The Asian Racing Conference – from a trainer’s perspective

By Howard Wright

Attending industry conferences and seminars, especially those staged overseas, as a media reporter can be hard work – honestly! – but when you come across speakers at the top of their game, who can put over concise points in layman’s language, the tedium of long days, and sometimes even longer nights, wafts away on a breeze of simple understanding.

 Derrmot Weld was invited to address the Asian Racing Conference, held in Dubai in January, in order to bring a horseman’s perspective to the session headed ‘Global series – what have we learnt and where to now?’ In ten minutes, he did far more than that. He gave an audience of 400-plus delegates – only a single handful who were or had been trainers - a master class in travelling horses around the world, and how to be successful along the way.

 No better presenter could have been found. From his base at the heart of Irish racing on The Curragh, Weld has created a unique record. He is the first overseas trainer to have annexed two Melbourne Cups, which alone would make the description fit, but he is also the only European trainer to have logged a winning run in a leg of the US Triple Crown.

What lies behind the success of this thoughtful, serious man, whose few words make more sense than some who have written whole chapters on their specialist subject? There is no single factor, he said. Rather there are nine aspects that he considers when assessing whether, and how, to travel a horse abroad. They are:

* Horse – “He has to have the ability to compete at the top level; he must be adaptable to ground and have the right temperament, and he has to be sound. It’s no good if you take an unsound horse, hoping it comes right on the day. In my experience, it rarely does.”

*Jockey – “Bring your own if he’s top class, or get the best locally.”

*Food – “Bring your own if at all possible.”

*Water – “Dehydration is the single biggest negative factor in travelling. Make sure you get it right.”

*Staff – “You need trained, experienced travellers, good work riders, and staff with the confidence and knowledge to report to you accurately.”

*Farrier – “Very important. Around the world there are some good farriers, but one false move can undo everything.”

*Veterinarian – “This is where dehydration will be reported, and he will watch all the tests and look at the blood picture. Make a mistake, and you pay for it.”

*Medication – “I agree with strict rules, but it’s important for the trainer to be aware of the rules from country to country, even from state to state in the US.”

*Quarantine – “Dubai has an excellent facility and is more straightforward than most. Australia has improved, but effectively it still takes nearly a month and could be brought forward. The US is a worry, and facilities at many tracks need to be improved.”

There, in handy-sized bites, is the check-list of a qualified equine vet who has climbed to top of the trainers’ ladder. There was, however, a bonus to the presentation, a bone of contention dug up when Weld was asked to nominate the single biggest improvement that would foster greater international competition.

“We’ve got to standardise the quarantine rules, which differ between Europe, the US, Asia and Australia,” he said. “With modern technology, it can be done, because blood testing for infectious diseases is far more efficient than in the past.”

In a moment, the theme was set, at least from the perspective of the go-ahead trainer with aspirations on the world stage.

The conference wended its fascinating way, discussing a myriad of topics of general concern to racing and betting administrators, from co-mingling bets in overseas pools and designing new racecourses, to standardising rules on stewarding and identifying the main threats to the success of horseracing in the future.

Virtually all impinged on the business of training to some degree, but none seemed to have the immediate significance of the quarantine issue, which came up again, and again.

Adrian Beaumont, director of racecourse services for the Newmarket-based International Racing Bureau, named “a shortening of the quarantine period for racing in Australia” among his three wishes to make life easier for horsemen tackling the global calendar.

Other areas came under Beaumont’s scrutiny – Dubai being one, with the impact of its Carnival on the length of time that horses are likely to be away from European stables – but Australia came in for special attention with regard to two new, high-value series, the Global Sprint and Asian Mile Challenges, which include legs in Australia.

Beaumont explained: “The quarantine rules pertaining to Australia are stricter than any other. For example, European runners have to do 14 days’ pre-export quarantine, and 14 days’ on arrival. That meant runners in the first leg of the Global Sprint Challenge on 3 February would have needed to be in quarantine no later than 28 December to allow for flight schedules. Thus, unless race clubs can persuade the Australian authorities to shorten the length of the quarantine period, it is difficult for their races to come anywhere other than at the start of a series, as quarantine could conflict with previous legs.”

The consequence, Beaumont explained, was that including Australian races from January to March in a series could mean trainers in the Northern Hemisphere considering them as being at the end of a campaign for their top horses, who may have started their racing season from the previous April to June. Not ideal, was his unequivocal message.

Beaumont, whose job involves helping trainers through and over the various problems thrown up by international travelling, turned his focus on to “governmental and racetrack attempts to thwart the spread of diseases,” pointing out that one of the methods was to ban the import of horses from affected countries.

“This is certainly true of countries with African horse sickness,” he said, “and restrictions were also put in place by countries affected by swamp fever and foot and mouth, even though the latter cannot be transmitted by horses. More recently, there have been problems with West Nile virus, which had implications in 2006 for horses with a multi-country itinerary. In particular it affected horses that ran at the Breeders’ Cup in Kentucky. Any horse who ran there before going on to Japan, such as Ouija Board, needed to be vaccinated twice, at an interval of three to six weeks. Similarly, horses that were due to run in Hong Kong after the Breeders’ Cup had to return to their home stables for 15 days, before a blood sample could be taken and sent to America to test for West Nile virus. Only when that was clear could they travel to Hong Kong.”

Weld’s reservations were becoming clearer by the minute. However, as any balanced reporter knows, there are two sides to a coin, and it was not long before the heads of Weld and Beaumont were being addressed by the tail-side of the argument from Dr Patricia Ellis, animal health advisor to the Australian Racing Board, a director of the racing analytical laboratory in Victoria and secretary of the international movement of horses committee, a body set up by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities.

A formidable array of appointments for an equine veterinarian with nearly four decades of experience, ranging from government to private sector, from racetrack to teaching. She does not mince words.

Dr Ellis, who was involved in the work that overcome obstacles enabling Weld’s pioneering Melbourne Cup winner, Vintage Crop in 1993, to set a new pattern, told delegates: “Yes, illogical, unscientific and inconsistent import conditions are causing problems that need to be resolved. But so do unrealistic expectations and perceptions.”

On the specific charges that had been thrown her country’s way, she countered: “Australia’s quarantine arrangements have attracted unfavourable criticism, but Australia is free from equine influenza, and its import controls reflect this. I make no apology for them.

“The Australian government and its racing authorities don’t want a flu outbreak that would shut down racing and other equestrian events for several months. They have understandable concerns for racing and non-racing stakeholders outside the international racecourse fence.”

On the broader issue, referring to the Dubai conference’s headline slogan, she said: “It’s time for a reality check. In the context of ‘Racing Without Borders’ what do you really mean, what do you want? As racing authorities, do you want to import foreign horses directly from their home stables without vaccinations, tests or official health certificates, and allow them to mix freely with local horses? Or do you want to ‘race across borders’ with science-based risk management, according to international standards, applied consistently, and which respects differences in country health status?”

There seemed to be only one answer from Dr Ellis’s tone, as she added: “Measures to prevent the spread of infectious diseases have to be a compromise between the need to conduct a successful event, with as wide a number of competing nations as possible, and the need to provide adequate safeguards to protect the health status of the animal and human populations of the importing country. In some countries, racing is not the only game in town. The safety and status of competition horses, and the need to prevent economic loss and unfavourable reflection on a country’s health standing and veterinary services, are as important factors as caring for the indigenous racehorse population”.

“Harmonisation of international issues such as handicapping, stewards’ decisions, rules of racing and race planning are directly under the control of racing authorities,” Dr Ellis explained. “Import conditions are not. They have to be negotiated government to government. Perhaps this is why the issue of ‘quarantine’ – thought I would prefer to speak about ‘import controls’ and ‘health safeguards’ – causes such angst.”

The target for change is clear, according to Dr Ellis. “For success in expanding international borders, co-operation with government is critical.”

However, she went on to warn: “Sometimes success has a very long lead time.” And using an even more stunning one-liner, “Success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan,” as a preface, she added: “Persistent and polite requests from international trading partners engage the attention of governments, and assist local racing authorities to negotiate safe international exchanges of racehorses. The World Animal Health Organisation sets the minimum international standards for trade. If we want standardisation or harmonisation of quarantine procedures, we must engage in the development of these standards.”

Perhaps Dr Ellis should invite Dermot Weld to join her when she next tackles the World Animal Health Organisation.