Sporting Declaration: Getting back in the race and why coaches need to set a better example

CROWD FAVOURITE: Jockey Hugh Bowman celebrates Winx's Queen Elizabeth Stakes win at Randwick this year. Picture: Bradleyphotos.com.au
CROWD FAVOURITE: Jockey Hugh Bowman celebrates Winx's Queen Elizabeth Stakes win at Randwick this year. Picture: Bradleyphotos.com.au

RACING has won, but it wasn’t an easy run.

With overdue holidays coming at the end of a big week of Newcastle spring carnival news, racing has dominated my thoughts in the search for a Sporting Declaration before the return next week of your regular columnist, Robert Dillon.

The same columnist who wrote in 2006 when discussing the merits of racing as a sport that: “Uneducated types argue that if it was not for punting, there would be little or no interest in racing. But this viewpoint is invariably shared by people oblivious to the aesthetic beauty of horses running around in circles, ridden by midgets thrashing them with whips.”

Now, this came at the height of some great sports department banter. Racing lovers versus the rest of us. It was all good fun.

We would gang up on the hopelessly outnumbered Kevin Cranson and Greg French and chip away. 

In those days, the Herald had a dedicated thoroughbred racing writer, the great Geoff “Woolley” Wilson, who worked from his home on the Central Coast. It was before my time, but apparently it was decided that situation was best for everyone given Woolley’s legendary ‘group 1’ blow-ups.

Woolley knew his stuff and he had time and space to give racing a great run, but he wasn’t in the office to help even out the debate. To be fair, there wouldn’t have been one, such was the fear of Woolley’s wrath.

We lost the passionate racing man in February 2014 after a long battle with illness, which had gradually restricted his work.

Along came redundancies and changes, and Woolley was never replaced.

I’d taken over the harness racing round from another stalwart, John Gilmour, midway through 2012 when he retired, so I was the logical choice to take on the thoroughbreds as well.

I was reluctant, mainly because I already had a long list of other rounds on my plate, but also because I’d been stung by racing, or I should say, gambling.

Dad was a mad punter and had lost it all by the time I was 10, even after winning a share of a first-division Lotto dividend a few years earlier.

Punting was ingrained in the family. Living with Dad and his parents after that, I helped Pop with his SP bookmaking calculations, converting the odds in fractions he’d always used into decimals, on Sundays. 

He worked for someone else in those days as more of a hobby but he was one of four SPs working within a couple of kilometres of each other in Telarah when Dad was growing up. 

When Dad was a kid, he and Pop used to work pubs across the road from each other, taking bets and meeting regularly in the middle to check their progress.

The Old Man was hooked, and unfortunately restraint was not his strong suit.

Wary of following the same form line, I steered away from the round, but with no one filling the void and others spreading the load, I gradually took on more and more racing.

It’s been a good ride so far, even though I’m still very much finding my feet.

Covering racing has been a refreshing change from experiences dealing with increasingly over-managed and protected figures in other professional sports.

Trainers, jockeys, owners and administrators are accessible, easy to work with and keen to promote their industry.

There’s some great characters and stories to be found as well, and I’m proud to say, I’ve hardly had a bet. 

Who knows, I might even win over Dillo. I know he’s become a fan of the mighty mare Winx, which has helped push racing into the mainstream and draw bigger crowds with her amazing 19-race winning streak.

I’m long-odds though.

** The news cyclone that was the 10-year ban of Maitland colts rugby union player Mark Meafua for hitting a referee has subsided, but recent events in another code have brought it into focus, for me at least.

Meafua’s suspension and video of the incident went viral and sparked fierce social media debate about what was an appropriate punishment.

Many called for a life ban, and strong arguments were mounted for it.

Ten years, though, for a promising 18-year-old player effectively ends any dreams he had of playing professionally.

It seems, to me, a fair and measured punishment for a terrible offence, especially when you factor in the shame and abuse he has received from footage of the incident going international and the assault charges he faces in court next month.  

Opinions will vary, but the suspension matches that handed to 18-year-old Swansea soccer player Zach Fleming in 2015 for headbutting a referee. Video and news of his offence, though, was not spread worldwide.

This week, referee abuse was in the news again as NRL coaches Shane Flanagan and Trent Barrett copped hefty fines for post-match sprays about officials.

Of course, the offences are far less serious and they were in a different code to Meafua’s, but they were on a much bigger stage.

If high-profile coaches and role models cannot accept the referees’ decision, and the fact it won’t always go their way, after a match, how can we expect young players at grassroots level to learn to do it in the heat of battle on the field?

Obviously striking a referee is at the other end of the scale, but examples set and reinforced in the public arena must play a major role in shaping how young players deal with frustrations and approach officials.

And while the Meafua incident was a step backwards in this respect, there was a positive that day. Maitland and Wanderers players showed immediate concern for young referee Niklas Gaal and their shock and disgust at the act was plain to see. Gaal received a standing ovation when he decided to finish the game. Fair play to them.