Conference (WTC) held this year in Berlin, Germany.  The conference, which is normally held every two years had not been held since 2019 due to the outbreak of Covid.

In association with the UET, the German Trotting Association (HVT) hosted this year’s WTC  and organised the Conference to coincide with their premier race the Deutshes Traber-Derby 2023 (or the German Trotting Derby) on Sunday 20 August at the Berlin Mareindorf Racetrack.  The Germany Derby has been held since 1895 and held at the Mareindorf Racetrack since 1915.

The conference is an opportunity for representatives from International Trotting Associations to gather to discuss issues facing the sport globally and to share experiences and good practice to further the sport nationally and internationally.  This year there were delegates in attendance from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, GB, Ireland, Malta, New Zealand, Norway, Serbia, Sweden, USA and the UET

Great Britain is represented by two delegates, this year the responsibility fell to Gwenan Thomas (STAGBI) and Julie Park (BHRC) and were accompanied by Ryan O Neil (STAGBI),  Sue Young (STAGBI) and Hayley Cassels (BHRC), whom (fear not!), all attended at their own expense.

The WTC is a combination of plenary sessions where world class speakers and experts of their field are invited to speak.  The presentations are inevitably interesting, thought provoking and linked to issues that will be discussed by the various committees.  Delegates were introduced or reminded of the term ‘Social License or Social License to Operate/SLO’ from the opening session of the conference and it became a very familiar and common thread referred to in many of the presentations and committees during the week

Social License (or Social License to operate/SLO) refers to the level of ongoing approval or tolerance of the general public to an industry or project and you would be naïve to think it has little to do with Harness Racing in UK.  Harness racing’s ‘Social License’ was certainly brought to the fore and this ongoing approval is significantly associated with the welfare of our racehorses.

Jessica Stark (World Horse Welfare) described Social License as the unwritten social contract between an industry/organization and the public/society. She went on to say that any equestrian sport is more vulnerable to negative public opinion because it involves the use of an animal, the inclusion of gambling into the equation further exacerbates that  vulnerability.  Stark highlighted that establishing trust between the industry and the public was a key element for social licensing to be granted.  In an international study the two main concerns of the public regarding the use of horses in sport were the welfare and safety of the horse.  The message was clear to maintain our Social License we need to ensure the welfare and safety of our racehorses at all times.

Prof Elke Hertmann, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences gave a presentation on “Harness Racing through the lens of science” and referred to recent research that highlighted the high incidence of mouth lesions in Standardbred racehorses was frequently associated with rein tension, bit thickness and poor dental care.   Some countries already check horses for mouth lesions on raceday and given the high incidence of horses with lesions referred to in the study, inspecting the mouth by officials may become a regular event.  She further described the association between rein tension and thus the inadvertent training of undesired behaviour such as pulling or head shaking.

Further welfare studies were presented by Jean-Marie Denoix, who shared the findings of his research (commissioned by Le Trot) on barefoot racing.  Barefoot racing appears to be a particular issue in France, and the authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about the possible detrimental long and short term of barefoot racing.  His findings are likely to be lead to some countries limiting or prohibiting the practice of barefoot racing in the near future.

Once again, the use (or mis-use of the whip) became a matter for discussion.  It was very interesting to hear from retired leading US driver John Campbell.  Campbell admitted that his attendance at the WTC in Canada in 2017 has been a turning point for him regarding the use of the whip.  He described hearing the International delegates response to the 2017 Hambletonian a catalyst for change in the use of the whip in USA.  In the context of Social License we should all be concerned about the use of the whip.  .  It appears, throughout the world that the whip is one key area where harness racing’s  social license is at its most fragile.  It is therefore not surprising that in the not too distant futuremore countries and associations will introduce a total ban on the use of the whip.

The future, was also the theme of  Ilkka Halava presentatioin.  Halava, a Futurist & Foresight Coach gave a very challenging presentation which left many bewildered (and confused when his AI was Artificial Intelligence as opposed to Artificial Insemination!).  However, in simpler terms he encouraged us to think about what our sport would look like in the future, anticipating what the future holds for the sport,  how we should prepare for that future and how AI (intelligence not Insemination) will impact out industry.

Further on in the week we heard from  Dr Alexandra Gorgen, a vet in a prominent equine reproduction clinic in Muhlen, Germany.  Dr Gorgen explained the process of Ovum pick Up (OPU), Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI) and transfer of frozen embryos.  All of which are prohibited practices in the breeding of Standardbreds world wide but nevertheless the process and ethical considerations involved need to be acknowledged and understood.

This talk was appropriately followed on by a presentation regarding Gene Therapy and Doping by Dr Natashca Hamilton.  Once again both Gene Therapy or Gene Doping are prohibited in horse racing and/or breeding.  The topic continues to be a challenge for the integrity of  horse racing and it is very apparent that the industry must be aware and learn quickly how to deal with the impact of any such possible activity.

From the plenary sessions the conference moved on to the committee meetings.  One delegate from each country sits on Constitution & Regulation Committee, thereafter each delegate (and observers) will sit on two of the four other standing committees, namely Equine Health & Integrity; Racing & Wagering Committee; Breeding Committee and Marketing & Business, throughout the week.

Key discussion points and recommendations from each committee included:

CONSTITUTION & REGULATION COMMITTEE: 

  1. In support of Ukraine, Russia has for now  been excluded from all work in the UET and all Championships in Europe.  It was agreed that ITA would adopt the same position regarding Russia.
  2. It was agreed that the WTC would now be held every third year (as opposed to every two years), maintaining the rotation basis.  Therefore the next conference would be held in New Zealand in 2026.  An Interconference (via video conference) to be held annually.
  3. The World Driving Championship will remain a bi-annual event, with the next championship to be held in New Zealand/Australia in 2025.

BREEDING COMMITTEE:   

  1. Technological advances will mean a change in which DNA is analysed for the purpose of verify parental verification.  In the future the analysis will be done via SNP-chip as opposed to the current Micro-satellite (MS) technique.  Transition from one method to the other will be challenging and costly for all organisations. However, this is a world wide change that is technology driven and will have to be adopted.
  2. The use of OPU, ICSI, Frozen embryos, gene therapy or gene doping is prohibited and any foals born as the result of any of the above shall not be entered into the stud book. 
  3. Each country attending is required to provide conference with their breeding and racing statistics.  From a breeding perspective most countries (with the exception of France) have experienced a fall in the number of foals born annually, that trend appears to have plateaued but the fall in numbers remains a matter of concern.  It is apparent that whilst each country’s size and scale of operation can be very different, many of the challenges faced are very similar.
  4. Further discussion is required in future International meetings regarding the issue of permitting a horse who has received a lifetime ban from racing to be used for breeding.

EQUINE HEALTH & INTEGRITY COMMITEE:

  1. For the overall health and welfare of our horses, the ITA members agree to take a long-term view of the use of the whip in harness racing and will continue to limit and moderate its use in our sport.
  2. Research and actions to find better protocols to detect and restrict the use of prohibited substances and gene doping. Systemic anti-doping work is central part of animal welfare.
  3. The life cycle of the horse is important and the aftercare for racehorse is essential in ensuring they have a good quality of life post-retirement.  ITA support all actions and programmes in the member countries to retrain racehorses and a dignified end of life for each individual hors is paramount.
  4. The impact of barefoort racing on horses are noted and, in some circumstances acknowledged as a welfare concern as it may have both long and short term impact on the horse.  Monitoring of shoeing status of racehorse should be encouraged.

RACING & WAGERING COMMITTEE:

  1. Each national racing authority should secure their rights to racing data and video images that covers the races.
  2. Each national racing authority should secure that betting operators who provide bets on races, make contribution to the harness racing industry at an acceptable level.
  3. It is important to have annual meetings with each national racing authority to share
    experiences, like for instance technical working tools and development in betting on races.
  4. Encourage betting operators to take bets to the most valued harness racing worldwide and broadcast those races in their region.
  5. National harness racing authorities should include the use of communication-based technologies (such as audio, video, websites, social media etc.) in their training and education programs for trainers. The goal of this is to ensure that current and prospective owners are regularly informed on the progress of horses.
  6. To share information in regard to economic, environmental and other important impact studies that have been conducted in respective countries, for collection and collation, to determine the changing global economics of the industry.
  7. National harness racing authorities should use their best endeavours to educate participants (owners, trainers, drivers and breeders) and the wagering public focusing on the benefits associated with the involvement in the harness racing industry

MARKETING & BUSINESS COMMITTEE:

  1. The challenges of marketing harness racing are familiar throughout the world and the committee discussed the need to find a more dynamic way to share good ideas and experiences.  The advancement of Gamification was discussed and the need for a joint approach to explore how this could benefit the sport.  There is the need to learn from others on how Aritificial Intelligence (AI) can be used as a tool for marketing target audience and increase the number of horse owners.

WORLD DRIVING CHAMPIONSHIP

The conference itself closed on Friday afternoon after which we are invited to enjoy the  racing at the Berlin’s Mareindorf Racetrack. 

The World Trotting Conference also runs alongside World Driving Championship (WDC). The ten invited drivers from USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Serbia & Malta  took part in 22 races in Belgium, Holland and Germany. The final races was held at the right handed, Berlin Mariendorf  Racetrack, Berlin on the Friday night where all those attending the WTC were invited to attend.   There was a wonderful atmosphere at the track and the final leg of the WDC were exciting with several drivers giving the current leader a run for his money but Rick Ebbinge of The Netherlands held onto his lead and emerged victorious.  Ebbinge is just the second driver in the history of the competition to retain his title.  Ebbinge came into the fourth and final leg of the championship with a 33 point lead over his closest rivals and added another 24 points in a day where his best finish was fourth. 

Canadas McNair was within striking distance of Ebbinge coming into the final leg, and with 2 wins on the final, he came close but not close enough.  Both Doug McNair and Hanna Huygens of Belgium had a final total of 150 points, but with more wins in the series, the Canadian took second place and the Hanna Hugyens taking third.  Hanna was the first time  lady driver to compete at the WDC, and although small in stature she made a very big impression.  Final standings of the WDC were as follows:

  1. Rick Ebbinge – The Netherlands 163
  2. Dough McNair – Canada 150
  3. Hanna Hugens – Belgium 150
  4. Santtu Raitala – Finland 145
  5. Michael Nimczyk – Germany 130
  6. Peter McMullen – Australia 132
  7. Jordan Ross – USA 118
  8. Blair Orange – New Zealand 107
  9. Miodrag Pantic – Serbia 103
  10. Rodney Gatt – Malta 78

Congratulations to all the participants and especially to Rick Ebbinge on his win. .  The last driver to represent GB at the WDC was Stuart Sowerby in 2005, lets hope its not too long until we see another GB driver at the WDC. 

Delegates were further invited to enjoy the racing on Saturday and on Sunday for the Germany Derby.  Due to other commitments, and to much disappointment we were unable to attend on Sunday to watch the Derby which had a massive purse of €265,639.  The winner of the German Derby was Schampus, a 4 year old German Bred trotter by controversial 2020 Elitloppet winner Propulsion (US).  Schampus had 6 previous wins but set a new personal best by winning the Derby and now has a record of 1:11,4 and the first prize of €124,820 took his lifetime earnings to €188,514.

That is a whistle stop tour of the week long conference and the World Driving Championship.  Once again there was much discussion and information shared both formally and informally at this year’s conference. It is an opportunity to learn from the experiences of other larger associations and to ensure that the policies and procedures for breeding and racing that exist in GB allow for the international acknowledgement of our horses, our breeding and our racing.  The participation, the sharing of information, networking with and seeking advice from other international representatives has a huge benefit for all of us trying to ensure the future of the breeding and racing of standardbreds racehorse here in GB.   

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