keep thoroughbred racing a clean sport, they are entitled to ask: What is the point?
The truth is likely to be much more complex than this. Yes, there is likely a tipping point where public confidence (and by this, I mean, the betting public) could be lost such that the business of racing collapses, should systemic integrity issues lead to lack of confidence in racing results.
However, we are a very, very long way from this point.
Loss of innocence should not be misinterpreted as lack of business confidence. They are two different concepts. And if you would like proof of this, the answer lies in the Tour de France.
Cobalt is but one of many racing scandals. There will be many more. Racing Victoria’s Chief Steward Terry Bailey, speaks frequently about his general confidence in the integrity of the sport of racing, but that stewards must be constantly vigilant because there is always something new on the horizon. They are very busy people.
In the meantime, perhaps the racing media (and their sub-editors) could take a more nuanced approach to the relationship between negative publicity and its likely impact.
I mean, seriously, is it not time we moved on from the “Darkest day” headlines?