The future leadership direction of Racing NSW will become clearer in the next six weeks with the finalisation of the search for a new chairman and director.

The deadline for applications for the board position is Friday, with the state government also seeking expressions of interest for the position as chair. This role could be filled by an existing director or the new member of the board.

A selection panel reporting to Racing Minister David Harris has been established to assess applicants, conduct interviews and make recommendations to the minister. The makeup of that panel is not expected to be announced until after the expressions of interest close.

Any selection will be subject to cabinet approval. The board position was created when former chair Russell Balding reached the end of his 12-year term.

The state Labor government had publicly committed to changing the act of parliament establishing Racing NSW to allow him to serve another two years, however, the Opposition, as a condition for their support, insisted on reforms that would have placed greater scrutiny on Racing NSW’s operations.

These changes included making the racing authority’s accounts subject to review by the state’s Auditor General and also forcing its executives to provide evidence before parliamentary committees.

When these reforms were supported by a majority, Minister Harris took the unusual step of withdrawing the legislation to extend Balding in a dramatic 1am sitting of parliament.

Racing NSW board member Saranne Cooke. (Photo: LinkedIn)

While the decision on who to appoint to the board belongs to Minister Harris according to the Act, a source told The Straight that it would be done in collaboration with Premier Chris Minns, and other senior members of the Cabinet.

“Given the move to extend Balding turned into a public circus that played out on the front pages of the Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald you can guarantee there will be plenty of interest in this position from other members of the leadership team,” said the source.

“It’s always embarrassing when a government has to withdraw its own legislation and there were many in caucus who thought the government shouldn’t have been trying to extend a state board appointment to 14 years.”

Joel Fitzgibbon, James Warburton, Tim Worner and Mick Fuller
Joel Fitzgibbon, James Warburton, Tim Worner and Mick Fuller (Photos: Getty Images)

In the lead-up to the vote in parliament, many prominent names in the thoroughbred industry had called for Balding to be replaced. These included Gai Waterhouse, former Racing NSW chair and Arrowfield Stud boss John Messara, Magic Millions owner Katie Page and leading bloodstock figure Vin Cox.

Asked by The Straight about the qualities he wanted to see in any new candidate for the board, Messara said ‘independence of mind” and “good knowledge of the racing industry” were important.  

Cooke’s term extended as NSW racing moves on from Balding
Deputy Chair Dr Saranne Cooke’s time on the Racing NSW board has been extended as Racing Minister David Harris confirmed that a search has begun for a permanent replacement for departing chairman Russell Balding.

Among those on the current board who may seek the position of chair are Saranne Cooke, Tony Shepherd and Garry Charny.

Cooke was appointed deputy chair in 2021 and had her term extended two years in December. As the current leader of the board, she is believed to be the favoured candidate of Racing NSW boss Peter V’landys, although she does not have as much racing experience as other directors.

She currently holds several other board positions, including with the Catholic Diocese of Bathurst and the Royal Flying Doctors.

Shepherd, who is 79, ran infrastructure giant Transfield and has also served on the board of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, Venues NSW and AFL team Greater Western Sydney Giants, while Charny is the chair of major investment fund Centuria, which manages more than $20 billion. Appointed to the board in late 2022, he has extensive racing and breeding interests.

Among those touted publicly as potential directors are former federal Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, outgoing Seven Network boss James Warburton and his predecessor Tim Worner.

Former NSW Racing Minister Kevin Greene is also believed to be keen on joining the board, but the Labor source suggested Premier Minns may be reluctant to offer him the role for fear of accusations of ‘jobs for the boys’.

In February 2022, former NSW Police chief Mick Fuller was reportedly the frontrunner to be appointed to the Racing NSW board, but had to withdraw his application when it emerged he had not declared his racehorse ownership interests as part of the probity process.

Balding to exit Racing NSW after dramatic u-turn by NSW government
The search is on for a new chairman of Racing New South Wales after the Chris Minns’-led state government made the extraordinary move of pulling support of its own bill which would have extended the board term of current chairman Russell Balding.

Previously, while serving as the state’s top cop, Fuller was also approached to go on the board of the Australian Rugby League Commission, headed by V’landys, a move that was blocked by the government. It is not known whether Fuller will apply again.

Given the lack of gender diversity on the current board, it is believed the Minns government will look favourably on a female candidate.

As for the skills most needed for the board, few independent directors on the current board - whose average age is in the late 60s - have significant experience with digital media. The potential sale of Rosehill may also favour candidates with significant property and development experience.