MTC Saga: Another BAI type blunder must be avoided

This is not a matter that concerns one individual or a
specific group of individuals. What is at stake is the future
of a whole industry

There are a number of similarities between what happened when Dawood Rawat’s conglomerate was dismantled and the situation which is fast developing between the government and the Mauritius Turf Club.

For starters, there is a general consensus among racing aficionados if not in the general public that “something in rotten” at the Club as was the case with the BAI group for a long time before it was run down by government fiat. Most observers have been flabbergasted by what has emerged as being a close knit network which has been allowed to grow principally between some horse owners and the local “drug mafia.” The attraction of these transactions lies in the huge flow of cash which moves hands every weekend at the race meetings among punters, bookmakers and other betting agents presumably offering the ideal conduit for the laundering of dirty drug money.

The actual functioning of the MTC remains a fairly opaque operation. The annual elections of the Board of Administrators have become hugely contested affairs among fiercely competitive groups – a relatively recent development which has contributed to throw a veil of suspicion on the real motivation of some of those who contest for these positions.

It must be said that initially the MTC was organized as a small private club to which had been devolved the responsibility of sole organizer of horse racing in Mauritius by the colonial authorities. In those days, this referred to the provision of a form of “leisure” for the more wealthy sections of society. As for the attending “populace”, they were for a long time used as a source of further entertainment for the greater amusement of the former.

With the evolution of the socio-political environment in the country, the more offensive and unacceptable practices were disbanded albeit sometimes under pressure from organized progressive groups. Such excesses are definitely a thing of the past and considerable advances have been registered in the efforts to make the Club more representative of the rainbow nation although, as is the case for so many other institutions, this remains a work in progress.

In this connection, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that there has been considerable improvement over the recent decade or so although there is still room for improvement.

In parallel, there has also been a marked progress in the professionalization of the processes and integration of technology, leading to increased capabilities of the Club in the organization of racing per se. This is indeed a matter of considerable praise for the country which can boast of hosting one of the oldest race courses in the Southern Hemisphere.

What is less positive though has been the continually growing gap between the organizational structure of the Club, which has barely changed over the years, and the scope and volume of “businesses” with which it has to deal in the evolving context.

One wonders, for example, about the adequacy of financial control and internal regulations for an organization which handles millions and generates billions of rupees of transactions every year. From the “leisurely affair” of its beginnings, it has mutated into an institution sitting right at the centre of what constitutes a dynamic and growing gaming industry opened to competition from other forms of national and international betting.

While there has been a thorough transformation of the “Gaming Industry” in the country, the central question is whether the internal organizational structures and capabilities of the Club have gone through similarly transformational changes in order to match the present and evolving state of the industry.

Unfortunately the first impression is that, like in the fable of the frog being slowly boiled alive, the on-going adaptation which has accompanied such transformations is finally proving to be totally inadequate in the prevailing circumstances.

Two recent events will support the latter view. For the first time in its long history the MTC has recently advertised for the recruitment of a Chief Executive Officer. One can only presume that this reflects a “prise de conscience” that a Leader is needed who not only demonstrates thorough understanding of the wider gaming industry and the racing industry in particular but one who also has a proven track record in high level management of a mature organization.

The second example which supports the above view is the close nexus between a few horse owners and the local “drug mafia” which has been brought to light recently. Dismissing these as “incidents which have been blown out of proportion” – as some prominent members have suggested publicly – would be a serious mistake. For all those who seriously have at heart the future of the industry, even a single event of such nature is disturbing and appalling.

Indeed, these events must be viewed as the consequence of systemic weaknesses which could in fact reflect deep misgivings and flawed strategy about the fundamentals of horse-racing finances and organization. Pressed by the need to beef up the stock of horses following the increase in number of races, especially in recent years, the Club has manifestly been guilty of lax processes regarding the screening of those who could invest in the purchase and upkeep of horses in various stables.

Finally the Club has been accused of inconsistency in its treatment of various stakeholders, from Jockeys to Stable managers. These highly publicized incidents have also contributed to seriously dent the reputation of the organization.

The point we make in this paper is that in spite of the general improvements which have been noted in the organization of horse racing in Mauritius, the MTC suffers from serious deficits as regards its image and the level of trust in its processes and capabilities. Without necessarily subscribing to all that is being said, especially by people who seem to have their own agenda, it is obvious to the impartial observer that there are serious issues which need to be urgently attended to.

So much about the present confrontation between Government and the MTC is dangerously reminiscent of what prevailed with the BAI before the government decided to “intervene.” It is only to be hoped that lessons would have been drawn from that experience – principally that this is not a matter that concerns one individual or a specific group of individuals. What is at stake is the future of a whole industry which, according to generally accepted norms, could provide a livelihood to more than ten thousand people, let alone the fact that horse-racing is arguably the most popular form of distraction for large numbers of Mauritians.

Surely there are a number of serious issues which need to be resolved and the most intelligent way to achieve this is through a dialogue based on open and frank conversations among all parties involved.

Rajiv Servansingh

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