When Michelle Payne rode the Darren Weir-trained 100-1 outsider Prince of Penzance to victory in the 2015 Melbourne Cup, it was one of the feel-good stories of the year, almost immediately acquiring the status of a parable. It may be terribly unfair to Payne and those she worked with, but last week’s arrests of Weir and two of his employees force us to look not only at the story we were told then but also at where racing stands more broadly.
The sudden emergence of a new front-runner in any sport results in greater scrutiny. Sometimes we can only conclude that we are watching a competitor with freakish ability; on other occasions we find that innovative approaches to preparation or fitness open up new possibilities of achievement. And sometimes, sadly, investigation can unearth a third scenario: that underhanded and even illicit means are being used to secure results, often underpinned by a «whatever it takes» mentality.
In racing – which has expanded dramatically in recent years – such questions also run into a rather hidebound culture, with a tendency to close ranks. If some insiders feel there has been a lot of drama over a few jiggers, they may well need to be reminded that their industry’s public face has already been scarred by scandals over doping. While so-called «concept races» like the $5 million All-Star Mile and the $13 million Everest aim to connect the sport to a new generation of fans, one only has to look at the recent travails of the greyhound racing and live export industries to see what happens when a business becomes associated in the public mind with cruelty to animals.