Dealing with them in no particular order, I’ll kick off with the NHA’s recent plea which essentially amounts to asking for people to go easy on them, which gave my eyerolly muscles a certain amount of exercise (in case I’m being vague, there is a wonderful Tracy Ullman sketch that illustrates it perfectly).
Our regulatory authority is, in effect, tasked with ensuring that people adhere to the rules and that those who take liberties or flat-out transgress are handed out some form of penalty, both by way of punishment as by way of apology and an endeavour to do better next time. As racing is a public sport, transgressions – and transgressors – of the rules are dealt with in a public manner and inquiries, investigations and their outcomes are all published in the public domain.
While the NHA is not above reproach and have been proven wrong on more than one occasion (they are human after all) – despite the fact that a fair number of these incidents have occurred in the public domain, they are not in the business of owning up to any misadventures, nor do they ever impose any punitive measures on themselves. And now they are asking the racing community not to be critical of them, either. Hmmm.
Why Good Regulation Is Good Business
Let’s take a step back. We all know that racing depends on the betting rand to keep going. In order to get that betting rand, we need to a) provide a show and b) ensure that it is being run properly. We employ the NHA to take care of part B. The reason we do this is that customers will not risk their money unless they trust the entity they are giving it to. When the public hands over their hard-earned cash at the Tote window, they do so trusting that racing is conducted in a fair and equitable manner. It is important to understand that they will only give racing their trust (and their money) if we do a good enough job to earn it. In other words, they are relying on the regulatory authority to do its job to ensure that they are getting a fair run for their money.
Good regulation is a serious business and poor regulation is not just a poor reflection on the sport, it has real monetary repercussions for all of us – from the top of the championship tree down to the entry-level groom sweeping the yard.
Why This Is Serious
If we cannot provide people with the comfort that their money is safe with us, customers (in racing’s case, punters), will simply fold up their money and put it back in their wallets and then go and spend it elsewhere. And given the declining Tote figures we are always being given by racing executives, it seems this is exactly what is happening – in ever increasing numbers.
The reason this is a huge cause for alarm across the board is that when betting turnover drops, that means less take-out, which means less stakes to go around and you can probably do the rest yourselves, but it effectively translates into less money for everyone.
Right, so now we’re probably all good and depressed, but hopefully we have established that keeping things clean and fair is a pretty big and important job. Vital, even, one might say, for the survival of the sport. I would also venture that consistent and fair regulation is also vital for the happiness of the sport, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Yet while the NHA is as fallible as the rest of us, not only do they not apologise when mistakes are made and rarely, if ever, have any punitive measures meted out to them for under performance, they appear to want the racing public not to criticise them either – even though their salaries remain safe, while everyone else gets hit in the pocket.
While unfair criticism is, well, unfair, and the NHA can certainly be forgiven for objecting when that is the case, given that the Operators pay the NHA (with money derived from Tote turnover, which is derived from punters betting on owners’ horses), one wonders exactly who will have a quiet word with racing’s Ivory Tower when they blunder? And if the answer is ‘no-one’, what incentive do they have to improve? But I’m straying from my point.
Rules are rules – and they apply to everyone
As one can’t expect people to ‘do as I say, don’t do as I do’, in order to keep things clear and fair, one would expect the individuals appointed to office and tasked with the NHA’s lofty standards of maintaining the integrity (being honest and having strong moral principles) of the sport, to be of a similarly high calibre and moral fibre. You know, lead by example, and all that. So unfortunately, there are a few uncomfortable questions that need to be asked.
Mr Barends’ difficulties existed before he was appointed to the NHA – headhunted by the Board, in fact, according to Mr Barends – which begs the question what – if any – checks were done? If the checks were done and if full disclosure was made, then was Mr Barends appointed regardless and / or what prophylactic measures were put in place to monitor / support someone who a) admitted to having no previous horse racing experience and b) was put in charge of an R85million budget?
Secondly, what, if any, disclosure was made to the Board regarding Mr Barends’ current legal difficulties? The Notice of motion was filed on 10 April 2018 and the matter was originally set down to be heard on 9 May 2018. Parties agreed for the matter to be postponed to 14 August 2018. Barends served his affidavit on 31 May 2018 and FNB filed its replying affidavit on 2 July 2018. This means that the matter has been on-going for 5 months without Members being informed of the potential change to Barends’ financial status.
Thirdly, the issue of money management and all the related concerns that may raise about being put in control of a R85 million budget aside, Mr Barends sits on the National Board as a director. If the NHA were a registered company, once the judgment for provisional sequestration was granted, he would have immediately been disqualified from being a director of the NHA. While the NHA is not a registered company, it is still a regulatory authority. Surely the National Board should have adopted a similar approach to the current legislation, or provided some reason as to why it has deviated and merely allowed Mr Barends a stretch of paid leave?
Where This Leaves Us
Whatever Mr Barends’ personal situation and the repercussions thereof is for people in higher offices to determine, but from a racing perspective, the bigger picture is the collateral damage to the NHA’s already beleaguered reputation.
Mistakes don’t define you, but how you handle them will, which is why I always maintain that every challenge comes wrapped in a silver lining. If handled well, setbacks can be turned into opportunities.
For a regulatory authority to generate trust and respect from the people it governs, requires it to display honesty, integrity and to act swiftly and decisively when required. In short, it is your actions that define you. So let’s take a look at how this might define the NHA and, by extension, its Board (and, I should state for the record, the our current ‘dream team’ consists of Chairman Mr Ken Truter, CEO (or whatever the job title du jour is) Mr Lyndon Barends, Racing Control Executive Mr Arnold Hyde, Mr Robin Bruss, Adv SM Lebala SC, Adv P Stais SC, Mr S Dolamo, Mr J J du Toit and Mr R J Trotter).
Unfortunately, the court papers reveal that there are at least three previous default judgements granted against Mr Barends dating back to 2010. Which, frankly, is not a great start. Secondly, the matter was heard on Tuesday, 14 August 2018 and, assuming Mr Barends discharged his duties correctly and informed his august fellow Board members, they would (or should) have been made aware shortly after. The news broke into the public domain on Thursday, 30 August 2018. Yet, despite in theory being in possession of what is arguably, pretty weighty information as far back as mid-August, it took the NHA until Tuesday, 4 September – nearly 3 weeks after the matter was heard – to issue a nebulous two-line statement. Which hardly explains a thing and it has been left to the press and / or interested members of the public to go and dig up the details by themselves (and we know how well that generally turns out).
Not exactly clever, nevermind swift and decisive. And, given that the Board is entrusted to act on behalf of their membership, one rather wonders whose interests they are acting in?
Ships and other questions
And lastly, while he is off dealing with his personal affairs, who is steering the ship? Yes, we have a Chairman, but last I heard, a CEO job is still a full-time occupation in most quarters. So now what? Move the Chairman to Joburg for the next month? At what cost? And what of our stud book issues (remember those?) And staff that are vanishing by the busload? And the EFF and grooms strikes and getting all of that sorted out?
The dictionary defines ‘Integrity’ as ‘the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.’ It defines ‘Trust’ as a ‘firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something’. If you build trust by leading by example, we have to ask what kind of example the NHA is currently setting and what future they hope to lead us towards.