Why is Ireland so unconcerned about jiggery pokery in sport?

Trainer Darren Weir giving Michelle Payne instructions at Warrnambool Race Club in Australia. Payne’s success, skill, and background captured the imagination and Weir was a key figure in her story. Weir has now received a four-year ban from racing after police found a ‘jigger’, used to shock horses, in his home. Picture: Vince Caligiuri

The 2015 Melbourne Cup was one of the most memorable in the history of “the race that stops a nation”.

Only four women had ever ridden in the Cup since its first running in 1861.

In 2015, jockey Michelle Payne, on the 100-1 outsider Prince of Penzance, outduelled Frankie Dettori on the Willie Mullins-trained Max Dynamite in the final straight to win.

Afterwards, Payne gave an impromptu speech in which she labelled the racing world “chauvinistic” and in straightforward Aussie style said: “A lot of the owners wanted to kick me off. Everyone else can get stuffed [who] think women aren’t good enough.”

When Payne delivered her “get stuffed” line she was, in one of those quirks of history, wearing the winning owners’ colours of purple, green and white — the colours of the suffragettes (and the reasons why many Democrats wore white during President Trump’s recent State of the Union address).

Payne’s success, skill, and back story captured the imagination. Payne’s mother died in a car accident when she only six months old, leaving her father to raise Payne and her nine siblings. 

One of her brothers, Stevie, who has Down syndrome, works with horses and in 2015 helped strap her to Prince of Penzance.

Later, in her post-race interviews, she thanked the owners of Prince of Penzance for allowing her to take the ride but also the horse’s trainer, Darren Weir, for taking on her and her brother.

The following May, Payne fell in a race in Mildura, Victoria and tore her pancreas. By September she was back riding competitively — jockeys are the most durable of all. 

In 2017, she was stood down for a week for taking a banned appetite suppressant and she was still riding up to late last year, mainly on horses trained by her father.

It is remarkable story and one that has, unsurprisingly, been turned into a movie Ride Like a Girl, which is due to be released later this year.

A key figure in Payne’s story has been trainer Darren Weir who Payne thanked in 2015 and with whom she won over A$7m (€4.4m) in prize money in 566 rides for the Victorian trainer.

This month, Weir accepted a four-year ban from racing when a raid by Victorian state police and Victorian racing’s integrity unit on Weir’s home and training premises found electronic devices known as a “jigger”.

A jigger is used to shock a horse — it can now be done remotely — usually during trackwork and in conjunction with a whip. In some ways it is like getting the horse to change gears. 

In training, the horse quickly associates the whip with getting a shock and this can be simulated on race day.

The charges against Weir relate to possession, and not the use of, jiggers.

Weir’s story was itself a ‘rags to riches’ tale. Born in a small country town, he left school at 15 and worked as horse breaker, farrier, track rider and strapper before eventually becoming a trainer at 25.

Within a decade, he was the leading trainer in Victoria and the all-Australian training record holder.

In confirming his four-year ban, the chair of the Victorian racing disciplinary board said:

You were what could be described as a leviathan trainer — hundreds of horses, chasing winners from the big city carnivals to the once-a-year country meetings, owners numbering in the thousands, a staff of 150 and a number of training establishments…Now you will be remembered for possessing instruments of cruelty, instruments associated with high level cheating.

It must be noted that the Weir investigation does not in any way implicate Payne or involve the 2015 Melbourne Cup and nor does it, apart from allegations against one other assistant trainer, involve others in Weir’s operations.

Notable among Weir’s staff is Cork-born jockey John Allen who has already had 360 rides for Weir in 2018-19, amassing almost A$5m in prize money and including some Group 1 winners.

Allen has now to scramble for other rides, as other staff also look for employment.

There are three interesting legal points about the Weir incident.

First, the raid was led by the Victoria police who have a specialised unit dealing with sports corruption. That police investigation is ongoing.

The fact that a state police force — Victoria’s population is only slightly bigger than Ireland’s — has a specialised unit, backed by dedicated anti-sports corruption criminal laws, might appear slightly odd.

But the idea is that sports corruption — race rigging, match fixing and the like — is often instigated by criminal gangs who are using sports gambling to launder money or as a cover for other illicit activities such as drugs.

Investigations into gambling scams, and the money trail behind them, can sometimes help the police to indirectly target and disturb criminal syndicates’ profits and operations.

In the recent past, police in Australia have successfully prosecuted corruption related crime in sports as diverse as harness racing and tennis.

Second, in charging Weir under the rules of racing, Victoria’s racing integrity unit made it clear that their investigation was driven primarily by animal welfare concerns.

This is a key point because when it comes to betting scams in racing, the Australian sporting public generally remains indifferent. 

However, when animal welfare is at issue, interest in, and criticism of, racing’s integrity deepens.

The animal welfare lobby in Australia is powerful and well resourced. In 2015, media revelations of live baiting in greyhound racing, almost saw the sport banned in certain parts of the country.

Reaction to the death of the Aidan O’Brien trained Cliffs of Moher in last year’s Melbourne Cup led Victoria’s racing integrity unit to investigate if international horses might be more prone to injury in Australian racing and track conditions.

Animal welfare, equating to athlete welfare, is now seen as integral part of any racing integrity unit’s remit.

Third, it must be said however, that as ever with racing a fundamental element of its integrity and its commercial viability is the links with the gambling industry.

If trainers are doping or otherwise manipulating horses and not running them on the merits, that distorts the betting markets, undermines confidence in the sport, and ultimately affects the sport’s revenues.

That is why Australian sport and state authorities work closely with the police, betting companies and regulators to monitor unusual and illegal gambling patterns on sport.

More generally, you don’t have to live long in Australia to realise that attending a sports event here is akin to passive gambling such are the levels of surrounding advertising, marketing, and sponsorship.

It is a similar story in the UK, and particularly in football.

This week, for example, we mourn the passing of England international goalkeeper Gordon Banks, who played seven seasons for Stoke.

Stoke’s football club is owned by the Coates family who run the betting company Bet365 (which is also Stoke-on-Trent’s largest private sector employer).

Denise Coates, the chief executive, paid herself €300m in 2018 — a pay package that was the highest of any British chief executive that year, 27 times larger than what Tim Cook gets at Apple and more than double that paid to the entire Stoke City football team — and all based on punters’ losses.

Given the above — the problematical links between criminality and sport, animal welfare issues, gambling addiction etc — you would think that in Ireland (which is third on the per capita list of countries with the biggest individual gambling losses) would seek to tightly regulate gambling at state level.

And yet our gambling laws remains shamefully based on legislation from the 1950s.

A gambling bill has stalled in the Oireachtas for nearly five years. In that time, the corruption risks relating to illegal gambling on Irish sport have increased exponentially. 

And with the growth of online betting, the public health issue of gambling addiction remains, in a regulatory sense, untreated.

Jack Anderson is professor of law, University of Melbourne

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