I recently took the opportunity of interviewing Sam Rawnsley in order to investigate the similarities and differences in harness racing between North America and Australia. Here is the interview:
VFTRG: Sam, how did you get involved in harness racing?
|Driver Sam Rawnsley |
Photo Copyright by Milton Pettit used by permission.
VFTRG: You have been driving for more than twenty-two years. What made you decide to become a driver?
SR: It just happened really, after many years of track work and slow work on those cold Tasmania winters, I ask dad if I could get my license and he said get yourself a trade first then worry about driving horses, so that’s what I did. I got an apprenticeship as a fitter and turner and then asked him again and he said ok. I can remember that I had to do 20 drives at the Qs and get then passed before I could drive in a race as a junior driver.
|Maybe Jane ($86,358AIS, Mile Rate 1:59.3MS)|
being trained by Sam's father, Phil Rawnsley.
SR: No, I have never trained a horse in my own right, but dad and I work very close together, so you could say we have the right mix.
VFTRG: You used to drive full time but now race your own horses? What do you do as your full time occupation? Do most drivers drive full time or part time?
|Maybe Jane with her first foal, a Grinfromeartoear filly.|
SR: I work at Norske Skog Boyer in the paper mill, It’s shift work and at times it is very hard to juggle driving my own and dad’s horses, but it all works out, my bother in-law will fill in for me at time when I can’t get time off work and now my nephew has got his license as well so I don’t have much trouble finding someone to replace me. There is a large percentage of part time drivers in Australia, so there is a lot of hobby drivers and trainer. Yes, we have our full time drivers but most would also hold a trainers licence as well.
VFTRG: What do you attribute the large number of part time drivers to? Is it the purses make it hard to be a full time driver?
SR: Purse would be one of the attribute to the large number of part time drivers, for me to earn the money I earn at work I would nearly have to drive $2m in stakes, this just does not happen in Tasmania. One of Tasmanian leading drivers for many years in Ricky Duggan works on the local council during the week and drives on the weekend, and he is our top catch drivers over here in Tassie. In the bigger states like Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia you will find a lot more full time drivers as the purses are bigger and they have a lot more meetings. We also have what is know as driving fees, where a driver will get $50 per drive, this helps the drivers that are trying to make a living out of the game.
|Gedlee winning the Peter Nevin Pace at Hobart Raceway.|
Photo Copyright by Milton Pettit used by permission.
SR: I had a very good season with him last season, it took him awhile to hit his straps (stride) you could say, but when he got the hang of what it was all about he just kept getting better as the season went on. He ran second in two derby’s behind Lanercost, won the Globe Derby final, was named Tasmania 3yr old colt of the year and also was named Tasmania Horse of the year as well, plus Tasmania pacing club 3yr old of the year, not bad for a horse that did not win his first race until February.
|Gedlee returning to the winner's circle.|
Photo Copyright by Milton Pettit used by permission.
SR: Most drivers in Australia would love to win the Inter-dominion, that is the one every driver, trainer and owner wants if you are good enough. The Hunter Cup is another great race to win, and the (Australian) Breeders Crown is getting bigger every year. We also have our own Grand Circuit so a win in any of the Grand Circuit races would be a feather in your cap. For me, I would love to have my name on the Hunter Cup honor roll.
VFTRG: Australia races both trotters and pacers. What percentage of races are for trotters?
SR: I would say about 10%, the trotter is not that big in Australia but it is getting more and more popular. But right now, there would be more trotting races in New Zealand overall than in Australia.
VFTRG: Australia races two year olds. Are there any restrictions on two year olds with respect to when they start racing and/or a limit to the number of races as a two year old?
SR: No not at all, they can race as much as they like, 2yr olds don’t start racing until about November down here and the bigger races are late in the season.
VFTRG: In North America, we have big races for two and three year olds where the older horses for the most part are excluded from racing for big money. Is this the same in Australia or is there more emphasis on stakes races for older horses?
SR: Yes mate we have big races for the 2 & 3 yr olds as well, sire stakes racing, sales races and of course the Breeders Crown. There are also a lot of stake races for the older horses as well, like the Grand Circuit races and a lot of cup races, so you could say it is very evenly balanced.
|The Gedlee Team, Father/Trainer Phil, Driver Sam, and Caretaker|
Geoff Holmes. Photo Copyright by Milton Pettit used by permission.
SR: Sales race are races for horse that go through the sale ring as yearlings at certain sales. Say you purchase a yearling at the Australian Pacing Gold sale that yearling is then eligible for the APG sales races and these races hold big purses, this helps the breeder get good money for his yearling and also the purchaser to
get a nice return on his purchase.
VFTRG: Do standardbreds race only on dirt in Australia? If not, what percentage of races are on the turf?
SR: We race mainly on ‘dirt’, but I would not call it dirt, as our surfaces range from a lot of different surfaces from crushed granite, to crushed blue stone to shell grit. Turf racing is a thing of the past, but you will find the odd track that still has turf but they would not race very often and would mainly be picnic meetings.
VFTRG: In Australia, races are started by mobile barrier and standing starts. Is it common for horses to race both in mobile starts and standing starts or do horses tend to specialize? For those who are not familiar with standing starts, would you explain how they work?
SR: Most horse can do both, some are better at one then the other. You will get the horse that has no idea how to step away from the stand so the trainer will just race him from the mobile, but most trainers will try to get there horses to step from the stand.
The standing start is pretty simple really, an elastic strand is pull across the track, then the horse are called up to take their post position and once the starter is happy that all is ok he will say go. Races like the Hunter Cup and New Zealand Cup are ran from the standing start and these are two of the greatest races down here.
VFTRG: Do punters have a preference between trotters and pacers as well as mobile starts versus standing starts?
SR: Most punters will stay away from betting on a certain horse if he or she is not to sure about how the horse will step from a stand, but these days there is plenty of form around for the punter. Mobile would be the preference and pacers over trotters only due to the fact that a pacer has more chance of staying flat then the trotter.
VFTRG: What is the difference between a country meet and a metropolitan meet?
SR: The difference is stake money, any race over $15,000 will hold a metropolitan mark and races below that ($14,999 to $3000) holds a country mark; races below $3000 hold a graduation mark. Most city tracks race metropolitan where each race is over $15000 and most country tracks race for between $8000 and $5000 a race so you can see why ones called metropolitan and ones called country.
VFTRG: What is a graduation race?
SR: Races below a $3000 purse, you can win a graduation race as a maiden and not do a country mark. So an example would be, if a trainer has a maiden and races in a graduation race and wins, he can then race his horse in a country mark maiden race even though he won his first race at his last start.
VFTRG: In the North America there are claiming races and there are conditioned races, typically based on money earned over a period of time. Are there more claiming races than conditioned races? How are conditions written in Australia?
SR: There is both down here with about one claiming race per meet (day), the claimers down here are not as big as you guys are in the States but we do have them and they do create a lot of interest. There are also races that have conditions on them (based on number of metropolitan and/or country wins). Horses that have not won a metropolitan race for the last six starts can drop down a grade, and we now are having races where mares can come into a race under certain condition.
VFTRG: Australia has two tiers of horses in races, even at the mile distance. In North America, horsemen strongly resist horses racing in a second tier. Do horsemen complain about the second tier or is it just accepted as part of the game.
A replay of the 2007 Australian Pacing Championship. A perfect example of multiple
tears of horses in each race. Note how different from a North American race.
SR: Not really mate, getting a second tier post is not the best at times but it can be better then posting out side the front line, if you are driving a horse that is not that quick off the arm. If you draw the second row you can push through at the start if you are following a good beginner and can get nice and handy opposed to draw outside the front line and having to drop back to last to get in, it all depends on how the race unfolds early. Some times if you are driving a well fancy runner from the second tier it can help you stay out of the speed battle early and you can settle your horse and wait to make a forward move when the race tempo drops off. But the worst post any driver can get is inside the second tier behind a slow beginner, you will have your work cut out from there.
|Maybe Rama, driven by Sam Rawnsley. Career cut short due |
to injury. Lifteime mark of $16,607(AUS) and a mile rate of 1:59.6
on a mobile start
VFTRG: In North America, racing has become mostly single file with an occasional brush to the lead, yet in Australia races tend to have horses race on the outside a good part of the way. Why is that?
SR: Second tier or as we call it the “one out line“ is just accepted over here. It would have l started back many years ago when we use to race on track smaller than a half mile and it has been accepted as part of the game. I do believe though that as our tracks get bigger like Menangle which is 7/8th of a mile that we will not see the second tier appear until the half over the mile trip, but that will take time as driver start to get the hang of driving on bigger track.
VFTRG: Do you find punters prefer to see horses racing in tiers instead of single file?
SR: For sure, punters hate seeing single file racing over here, the main reason would be that the tempo of the races drops off and the horse on the front end will start to get easy 1/4s and this makes it hard for the horses back in the field to make ground. Our drivers don’t drive for speed as much as drivers in the states, and a driver on the front end will try do give his horse an easy trip in front. Punter lover seeing their horses “one out one back” or (second over) this is the spot to be, just camped off the speed with cover, also now the 3 wide with cover is a good spot to be at the ½, this is because you have cover, with only 3 horses in front of you and you have control of the rest of the field, but you do need to be following the right horse, he has to take you to the top of the lane.
VFTRG: You have the Inter-Dominion where the best Australian and New Zealand horses compete against each other in addition to other races where horses will ship between the countries. Is harness racing in your two countries as closely knit as it is in Canada and the United States or for the most part are your two countries racing independent of each other?
SR: We do race independently from each other, but there is a great rivalry between each country, races like the Inter-Dominion is open to anyone from anywhere but over the years the Australian and New Zealand rivalry has grown for this race, In Australia we import a lot of horse from NZ as well, due to the fact that there is more opportunity in Australia for certain horses from NZ, I would not say that we are as closely knit as Canada and the US due to the fact there is a lot of water between us.
VFTRG: There is a concept in your country which is totally foreign to us. If a trainer intends to change tactics in a race, they must tell the stewards ahead of time and it is publicized to the wagering public. What is the rationale behind this? Do you think it makes races more competitive or less competitive? Does this rule protect the wagering public?
SR: Yes, an interesting question. Some stewards will enforce this in some states and some will not, the whole idea is to protect the punter. Let say I’m driving a certain horse and in his last 4 starts I have taken him off the gate, but tonight I have a really good post and I know this horse can leave the gate when asked and I decide to let him rip early and look for the lead, some stewards would ask the question on the change of tactics at the start and would want to know why. So this is why this rule has been put into place; if a driver decided to drive his horse different then what his form is showing he must inform the steward beforehand. As any good punter would know that this horse has had poor posts and when he gets a good post this horse is more than likely to push forward early. I don’t like this rule one bit as it also give the other drivers knowledge of what you intend on doing at the start of the race. Most good stewards will not enforce this rule, as I have learnt over the years that one of the best handicapper on the race track is the chief steward.
VFTRG: But is the intent of this rule more about integrity than it is about divulging a trainer/driver’s plans; making sure each horse is given a chance to win that start versus being saved for another week?
SR: Integrity is a big part of our sport over here, that is for certain, and I can honestly see why this rule has been put into place, as over the years we have seen some things happen on the track that has damage the integrity of the industry. As for divulging information to other drivers it does do this as well under this rule, let me give you another example as to why I’m not over keen on this rule. I’ll use a horse that we all know, Lonestar Legend (USA), he has been racing some great races of late and leading but is getting ran over in the shadows of the line, so let say that the connection decide to hand up the lead next time he races and they tell the steward of their plans, all the other drivers will beware of this. So does the driver of Lonestar Legend hand up to an outsider that has a shot at him early, under the rule he has to, so if that’s the case the driver of the outsider that has took the lead from Lonestar legend, what will he do if some else has a shot at him, more then likely he will hand up for an easy trip home. Game over for Lonestar Legend now he would be 3 back the inside. I think we will see connection tell steward “if circumstance permit “ they will change tactics, common sense will play a very important role in this new rule. I do believe that this rule should be strongly enforce when an owner or trainer has more then one runner in a race, and the steward ask the connection of the driving instructions they have placed with the drivers and this information passed on to the general public.
VFTRG: The racing style appears to be much different when compared to North American racing. Where in North America, our races tend to go single file with occasional brushes; your races tend to race with a constant outside tier. How else are your races different?
SR: Yes, the racing styles are very different, as we have discussed earlier about the second tier, we have also what is called “the three wide train” this is where drivers will go 3 wide about at the 1000m mark and will be looking for a ride home on the back of another runner. We also look to give our horses a cheap ¼ somewhere in the race so that we have a bit of fuel in the tank for the run home. The different distances we race mainly because this as it would be very hard to go flat out over a trip of say 2400m.
VFTRG: In North America races for the most part are miles (1609 meters) where in your country races tend to race anywhere up to approximately 3 miles (4999 meters). How does your punter base like the multi-distance races? Do you think North American racing would benefit with different distance races occurring with regularity?
SR: I honestly don’t think the punter is too worried about the distance of a race, the information which is kept these days keeps then well informed of which distance suits a certain horse. Sure there are horse that love the longer trips and one which like the mile trip and the punter gets to know this, as do the drivers. If a certain horse is suspected at a longer trip his driver will keep him covered up for the trip. These day 2 miles is about as far as we go, and we do have a lot of middle distance races, where you will see drivers trying to sneak that cheap ¼ or ½.
VFTRG: Do the multi-distance races make things more exciting for the fans? Do the longer races give horses starting from the second row a better chance to win?
SR: It does give horse a better chance from the second row over the longer distances, I think the multi-distance races make for more interesting racing with moves mid race and horse getting on to the 3 wide train for a ride home, but a well contested mile race is full of excitement.
VFTRG: Your race bikes are very different from North American bikes. How did it get to be that you use something which looks more like our jog carts to race with? Any talk of the bikes possibly changing to the North American sulkies?
AS: Great question, yes they do look a bit like your jog carts and I have no idea how they got like that, but I will say something on race bikes in Australia, things are changing. The Evolution Bike has hit our shores and I for one believe that this is one of the best things that have happened to harness racing in a long time. Tom Harmer’s race bike was first used on Monkey King and since then we are seeing more and more of them on our race tracks. They are still not as wide as the bikes in the US but the principle is the same. Australia is in the midst of a bike revolution and in 10 years time we will see nearly every one with these types of race bike. It will take a lot longer before our bikes get as wide as the one in the US as for we race a lot tighter and the culture of race driving will have to change as well. Since the Harmer Bike was introduced a lot of other sulky companies are trying to develop better bikes along the same lines as Toms bike, at the present time the Walsh Sulky company is trying to get a wider bike approved to use in Qs , it is 4 inches wider then what we are using at the moment so only time will tell, but one thing is for sure thing are changing.
VFTRG: You see relatively few Australian horses being exported to the United States when compared to the number of New Zealand imports. What do you attribute this to?
SR: I don’t really know why this is the case, maybe the NZ horses are a bit cheaper, don’t really know why this is the case.
VFTRG: On the whole are New Zealand horses better than Australian or vice-versa?
SR: Australia legendary thoroughbred trainer Bart Cummings thinks so, he believes the rich fertile lands of NZ are horse heaven for building young racing stock. I have seen many great horse from both countries over the years, and I believe great horse are just born, it’s up to you how you look after then, train then, and drive then, which will all help in then producing there best. So to answer your question not really much difference.
VFTRG: This past year, a new whipping rule was implemented in Australia. Will you tell us the basics about the rule change? Have the drivers for the most part accepted it? Do you see a lot of horses quitting more in a race as a result of the rule change? How is it being received by the wagering public?
SR: Another positive for harness racing, when the new whip rule came into place, drivers were not permitted to take their hand out of the lines when whipping their horse, it has changed a bit since then and now you can whip your horse with a free hand only over the last 200m of a race. I found that when the new rule was put into place a lot of drivers forgot about the rule in the drive to the line, which costs their hip pocket in fines, but once the drivers got use to it, I could see no problem. I found that horses where finishing off better under this new rule and the wagering public was happy with the outcome.
VFTRG: If you could recommend one change which North American harness racing interests should implement to improve the racing product, what would it be?
SR: Another good question, it would be unfair of me to make too much of a comment about this question but I do believe that we can learn from each other and share ideas about how to improve our game in both countries.
VFTRG: What are the responsibilities of Harness Racing Australia? Are the rules the same in all the states?
SR: Harness racing Australia is responsible for most of the running of harness racing in Australia. The rules are very much the same in all states with only a few differences.
VFTRG: Each state has an organization such as Harness Racing Tasmania. What does each of these state bodies do?
SR: They are responsible for the running of harness racing in each state, which is over seen by Harness racing Australia.
VFTRG: In the United States, racetracks race their dates in a group. Yet in Australia, meets are individual days of racing. Who decides which tracks race what days in the state? Is there any coordination between the different states?
SR: Each state will set out a program for races 12 months in advance and this will be over seen by HRA; this is to make sure that big races don’t clash with each state. There is a lot of communication between states beforehand as well.
VFTRG: Is there coordination between running dates and standardbred dates or is it everyone fending for themselves? Do you get much regular television coverage for certain race meets?
SR: Yes a lot of coordination between each state, they meet on a regular basis to discuss a range of topics and hopefully come to a consensus decision. Our product is beamed into pubs, club and homes thanks to Sky channel; you will find our product on Sky every day of the week covering nearly ever meeting possible. As for free to air TV you might see a story about a certain horse or trainer or a preview of a big race but that is about it. I believe the Internet could be used more as to keep the general pubic up to date about the industry here in Australia.
VFTRG: Let’s talk about the business side of racing. How does standardbred racing stand up in Australia when compared to the other forms of pari-mutuel racing (thoroughbreds and greyhounds)?
SR: Thoroughbred are the big daddy of racing in Australia; the stake money is massive and the wagering is big also, harness racing is just above the dogs but they are not to far behind us. Thoroughbreds have a big following Australia-wide where we would only have a small percentage as well as the greyhounds. On a Saturday afternoon at the gallops you would get between 15,000 to 20,000 people at the track for you stand meeting in Victoria, where at the harness racing you would be very lucky to see 2,000 people there. The days of the big crowds re gone down here and this is a concern, we have harness racing on cable, pay television every day and the wagering from this keeps the industry a float.
VFTRG: If wagering has fallen significantly, how is the industry responding to keep wagering levels up? Does Australia have a jackpot type wager such as the V75 in Sweden?
SR: I wouldn’t say wagering has fall significantly, but in saying this I don’t know the figures. We do have jackpot type wagering but not in the same class as V75, jackpots on the pick 6 are more our go. To try and keep wagering up, harness racing is trying all the time with the likes of twilight meetings and racing on different days and the like, it is very cut throat business and the punter has only so much money to wager.
VFTRG: How is on track attendance doing lately? How many people will you see at a major race meeting versus a non-stakes meeting? Is anything being done to increase on track attendance?
SR: Poorly! Track attendance has been slowly going downhill since I can remember. Gone are the days of then being packed deep around the course, at a major meeting. If you got all of 6000 people would be a good result at non stake meetings; mid week you will only see the trainers, drivers, stable hand, the odd owner and the die-hard fan. I remember a few years back I went to a mid week meeting at Geelong, Victoria second biggest city and there was only 4 people in the stand and 2 in the bar, the bartender was reading a comic book to keep himself a wake, a very sad sight.
VFTRG: What do you attribute the fall off in business to? What do you think can be done to make racing more popular again? What is HRA and the various stage organizations doing to make harness racing more popular?
|Profile of Gedlee ($66.739AUS), 3, MR 1:582.MS)|
But one of the biggest attributes to the fall off of attendance was the Milkshake! In the late 80’s and early 90’s you might of well not of studied your form, as milk shaking of horses made it nearly impossible to follow form, this led to the general punter losing confidence in the industry and they just walked away. We also lost a lot of the smaller trainers as well, as they were finding it difficult to stay competitive.
Thankfully these days are now behind us and we can move forward. I think the industry is picking up again and there is a lot to like about what is happening , I went to Victoria’s new track last year and they have got the right mix, it is outside Melbourne at a place called Melton, which is one of the quickest growing areas in Victoria, it is a 5/8 track, you are right on the action, there is heaps of entertainment and great food! People love great food and if you can find a place where you can get a great feed be entertained and have a punt you will keep going back. One think that will all ways get fans back to the track is great horses and I believe that we need the media to catch on to some of our super stars of the game and let everyone know about the great horses we have racing.
VFTRG: Does your industry get any subsidies from the state or national governments?
SR: Yes, this is where our stake money comes from. Each state government will fund their own state from taxes made on wagering.
VFTRG: Is the treatment of ex-racehorses a big issue in Australia? Are there any industry-wide programs to find new homes for retired horses? If so, what are they?
SR: No not really, but this is area where we can improve, each state has industry program for finding homes for retired horse and a lot of good work has gone into this over the past few years but I would say that the treatment of ex-racehorses is not a big issue.
VTRG: It seems nationwide you have off track betting (TAB). Yet it seems there are multiple TABs handling the same race meets offering different prices. Do people shop for odds between TABs or are they restricted to one operating where live or work?
SR: Yes they do shop for odds. You can open an account in any state’s TAB and you can wager on the one you like, if you have an account of course. If you are at the track or the local TAB your money goes into that state’s TAB. We have Super TAB, NSW TAB and Uni TAB
VFTRG: Who runs the wagering at the tracks?
SR: The Local TAB in Tasmania is called Tote Tasmania which is linked to Super TAB.
VFTRG: Do you have fixed odds wagering being offered? Are they offered regularly or for special events?
SR: Yes we do, mainly on special events, but it is getting more common and you can get fixed odds on track with the bookmakers plus on line betting as well.
VFTRG: With the exception of special events, do Australians bet on harness races from other countries?
SR: Yes mainly NZ, but we can also bet on French harness racing and sometimes Sweden as well thanks to the coverage on Sky 2.
VFTRG: The North American Breeders Crown was offered this year in Australia and New Zealand. How was it received in Australia? Besides the fact the Crown races were held early Sunday morning, do you think there was anything which could have been done by the Hambletonian Society (sponsors of the Breeders Crown) or Pocono Downs which hosted it to make the day more popular in your country?
SR: It was great to receive the coverage of the Breeders Crown live from Pocono Downs. Being on early Sunday morning did make it hard for it to be well received, due to the time, but all and all I found the coverage excellent and enjoyed every minute of it.
VFTRG: With the exception of the Breeders Crown, do any American races get coverage in Australia with wagering? If not, what do you think hampers it?
SR: The Breeders Crown was covered for the first time in Australia this year, the waging pools where not big but the coverage was excellent, apart from that we do not have American races getting coverage to wager on. The time factor plays a big role, your night meetings would start as us Aussies are tucking into our weet-bixs and vegemite on toast for breakfast, Aussie like to sit down and have a punt on races in the afternoon and night not early hours of the morning, so it is always going to be hard to market American harness racing down under due to this fact. Prime time harness racing is Friday and Saturday night down here so you guys could trail a meeting or to that slot into this prime time.
VFTRG: The programs (form guides) in Australia are totally different from North American programs. Do you think either program is superior to the other?
SR: I would say North American program has a lot more information and I could see that this would be confusing to the first time race goers. Maybe there should be two types of form guides, an expert one and a fan one, but once you get the hang of reading then they have a lot more information, I do like the drivers UDR and money earnings.
VFTRG: While you will see Australian thoroughbred races being offered in the United States, you never see a harness race from Australia being simulcast to the United States. Is this more a refusal of American tracks and ADWs not wanting to show Australian harness racing, the racing styles being too different, or is it a lack of effort from HRA to get their product offered globally? Do you see North American races being simulcast to Australia on a regular basis?
SR: I don’t really know why this is the case, it would be great if we could simulcast between countries and hopefully in the not to distance future we will be able to watch the big races from both side of the world.
VFTRG: Is there anything you want to add?
SR: I believe the world of harness racing is getting smaller day by day and that we will all be able to learn from each other. We now have the tools we need to keep the owners, trainers, drivers, stable hands, punters and the fans of this great industry we have up to date. I hope that I will be still around when the big crowds return to the track to witness the great equine athletes of the world. We all at times under estimate the ability of this wonderful animal and give our self’s a pat on the back for the job we have done, but when you really think about the great names of the game, where would they have been without this super athletic animal, the standardbred race horse !
VFTRG: Thank you for your time. I am sure standardbred fans in North America will find your comments interesting.