Hong Kong, Australia at Odds Over Jockey

Hong Kong and Australia are at odds over the suspension of jockey Chris Munce.

Relations between international racing organizations are in a rare state of strain after Racing NSW in Australia chose to set aside the decision of Hong Kong Jockey Club stewards to disqualify jockey Chris Munce until September 2009. Munce, who was recently released after serving 20 months in jail, is now expected to return to race riding in Sydney the week of Dec. 7.

On Dec. 1, Munce pleaded guilty to 36 charges in relation to betting on races—the so-called “tips-for-bets inquiry”—and was disqualified from racing worldwide for 633 months. However, the penalties were ruled as able to be served concurrently, meaning a 30-month penalty—the same penalty levied against the Australian jockey by District Court Judge Kevin Browne in February 2007.

Australia is a signatory to an international agreement (Article 10 of the International Agreement on Breeding, Racing, and Wagering) that commits it to respect to reciprocate the penalties imposed by racing stewards in other signatory jurisdictions. However, the Jockey Club claims it has correspondence from Racing NSW chief executive Peter V’landys that denies his organization is bound by the international agreement, even though Racing NSW is subject to the authority of the national body, the Australian Racing Board.

Normally, if a jockey is aggrieved by a decision of a foreign authority to suspend or disqualify him, he can apply to have the ruling set aside in his home land. But first, he must have exhausted all avenues of appeal open to him, and Munce did not; he declined his opportunity to appeal the HKJC stewards’ decision.

He must also have some grounds that the laws of natural justice were not properly observed, and neither Munce nor Racing NSW makes any such allegation.

When questioned Dec. 2 as to why he did not appeal, Munce said: “I didn't have faith in the system over there to go through with an appeal. I believe I was going to get a lot fairer hearing here in Australia than I would over there.

“I always had confidence Australian racing authorities would recognize the Hong Kong penalty was manifestly excessive, and I had more than paid the price for breaches of Hong Kong rules of racing.”

HKJC chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges called the Racing NSW decision “unprecedented,” and claimed it has the potential “to undermine the integrity of horse racing internationally.” He also said the decision “is disrespectful of the core values of due process” and “threatens the relationship between Australia and Hong Kong.”

Engelbrecht-Bresges also foresees consequences that go beyond a dispute between the two countries. “The Club firmly believes the decision will negatively impact on the current level of cooperation between major racing jurisdictions to uphold the integrity of and public confidence in horse racing,” he said.

In a release, Racing NSW said it had acted on legal advice that it should uphold the penalty of 18 months disqualification that applied to a collective 35 of the charges under which Munce was found guilty by the Jockey Club, but not the last one, which led to the 30-month penalty.

“Racing NSW, acting on legal advice, has determined not to reciprocate the penalty of 30 months disqualification because this penalty is tied to a breach of a criminal offence under the criminal code of the Hong Kong SAR that does not exist under Australian law,” the statement said.

It was a viewpoint not shared by Engelbrecht-Bresges, who has also called in a Senior Counsel to advise the Jockey Club.

“The Club’s belief is that similar legislation is in existence in New South Wales,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said.

Apart from his senior role at the HKJC, Engelbrecht-Bresges is chairman of the Asian Racing Federation and joint deputy chairman of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. He said he would be writing to all member jurisdictions to advise them of Australia’s breach of Article 10 of the international agreement, but stopped short of speculating on what action, if any, the international bodies might take.

“But in the light of this unprecedented decision, all I can say is that it’s very sad day for racing,” he said.