Drivers parade in their coloured silks, as the races are called in a steady monotone. But as dusk falls on northern Tasmania, unrest begins to fill the air.
Tonight’s harness racing meet is dominated by one stable in particular — it has 65 out of a possible 94 runners.
A handful of other trainers, shrinking in size, have also come along to try their luck, but the odds will be stacked against them.
“If I was in the school ground I’d be calling it cheating, not playing within the rules.”
That’s the view of industry veteran Kent Rattray, one of the few other harness racing trainers here tonight. He has one horse on the card.
“More often than not we’d rather stay down with our horses and not even watch it.”
The trainer at the centre of Tasmania’s harness racing world, whose stable dominates tonight’s meet, is Ben Yole.
Tonight, the ABC has brought its cameras to the races, and Mr Yole is rankled by the long lens.
He threatens to withdraw his runners from the meet altogether — a move which would spike the entire night of racing.
His drivers march upon the office of the chief steward in protest.
The delay is costing time and money. The pressure is on.
“More drama than an episode of MAFS [Married at First Sight],” one participant observes.
One steward attempts to usher the ABC crew to another area, reasoning that they aren’t licensed to be on course.
“Half of Ben’s stable isn’t licensed, so what’s the difference?” challenges an industry participant, in defence of the news crew.
In the end, a deal is struck that allows Mr Yole to enter his runners onto the track through a car park behind the stables, rather than via the parade ring, in a bid to avoid the cameras.
Punters hoping to see the condition of horses and place their bets accordingly will be disappointed.
“One man got his knickers in a knot and decided that he didn’t want to have his picture taken,” says Mr Rattray.
“And the stewards have folded to his whim.”
Ben Yole’s operation has morphed from a hobby farm into a racing juggernaut of industrial proportions, in a little over a decade.
By last year, it had swelled to an almost unfathomable size, with 3,886 Yole entries making up more than half of all harness race fields in Tasmania, as well as some fields across the strait in Victoria.
At most meets, runners from Mr Yole’s stable will dominate the card through sheer weight of numbers.
In some cases, the stable has every runner in the race.
Mr Rattray says the industry is not what it was.
“He [Yole] fills every field,” he says.
“And that’s not a crime.
“But … it’s very depressing when you line up and there’s nine against one.”
In October last year, Mr Rattray approached stewards at a meet at Burnie, in the state’s north-west, to call for a race inquiry.
His filly had come second, and did better than expected, but the veteran trainer wanted to know why the win appeared to be gifted to one stable mate from another.
“Burnie is a small track. It’s only 600 metres round. Normally the leader will win the race.”
“The fella who led spent the entire back straight looking over his shoulder, looking for something, and it wasn’t long before his [stable mate] rounded up and went outside his wheel,” he says.
“He pulled back and allowed him to go to the front.
“I thought, ‘That’s strange’. You don’t give up the front at Burnie.
“All I asked for the stewards on that night was to question and to find out why you would hand the front up.
“It never happened.”
As the sun set on the Burnie Cup in January, it appeared to happen again.
It’s the last race on the card, and nine runners are ready to go.
The red-hot favourite, Be Good Benny, appears to be a shoe-in. It draws the best barrier and looks well placed to lead on the inside.
“Normally the leader will win the race,” Mr Rattray said.
“If you lead at Burnie, you don’t hand up.”
But almost immediately, the favourite appears to give that position away to his stable mate — a long-odds roughie that has not placed for months.
The roughie, Written In Silk, settles into the lead and wins the race.
“It appeared there was very little want from the inside horses to hold the front, it was sort of handed to Written In Silk,” Mr Rattray said.
In this race, all nine horses are from Ben Yole’s stable
In the 10 minutes before the race started, there was an influx of bets placed on Written In Silk to win.
The ABC understands a series of cash bets made on the winner raised flags with at least one prominent on-course bookmaker.
Those bets included a $500 wager at odds of $23, and another wager of $200 at odds of $19.
While the bets appear small, in the scheme of harness racing, they equate to large gambles on a roughie with little chance of the win, and almost $15,000 in prize money for the lucky punters.
Both bets were laid at the Burnie Harness Racing Club.
The betting agency source said this suggested the punter had prior knowledge of the outcome of this race.
No investigation has been launched into the integrity of the win.
“It’s not cut and dry that it’s a sting,” Mr Rattray said.
“But why aren’t stewards asking the question?”
The ABC is not suggesting that Ben Yole or any of his drivers made bets on this or any other races.
The race prompted the chairman of the Launceston Pacing Club, Chester Bullock, and another trainer to meet with Tasmania’s Office of Racing Integrity.
“That horse led easily, maybe not through its own ability,” Mr Bullock said.
“We’re talking about a horse with a possibility of winning the race, handing-up to a horse that was well backed.”
Mr Bullock told the integrity office he believed the race involved team driving.
“I haven’t had a correspondence or a communication to say that that has been investigated,” he said.
Three weeks later, another race prompted more questions.
Reds Good to Go, a nag that hadn’t won a race in almost a year, finished at least 50 metres in front, blitzing the Burnie field at a race mile rate less than a second shy of the Burnie track record.
“Once she got out, she [the driver] couldn’t stop the horse even if she tried,” Mr Rattray said.
“This is a horse that doesn’t do that.”
The horse was backed into $7.50 from $21 in the 25 minutes before the race
“Remarkably, someone backed it. Quite heavily,” Mr Rattray said.
“Somebody should have questioned the improved performance.”
The driver was cautioned for losing control of the horse, and the horse, as with all winners, was drug tested post-race.
But the stewards’ report did not query the horse’s improved performance.
“Whether the stewards just give up trying, I don’t know,” Mr Rattray said.
Post-race drug swabs take months to return a result.
The Office of Racing Integrity would not comment on specific races, but said it was not uncommon for participants to voice a divergent view to stewards, particularly in harness racing.
It said it did not accept there is a serious risk of team driving if fields are dominated by one trainer, and that its rules that prohibit driver collusion are actively regulated.
When Riley — not his real name — began driving for Ben Yole, he thought his dreams had come true.
A young driver with a chance to mix it in the exciting world of harness — working for the biggest name in Tasmania.
But Riley claims he was directly instructed to drive races to benefit the stable.
“We knew our individual jobs,” he said.
“[They] would let us know what [they] wanted [us] to do during the race individually.
“That meant whether we would run the gate and attack the leaders, or whether we would just go to the fence and stay out of it, and be ‘road blocks’.”
What Riley is describing is what’s known as “team driving”, and it’s prohibited in the racing code.
The driver said he was concerned races may have been “fixed” for betting purposes.
“I’d say I was being asked to team drive. So the people that they wanted to win would win the race,” Riley says.
The concerns were raised with stewards, but the driver says they fell on deaf ears.
“I approached a steward and told them about my concerns but nothing was ever done,” he said.
Winners and ‘field fillers’
In January, a horror overnight smash involving a Yole float that killed four horses and partially blinded a young stablehand was referred to WorkSafe, and brought the operation into the spotlight.
“Horses are just numbers at that stable,” said Jayden, not his real name, who worked as a stablehand at Ben Yole’s property in 2020.
“There are horses everywhere. Horses coming in off the track, and then horses go back out.”
Where the pastures end, and the dirt begins, is the Yole Racing stable.
It sits at Sidmouth, north-west of Launceston and a short drive from Beaconsfield.
“You got the good horses who earn the money, those horses have an individual paddock, or maybe with one other paddock mate,” Jayden said.
“Then all the horses that are field fillers, they’re placed into paddocks with anywhere from five to 20 other horses.”
“They’re not winning. They’re not getting any money back. They’re just kind of there to allow for those other horses to win.”
A recent ABC drive-by of the Yole property revealed large numbers of horses kept in a dry paddock, with a small number of shade cloths only erected within the past month.
Janet Ainscow literally has had a front-row view of the Yole operation for more than a decade.
She was removed from the harness stewards’ roster last year after a conflict of interest dispute involving the trainer, who lives next door.
Ms Ainscow had posted on social media about garbage blowing from the Yole stables into her paddock.
From the fence line, dozens of horses can be seen covered in canvas rugs, grazing in dusty paddocks.
“What I’m seeing next door is probably the worst conditions I’ve ever seen horses kept in of any racing establishment I’ve visited.”
Ms Ainscow now works as a thoroughbred steward and risks losing her job for speaking publicly.
“The paddocks in summer … there’s just dirt. It’s just absolutely nothing but dirt,” she said.
“There’s times where, those horses, they’re just wandering around sifting through the dust.
“And they’re just eating faeces, and I’ve watched it one time — 20 to 30 horses going from one manure pile to another eating faeces.”
“Now, in my opinion, no animal should be subjected to conditions where they’ve got nothing to eat but their own excrement,” Ms Ainscow said.
“It should not be allowed to happen.”
In a statement, the Office of Racing Integrity said animal welfare was “a high priority” and that “stewards routinely conduct inspections on properties used by industry participants across all three codes”.
“The Yole Racing stable is the subject of regular inspections by the Office of Racing Integrity with the property attended approximately every fortnight. No breaches of the Rules of Racing have been identified.”
RSPCA Tasmania inspected Yole stables 13 times in 2022 and found no breaches of the Animal Welfare Act 1993.
Its CEO, Jan Davis, said while she was not happy with the condition more than 150 horses were kept in at the Yole Racing stable — she was limited by the state’s animal welfare legislation.
“The paddocks haven’t got a lot of grass in them, haven’t got a lot of shade in them, and it looks pretty awful,” Ms Davis said.
“Having said that, there is feed provided for the horses, and they do have spaces to go where they’re safe in the worst of the weather, but it really is about the mismatch between our expectations and what the minimum under the regulations allows.”
But it’s not only the welfare of the horses that Ms Ainscow has raised concerns about.
In 2022, the steward said she was in the swab box collecting a drug sample from a horse that was being strapped by a driver from the Yole stable.
“During conversation with that person, they told me that they were given instructions on how to drive the horse and what horse they had to let through, which determined the outcome of a race,” she said.
Ms Ainscow took the report to the Office of Racing Integrity and told them the driver was prepared to make a statement.
“As far as I know, they have never been contacted to give a statement.”
The Office of Racing Integrity claims it did approach the driver about the incident, but they declined to provide a formal statement.
The driver refutes this.
Assigning race tactics for drivers is within the rules of harness racing and if a trainer has more than one runner, the tactics must be divulged to stewards prior to a race.
All drivers are required under the code to drive to win.
Former stablehand Jayden said he believed he had also seen instructions go beyond normal race tactics.
He said he had witnessed two occasions at Launceston where drivers were instructed to interfere with the horses of other trainers in order to advantage a stable mate.
“Telling the driver to pretty much stay back in the field and hold other horses in, or not let other horses out.
“To make sure that [the] horse with the most ability would be able to win,” said Jayden.
“So it’s all about game plan — team driving.”
Ben Yole declined an interview and did not provide answers to specific written questions from the ABC.
However, a response from the trainer’s lawyer emphasised the rigorous scrutiny and regulation the stable is subjected to, and described the allegations as “patently false”.
Focus on integrity
Sal Perna is one of Australia’s leading authorities on sports integrity.
His career includes stints on the AFL tribunal, The World Anti-Doping Agency’s independent ethics board and an 11-year tenure as Racing Victoria’s integrity commissioner.
He believes a sharper focus should be placed on any horse race with multiple runners from the same stable.
“When you talk about integrity, there [are] so many vulnerabilities and so many aspects of it that can cause an issue — and having too many horses in one race could lead to that,” he says.
“It will raise suspicions, and in the minds of the stewards, it will put them on alert and they’ll examine those races and [put] far more scrutiny on it than they would where there’s a number of trainers.”
Mr Perna is no stranger to cases of race domination by one stable.
“We had a case where a father and son won all the races in a particular meeting, and it just raises the observations, the attention and the focus the stewards have to have.”
“It’s not necessarily a breach of the rules — but you do have to look at it and be more mindful about it.”
In a statement, Tasracing said it did not accept that races where the majority of runners were from the same stable demanded more scrutiny.
Despite this, the racing body says it was proposing an “equity in participation rule”, which would cap the number of horses entered in a race from any one stable.
Tasmania’s racing minister, Madeleine Ogilvie, has admitted the state government is aware of claims against Yole Racing in relation to team driving and race fixing.
Ms Ogilvie also said she had confidence in ORI (Office of Racing Integrity) to pursue allegations of race fixing.
In February, stewards in Victoria laid charges against Mr Yole relating to allegations that two of his horses were found with high concentrations of arsenic, a prohibited substance, at race meets in 2022.
Back home in Tasmania, the trainer brought the wrong horse to a meeting twice in the space of four months between late 2022 and early 2023, and was fined a total of $1,500.
If intentional, the act is known as a ring-in, where a known slow horse is entered into a race, making sure the odds are high so there’s plenty of money to be won, then at the last minute, is swapped for a faster horse.
Mr Yole told stewards both incidents involving the incorrect horse were accidental.
A handful of Mr Yole’s drivers have been fined for minor offences on track, including a driver in February who was reprimanded for “calling out” to another stablemate during a race.
Stewards are investigating another driver’s actions from the same month, after he was accused of interfering with the non-Yole favourite during a race at Launceston, which participants say advantaged the stablemate who went on to win.
Participants alleged team-driving tactics were used to game another race at Hobart in January, in which the second non-Yole favourite appeared to be “boxed in” by a horse who ultimately placed last, in order to advantage a stablemate.
After public pressure, stewards agreed to investigate the driver’s tactics but ultimately “declined to pursue the matter further”.
But industry participants want a more substantive investigation, that encompasses the operations of the Office of Racing Integrity itself.
“I would like to see federal police come and look at everything, every aspect of what’s been going on in harness racing,” Mr Rattray said.
“And that’s not to say that everybody and everyone is guilty of an offence, but I just think there is such low morale, low confidence in what’s been happening, that I don’t believe anyone in the system at the moment can get a grip [on it].”
As Mr Yole’s operation has grown, so has the amount of money wagered on Tasmanian harness racing.
The code is now big business, with punters betting more than $130 million on Tasmanian trots last year — an explosion of 92 per cent over the past decade.
A 15 per cent slice of that money, almost $20 million, goes to the Tasmanian government, which it says is used to fund animal welfare initiatives, increases in stake money and infrastructure.
In 2022, harness racing received $9 million of government funding.
The Tasmanian government claims the racing industry generates almost $200 million a year for the local economy, and supports nearly 6,000 participants.
But off the track, there’s been a churn of chief executives, allegations of bullying and harassment and of mass dysfunction within the Office of Racing Integrity.
Last year, the government announced a raft of changes off the back of a wide-ranging review by Victorian harness chief Dale Monteith, including the introduction of a newly created role of integrity commissioner, with increased powers.
Legislation that would enforce the changes is yet to be presented in parliament.
Kent Rattray said he thought long and hard about giving an interview with the ABC.
“I spoke with my brother the other day and his granddaughter came and helped him,” he said.
“And she’s keen as mustard, she does the pony trots.
“She loves the horses and wants to be a driver like her dad.
“But he said to me, he said, ‘I don’t know that we’ll have an industry for her to drive in if something doesn’t happen.’
“It’s not a happy place to go to anymore.”
by Chris Rowbottom, Jessica Moran, Charlotte King and Andy Burns,
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