THE ratings at TVN are set to sky-rocket this week – not so much because of the blockbuster new season launch of night racing at Moonee Valley – but more so the return of punters’ pin-up boy, Dr Turf.

You need a big heart and long pockets to survive a season of Valley Nights on the couch betting on an unpredictable track that throws up more surprises than most but Dr Turf has the uncanny ability of making punters laugh when they lose.

The one-time author, bookie, radio and television comedian, John Rothfield – better known to the racing fraternity as Dr Turf – has turned disastrous nights on the punt into a light-hearted trip down memory lane for a lot of leisure punters.

Dr Turf can be outspoken when it comes to issues in racing that he feels passionate about. Some years ago he was unceremoniously dumped from his breakfast gig with Sport 927 in Melbourne apparently because he ruffled the feathers of a couple of racing’s ‘high-flyers.’

It prompted his breakfast show co-host, former champion footballer and coach, Kevin Bartlett, to tell the Melbourne Age: “John is self-deprecating and witty, with a mind like a steel trap. It’s just that he’s got a face like a twisted prune.”

Dr Turf is a breath of fresh air in a racing media where these days too many ‘so-called expert commentators and columnists’  turn their backs on the punting public preferring to walk away from constructive criticism and build Brownie points by protecting incompetent officialdom.

To the major industry bodies that finance the running of the prime racing channel, TVN, full marks for allowing Dr Turf to have his say and to the Moonee Valley Race Club directors for coping his criticism on the chin.

Dr Turf is only saying what most punters think and want to hear when he criticizes ‘track bias’ which leads to an inability to read and predict how races will be run and results in some massive form reversals. There aren’t too many out there having a bet – big or small – who don’t think he’s a legend.

Not that it would probably matter financially if Dr Turf, family man and father of three daughters, was shown the door. To the initiated this big, likeable guy, who epitomizes the battling punter, is anything but.

In an interview with Chris Beck in The Age a few years back, Rothfield said one of his earliest memories of racing was Gwen the SP bookie arriving at his home to collect small debts from his mother in the 1960’s.

On Saturdays he would accompany his father to the racetrack. “I was betting bigger than him by the time I was 16,” Dr Turf recalled. And he used his mother’s telephone account to place bets before he learnt to shave.

He told The Age: “I don't bet thousands on a horse but I can make enough to make a difference. When I was not married and didn't have a media career ... I have for years at a time supported myself through gambling.”

Dr Turf has been a great supporter of jumps racing. He says he loves animals and, despite the fact that hurdle racing is dangerous, believes it is better for old horses to jump than catch a float to the knackery.

“I can drive through the country and I can see emaciated horses in poor paddocks with sores on them. I don’t see the RSPCA kicking up a fuss about these horses – and there is probably thousands of them.”

Many of us that used to attend the races religiously have much in common with Dr Turf who says the track can be a lonely place at times nowadays. He once used to meet up with his mates there but they have scattered as the nature of horse racing changed.

His book, ‘Dr Turf’s Guide to Better Punting,’ is a must read. It details how to do the form, bet properly and how to win – and there is not a single mathematical formula involved. He regards poker machines as ‘f….g mindless’ and doesn’t like casinos either.

Horses are his heaven and backing a winner his glory. “If you've done something really clever like found a horse that everyone else pooh-poohed. If you are proven right in something you have pride. I think your telephone betting account balance is your own reward,” he told The Age.


We have a question for those who watch and enjoy listening to Dr Turf in his Friday night timeslot on TVN, especially when he gets his teeth into a contentious issue. You can almost see his co-host Terry Bailey (the caller, not the chief steward) cringe.

Have you ever wondered why some high profile members of the print and broadcast media in this country now double as PR men for major race clubs and have been accused of turning their back on the punting public?

The answer is quite simple – it’s called acceptance, ‘supposed respect’ and most of all SURVIVAL.

Having witnessed what happens to those who dare to criticize, let us recall a few tales about some who have set out to protect the interests of punters but been ostracized for simply trying to do their jobs.

Many years ago in Queensland there was a battling columnist called ‘Hard Luck Harry,’ who saw his career sabotaged, all because he wrote the truth.

‘Hard Luck’ raced a couple of horses and got to witness first-hand some of the shenanigans that were happening on the track. He made the mistake of going public and was thrown to the wolves. His newspaper bosses bowed to the racing hierarchy and their political mates.

Harry never wrote his beloved column again and was demoted to a meaningless job. But his mates got the last laugh. The high profile politician, who did him over, was drunk as a skunk at the races one day when someone released a greasy pig in the enclosure.

Rather than make the presentation, the ‘pollie’ high-tailed it after the pig and ended up in a rose garden. As one of ‘Hard Luck’s’ mates wrote: ‘There was only one pig running around the parade ring at Eagle Farm on Saturday and it wasn’t of the four-legged variety.’

‘Hard Luck Harry’ was the first of many whose careers reached the crossroads for trying to offer ‘both sides of the story’ in the Sunshine State where eventually they bred a race of racing scribes in the main too terrified to criticize or write anything that might upset some race club official or political mate who were far more important to their media bosses.

Those wonderful, fearless, no-nonsense turf writers and broadcasters of the past would be turning in their graves even reading some of the crap that is churned out today, or listening to some of the drivel that we are subjected to on racing radio and television – with all due respects to the many fine writers and broadcasters that continue to work in the racing media.

My decision to devote a column to the racing media was prompted by several incidents in recent times where a couple of commentators from the city to the outback have been prepared to stand up and be counted and better still, entertain their readers and listeners.

Let’s start by looking at the work of Garry Legg, a former top jockey who has made a successful transition to turf journalism with The Sunday Mail in Brisbane. He went out on a limb and declared Eagle Farm a ‘goat track,’ supporting his story with quotes from several key industry players. The article went over like a led balloon with the old-guard. But officials of the newly merged club have committed to a track upgrade – if they ever get some financial support from Queensland Racing.

Mark 'The Ear' Oberhardt, who writes a popular weekly column for The Courier-Mail, has not been backward in coming forward with his criticism of 'Bob the Builder' Bentley and his Queensland Racing regime. There is no bigger supporter of racing in the Sunshine State than 'Obe' but unfortunately when he goes into bat on a contentious issue he doesn't get the support he deserves from either those who are complaining to him or in some cases from his fellow racing journalists.

Alan Aitken, a former Sydney racing media personality now writing for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, first went on the attack and then took a humorous aside to the recent whip controversy Down Under.

“Egged on by do-gooders who have in mind nothing but the eventual destruction of horse racing, and the jobs and Government taxes it generates, racing officials have attempted to ingratiate themselves with animal rights groups by imposing restrictions on the frequency of whip use at stages in the home straight,” Aitken wrote.

“The jockeys now have five months to see how they go with a less complicated set of obligations, but the emotions surrounding the matter brought a couple of tasty quotes from prominent  citizens.

“Shane Dye, now king of Mauritius, had some relevant home truths for Australian authorities when he spoke against the rules in an interview on radio, though he also managed to produce this little gem: ‘I wish I was there riding in Australia to support the jockeys by not riding.’

“However, he is not the award winner. That went to the head of the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the State of Victoria, Hugh Wirth, in response to claims that the padded whip doesn’t hurt horses.

“I’ve had a padded whip applied to my backside and, while I wouldn't say it was excruciatingly painful, I knew I’d been belted,” one Australian newspaper quoted Wirth, who did not reveal whether this was dealt by friend or foe and has either gone well beyond the call of duty in this matter or revealed rather too much of his private life.

Then there’s Terry Butts, a no-nonsense veteran journalist, who now writes a column for the North Queensland Register in country Queensland. Over the years he has trained and raced horses and even worked as a bookmaker.

Butts recently launched a scathing attack on the Cairns Amateurs – constructive criticism that was sadly absent from more high profile sections of the media. “Really, to my mind it is not a race meeting. In the public areas it’s a noisy, dusty drunk-fest, littered with louts, sprinkled with live bands, port-a-loos and smoking cages, relics from the Third World,” he wrote.

Butts didn’t spare officials from his criticism either: “Someone suggested they should lock all the party-goers and their live bands and ticket tents in the middle of the track and let the race-goers go racing.

“Maybe it’s a good idea. But next year let’s have a couple more vets, and a little more consideration for the working people and their horses, without which there would be no Amateurs. Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, the committee and their blue-bloods can play quoits or croquet, or shoot clay pigeons, while they wash their tiger prawns down with their imported ice-cold champers – ticket free, of course.”

Now let’s look at two completely different characters from the racing media in Sydney and Melbourne. Ken Callander, from the Sydney Telegraph and formerly TVN, is a highly respected racing columnist and commentator, who most stakeholders would regard as ‘a voice of reason’ when it comes to objective criticism.

The much younger Matt Stewart from the Melbourne Herald-Sun and Sport 927 prefers to shoot from the hip when it comes to controversial topics in the racing industry and would probably be more regarded as a ‘loose cannon’ and a ‘rarity’ in the racing media of the modern era.

Callander has a bee in his bonnet over the new whip rules and posed the question in his column: “Have any of these blokes on the Australian Racing Board, who set the rule, ever had a bet? Let's get fair dinkum! Why don't Sydney and Melbourne tell that toothless tiger, the Australian Racing Board, to stick the Rule up its jumper? Racing NSW set a precedent when the ARB tried to support the Hong Kong ban on Chris Munce. We told the ARB where to go then and we should do it again.”

Melbourne-based Stewart speaks his mind and doesn’t seem to care who he offends. His hatred of Sydney racing is well documented. He has consistently criticized the quality of the Sydney spring carnival, went on the attack over the photo-finish debacle at Rosehill and hasn’t missed officialdom when it comes to the new whip rules or their stance which threatens the future of jumps racing in this country.

Stewart virtually asked Terry Bailey, the Racing Victoria Chief Steward, whether Vigor had won the Makybe Diva Stakes in a close photo because Damien Oliver had breached the whip rules. After continual probing of Bailey over his attitude to the new whip rules, fellow 927 broadcaster Adam Hamilton stepped in: “Don’t worry Terry, we’ll get Matt to put his cattle prod away.”

Hamilton didn’t miss Rosehill officialdom over the photo finish debacle either, suggesting it was ‘total amateurism – something you might expect from racing in Kazakhstan, not in Australia.’

It was a far cry from the Sydney racing media who regularly go into bat for chief steward Ray Murrihy whenever controversy arises. As one who has worked at race meetings where Murrihy officiated, it is understandable. It was a case of walk into an inquiry, open the notebook and the Murrihy quotes would flow. Grand-standing or not, there was always a headline.

In all states – bar one – the racing media is a pretty close-knit band. The exception has seen a racing editor labeled ‘the maggot’ by a high profile radio broadcaster. It goes back to claims of favoritism from stewards and an argument over how much access he should be permitted to the jockeys’ room on race days.

There was a time when ethics ruled that if a journalist was critical of something in racing his colleagues would never disagree in writing with the stance he had taken. Nowadays some of them earn their Brownie points by running ‘retractions.’

It is finger down the throat stuff but what would you expect when there are racing journalists and broadcasters holding positions on club committees then writing supposedly ‘balanced’ columns or making ‘on-air’ commentary?

They’re hardly going to criticize the clubs ‘they work for’ regardless of the major conflict of interest that arises. But as we said at the start – sick as it sounds – it’s all about sucking up and survival!