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Racing Industry - Allegations of Corruption

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Tuesday, 28 March 2023

Tags: Horse Racing

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, I rise tonight to talk about corruption and cruelty in the racing industry. It is clearly rife and the Office of Racing Integrity is right in the thick of it - corrupted and compromised. It must be shut down.

Industrial-scale animal user and abuser, Ben Yole, has made more than $12 million over his career of exploiting, mistreating and then discarding horses. During the COVID 19 racing shut down, we heard Mr Yole complaining he would lose about $100 000 a month. Yole has been in the harness racing industry for about 15 years. In that time, ORI has enabled and facilitated him to become the biggest harness racer in Tasmania and Australia. He totally dominates the industry here. In 2023 so far, we believe he has raked in close to $500 000 and it is only March.

The Greens would like to know why, after what the entire country saw and heard in the ABC's investigative report, Ben Yole has not been suspended from racing. There has clearly been race fixing and team racing. Let us never forget, the stakes are paid in significant part out of public money. We are subsidising corruption in the harness racing industry at the expense of honest industry participants.

Last sitting week, the Greens raised serious animal welfare concerns about the state of horses at Ben Yole's Cygnet property. The minister and the Office of Racing Integrity had been alerted to these appalling scenes several months ago. Images of horses eating their own manure in bare, overcrowded, miserable conditions were sent to Ms Ogilvie and this hands-off minister, of course, never responded to this alarming correspondence. She referred the images and correspondence to the Office of Racing Integrity. ORI said, 'There's nothing to see here'. Apparently, horses eating their own shit is acceptable practice if those horses belong to Yole.

In a letter to the woman who lodged the complaint, the Director of Racing, former Liberal staffer, Justin Helmich, said that he could advise that stewards from the ORI regularly undertake inspections of the Yole racing property and he is comfortable that the inspection regime that is in place in respect of welfare across all three codes of racing is satisfactory to ensure the welfare of animals in the industry.

Ben Yole - too big for ORI to take on, too close to too many of the stewards, still racing, still getting his poor horses ready for another round of harness races this weekend.

The ABC expose began in Launceston at the Mowbray Race Track on Sunday 19 March. That night, Ben Yole had 65 out of 94 runners. He took a total of $20 955 in winnings. When the ABC made its presence known and attempted to get vision of him and his horse, Ben Yole threatened to boycott the event. Without him and his multitude of horses, of course, there would be no race. Why was Ben Yole so uncomfortable about the ABC being there and filming his horses?

Ross Neal, racing integrity and stewards' manager at the Office of Racing then allowed Yole's horses to enter and exit through the car park. Only Mr Yole's horses. Why would such favouritism be shown by Ross Neal to Ben Yole? Why would he help Ben Yole hide from the cameras? Has any ORI steward ever taken Yole on? I am betting not. Like Mr Yole in so many harness racing events he takes part in, it is a bet I am sure I would win.

There is a sick, unhealthy relationship between Ben Yole and ORI stewards. It is as plain as the nose on your face, yet Ms Ogilvie has told this place and journalists that she has full confidence in the Office of Racing Integrity. In fact, it is ORI's view that one trainer dominating the field does not demand more scrutiny. Everything is apparently fine.

That is not how Victorian integrity bodies see it, but that is racing 'integrity' under the Liberals and an incompetent, out of touch minister in Tasmania. It is the organisation that Ms Ogilvie asked to investigate itself after the ABC's blockbuster investigative report.

There are so many questions about the Office of Racing Integrity, none of which we got close to addressing in the minister's misleading, banal contribution this morning. We did not hear who ex-Liberal staffer and now Director of Racing and general manager of ORI, Justin Helmich, referred the many race rigging complaints to and what was the result of those referrals. Were they ever referred? Were investigations ever undertaken? Why have so many complaints and allegations from industry insiders and people worried about the welfare of Yole's horses gone absolutely nowhere once they have gone to ORI? ORI needs to be shut down and its integrity functions contracted out to Victoria until the investigation announced by the minister is complete and an industry we would like to see shut down is at the very least cleaned up.

No one who saw the ABC report, or watched parliament this morning, or has read the minister's comments would have faith in ORI. Especially when their consistent stance is that of their minister: do not worry, everything is fine, there is nothing to see here. Well, there is certainly to see when whistleblowers are ignored or intimidated and concerns are papered over or covered up.

With the exception of the new chief steward for harness racing it appears that all ORI stewards have been complicit in the Yole scandal, yet it is business as usual for ORI and Ben Yole, despite the scandal and the clear visual evidence and testimony of industry insiders of state-sanctioned corruption.

On Sunday, after Ms Ogilvie referred ORI to ORI, Ben Yole turned up to the Mowbray track again. In races 2 and 7, he had seven of the 12 runners. In race 8 he ran nine of the 12 runners. On Sunday, the very day Australia's biggest harness trainer had been the centre of a major expose, he took in $11 442. As one industry insider told us, it seems Ben Yole has more control of the harness racing industry than the stewards and certainly more than the minister.

On behalf of Tasmanians concerned about animal welfare and racing integrity, we would like to know why he is still allowed to race and why the Office of Racing Integrity has not been shut down? We would like to know why this hopeless minister still has a job?