Article from the Age.
Darren Weir scandal opens doors on racing's dark secret
By Chip Le Grand
October 11, 2019 — 11.30pm
It is the weekend before the Melbourne Cup and the doors to Darren Weir’s Warrnambool stables are locked tight. The day’s work is done, most of the staff have gone home and the horses are exercised, fed and resting in their stalls.
All but one.
Behind the closed doors, Weir’s Cup runner, a horse named Red Cardinal, is trotting on a treadmill under the watchful eye of Weir, his stable foreman Jarrod McLean and stablehand Tyson Kermond.
At Weir’s instructions, Kermond sticks the powerful neck of the glossy bay with a jigger, an electronic device which sends a sharp, painful shock through the horse’s body.
The horse is frightened and distressed. If the men are concerned, they don’t show it. Again and again, Kermond applies the jigger.
Hidden within the stable, unbeknown to Weir and his associates, a police camera captures the disturbing scene. The footage, now in the hands of police investigators, prosecutors and Racing Victoria integrity officers, this week culminated in criminal charges of animal cruelty against one of the biggest names in Australian racing.
It has also exposed the dark underbelly of the sport.
Racing Victoria chief executive Giles Thompson hasn’t seen the footage but he wants people to know the entire racing industry is appalled by what is alleged.
“We in the industry understand why people outside the industry are distressed by this and disgusted by this,’’ he tells The Age. “We in the industry are also disgusted by this.”
This is clearly the view of six-time Melbourne Cup winner Lloyd Williams, who says: “I have only one word for you: disgraceful.”
Elsewhere, the message was mixed.
Racing Hall of Fame trainer David Hayes told racing and sports radio station RSN the charges were confronting but the industry needed to move on.
“Cycling has hit some huge hurdles over the years, probably bigger in some ways, and a lot of people watched the Tour de France this year, didn’t they?” he said.
After distressing vision of one of Darren Weir's prized horses being tormented with an electric prod emerged following his Tuesday arrest, the story of Darren Weir's downfall is gradually being illuminated.
He likened the Weir scandal to a speeding driver crashing his car. Do we ban cars in response, he asked rhetorically.
“There has been a lot of people that have taken short-cuts and the integrity department are gradually catching them,’’ he said. “I’m sure it is still going on but not to the levels that it was say five years ago or 10 years ago.”
The short cut allegedly used by Weir, who is serving a four-year ban from the sport and McLean, a trainer in his own right, was to employ a device banned in racing to inflict pain and distress on a horse to make it to run faster.
It is a cynical, Pavlovian tactic which, in past years, was rampant in thoroughbred racing. RSPCA Victoria chief executive Liz Walker says it a cruel practice that has no place in the sport.
“RSPCA is opposed absolutely to the use of jiggers,’’ she says. “It causes fear, pain and distress and it does cause punishment. It may be that people in the industry say that is not how they are usually used but the point is, they inflict pain on animals.”
It is also a form of cheating. At its simplest, this is how this scandal is best understood. One of Australia’s most successful trainers, a man who since the turn of the century has won 3542 races and amassed $146 million in prize money for his owners, a celebrated racing figure responsible for the welfare of 600 horses at three stables scattered across country Victoria, was allegedly willing to torment a horse in his care to cheat the Melbourne Cup.
If Victoria Police are alleging Weir authorised the use of a jigger on his Cup horse and two others, why should anyone believe the practice was not widespread across his stables for many years?
“It casts a shadow over any number of races he has won," says barrister Dyson Hore-Lacy, SC, a longtime racehorse owner and breeder. "Who knows how long it's been going on for?"
Thompson understands people will now question whether Michelle Payne’s fairytale Cup ride four years ago on the Weir-trained Prince of Penzance was too good to be true. He says there is no evidence of this and that the story of Payne and what she did for women in racing stands alone from Weir.
“The charges are not related to the Melbourne Cup win of 2015,’’ he says.
“For me the 2015 Cup, what makes it so special is actually nothing to do with Darren Weir. It is about the extraordinary story we are now seeing in the media, Ride Like a Girl, about Michelle Payne and her extraordinary upbringing and achievement.”
Racing Victoria CEO Giles Thompson.
Thompson argues that, for all the damage wrought by the Weir scandal, the events of this week should give people more trust, rather than less, in the integrity of the sport.
“This is the culmination of a significant amount of work by both Racing Victoria and police,’’ he says. “What we are doing is ensuring as best we can the integrity and welfare of horses and people in our sport.
“It is not great timing but the result of us working tirelessly to ensure there is a level playing field for everyone involved in the sport.”
Victoria’s Minister for Racing Martin Pakula agrees. Talking to The Age from Tokyo this week, he says everyone from racing enthusiasts to once-a-year punters and racegoers should take comfort from the fact Racing Victoria’s head of integrity Jamie Stier invited Victoria Police to investigate one of the sport's most high-profile figures, fully aware of what the public repercussions might be.
“It’s a demonstration that our integrity department will go after wrongdoing no matter how big the name,’’ he says.
“I understand people having a degree of cynicism about racing or, indeed, any kind of sport where there is money to be made from betting. All that we can do as an industry is demonstrate we are doing everything we can to catch and weed out those who are not just denying the other participants a level playing field, but those who would damage the reputation of the industry.”
Racing Victoria, the Victorian government and the RSPCA all point to a strengthening of racing’s integrity framework and priority given to animal welfare over the past 12 months.
The most tangible reform is the establishment of the Victorian Racing Integrity Board, a peak statutory body that has operational independence from the commercial interests of the three sports it oversees: thoroughbred racing, harness racing and greyhound racing. The board is chaired by Supreme Court Justice Jack Forrest.
The state government has also created a Victorian Racing Tribunal, which can draw from a panel of six current or former judicial officers. It adheres to tighter rules of evidence and should prevent the delays caused by cases bouncing between racing authorities and the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
On the day animal cruelty charges were laid against Weir, McLean and Kermond, and former jockey William Hernan was charged with placing a bet on a horse he knew had been jiggered before the race, Victoria Racing released a “Fair Racing for All” policy that enshrines equine welfare as a “fundamental value” of the sport. The RSPCA was involved in the formulation of the policy and supports its principles.
On the evidence of this week, however, racing still has much work to do.
Giles Thompson says that trainers, in private conversation with him over the past few days, strongly condemned what Weir is alleged to have done. Anthony Mithen, the stud principal at Rosemont Stud, offers a more nuanced response.
Mithen’s extended family is heavily involved in horse racing. He doesn’t condone the use of jiggers and says the allegations against Weir, if proven, are indefensible. He also says that, not that long ago, jiggers were an accepted part of horse training.
He does not believe Weir is a horse abuser. He likes Weir and sees him as a trainer who, in his quest to get some horses to perform better for their owners, failed to keep pace with changes to the industry.
“Years ago there were tactics that were acceptable to encourage a horse to do its very best, but times have changed,’’ Mithen says. “Darren was clearly stuck in another era.
“People within the industry are waiting and seeing what went on, what is the mistake he made and what his motivation was. I would argue that a lot of his motivation was for his owners and to try and win a race for them.
“I know he loves horses. I know him personally and I know he has a deep care for the animals. It would cut him to the core to have those charges laid against him.”
Today at Caulfield, the spring carnival bursts into full bloom with the running of the Guineas and another three group one races. It is the start of a month-long indulgence of racing and gambling, booze, food and fashion that will fill our TV screens and newspapers and light a million suburban barbecues.
Horses will run in blinkers and run with their tongues tied. Horses will be whipped to the finishing post. Horses will be cajoled to run faster by means which, depending on your view, are acceptable or cruel.
What has been done to get these horses to the starting line?
Behind the doors of Darren Weir’s stables, we are offered a glimpse. The video footage goes for no more than 20 seconds. Anyone who sees it is unlikely to look at racing the same way again.