Stratford racing club members in hot water

Five members of the Stratford Racing Club 2002 committee have been found guilty by a judicial tribunal of acting detrimentally to the interests of racing by the mass blackballing of prospective club members.

The members include former New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing board member Dr Murray Blue and 2002 club president Len Caskey. Also guilty are James Gilbert, Wayne Hart and Brian Needham.

Penalties have yet to be handed down, but the decision is another step towards finality over a messy situation at the Stratford club going back to 2002.

The decision by a Judicial Control Authority tribunal follows a High Court ruling, backed up the Court of Appeal last year, that the club had acted unlawfully in blackballing prospective members and blocking former Stratford District Council chief executive Kemp Broughton's nomination for president.

The tribunal was told the committee had blackballed 59 candidates for club membership at two meetings in August and September 2002.

The prospective members were mostly members of a group that had become concerned with the management of the club, initially over fees for trainers using its racecourse, but which expanded to training facilities and club administration.

They wanted to become members so they could influence the club's administration.

A member of the group, Broughton, was nominated for club president and he in turn nominated and seconded other people for membership.

But the committee ruled Broughton was not a financial member because of previous arrears, a decision the tribunal found erroneous because he had paid his arrears and was a paid up member at the time of the committee elections.

Blue, who was the other contender for president, voted in favour of Broughton being declared ineligible for president.

The blackballing process, which was allowed for in the club's constitution, involved the nine committee members being given a supply of white and black balls and voting on a prospective candidate. White signalled acceptance and black rejection. If there were more than two black balls placed in the ballot box, the candidate was deemed to have failed.

The accused members denied block voting and said they had voted in favour of some candidates.

But the tribunal accepted the word of fellow committee members Joe Lawson and Sonja Lawson over the voting procedures. They had said it wasn't a secret ballot because other members could see what coloured balls voters were taking out of boxes before voting.

The tribunal said there was insufficient evidence to establish that there was collusion before the committee meetings, but it was satisfied there was a common intention to ensure that all the candidates failed in their membership bids.

The tribunal noted the Court of Appeal had refuted the suggestion the club had a complete discretion as to who to accept as members.

The court said the committee was obliged to treat membership applicants fairly and that to reject membership applications because the committee feared it might lose control of the club would be acting improperly.

"We find as a fact that the defendants were caught up in a web of their own self-confidence that what they were doing was right," said the tribunal.

"We accept they thought that what they were doing (ie blackballing applicants in the manner they did) was proper and in the interests of the Stratford Racing Club. It is clear, however, that what they were doing was wrong, was for an improper purpose and not in the bone fide interests of racing.

The tribunal found Blue, Caskey and Hart guilty of three charges of acting detrimentally to the interests of racing and Gilbert and Needham guilty on two charges.

Submissions have been called over penalties, but the tribunal said that the period of time since the breaches would be taken into account, as would the "educative" nature of its judgment.

New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing said today it was continuing to "to focus on trying to ensure that the Stratford Racing Club is democratic club contributing to the racing industry."

The club is continuing to have problems. Ann Gordon resigned as president last month, just three months after replacing Blue, who served a five-year term.

Gilbert is acting as president.

The High Court previously found the club's transfer of its $3.4 million racecourse into a trust was invalid.