Ever wondered how many people the average racehorse employed?

As well as being a great time waster the internet also occasionally throws up the odd gem.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had one graphic reappear in my various newsfeeds which demonstrated the number of people involved in getting just one horse to the racetrack.

It’s a telling image with two key figures illustrated in deep blue – the owner and the trainer.  Being American in origin the owner is backed up by both an accountant and an attorney (the latter possibly not a regular on an NZ chart, unless your ownership gig is something akin to a full-scale business).

Others featured include the bloodstock agent and Auction house – assuming one has purchased a horse at the sales – otherwise you could possibly transpose these with a syndicator.

Of course, a breeder is also key to the operation – assuming the owner isn’t in the job of breeding his own stock –  and that also means a stud farm, the stallion manager, various stud staff involved in the actual breeding and eventual foaling down of the mare.

Those staff also come into play when it comes time to wean the foal and agist it prior to its yearling prep.  Following on from that stage we get to the fun time of the year which we are all enjoying at the moment – the annual round of yearling sales.

A major shout-out to all those incredibly talented, dedicated, sleep-deprived, sore-footed yearling handlers who have a) got that horse to this stage and b) contribute greatly to the end-price come the time the hammer drops.

Of course, there are other peripheral but equally important people who help during the preparation stage.  No owner can possibly forget the vets – their invoices generally make them impossible to ignore.  They are another bunch who are constantly on the move at this time of year.

Farriers; feed merchants; those who provide the necessary gear in the way of bits and halters; and various forms of manipulators and/or physios also have their roles to play.  The float companies, who work through the logistics which get all the yearlings to the saleyards, and their ever patient drivers are yet another component.

There’s also the office staff at various studs and/or yearling prep outfits who organise the marketing – involving talented photographers, videographers and writers – who contribute to the end result.

The auction company has also had staff out pre-sales checking out the potential sale candidates and come sale time there are the tireless bid-spotters; auctioneers; marshalls who keep the numbers flowing; runners who get the paperwork signed and the all-important buyer’s chits delivered; the people removing manure from the ring and so it goes on!

Of course, the cast of hundreds does not diminish once the hammer falls either.  The float companies are called back into play to transport the new purchase to its next abode.  That can either be the breakers or possibly the airport, which involves a whole other raft of personnel to transport said yearling elsewhere.  And, of course, before this can happen the insurance has to be sorted – yet another body involved.

Finally, the “finished product” enters the trainer’s stable and gets a whole new suite of staff and handlers to panders to its every whim as it begins its journey to become a fully-fledged racehorse.

By the time raceday rolls around there is a jockey involved, possibly one with an agent, so that’s a couple more  involved in the mission to get this horse to the track.  Racecourse staff, from those in the office involved in the putting on of the actual meeting; through to the bloke playing the bugle (if you’re lucky enough to be debuting at Ellerslie!); the people on the gates; the ones selling the racebooks; the talented horsemen on the starting gates, and so the list goes on – they all play a part in the big picture.

And speaking of the big picture then there is the televising of the actual race – the commentators, the cameramen, the Trackside front-people and hard-working behind the scenes team who make sure everything flows.

Of course, it is all about the betting, so the tote staff on and off-course are also an integral part of the whole machine – otherwise, why would we do what we do?

Once the race is run there are also people like the ones in charge of swabbing and the lab testing, along with the stipes and raceday control.

It’s quite a list of people, and to be honest, many of the ones I’ve listed weren’t on the graphic I saw on line.  I’ve probably left out some very obvious ones but hopefully you get the idea.

The title of the original graphic was “Who does one racehorse employ?” Puts us all in our place really doesn’t it?

We might think we are the ones in charge, but in reality we are their employees.  In a couple of weeks there will be a whole new range at Karaka looking for new staff.  Don’t be shy, get amongst it!

Silly season provides mixed (and slightly mad) mainstream media messages

We are about to exit that twilight zone around Christmas and New Year, where the only way one knows what the date is depends upon which race day it is.  As for knowing what day it is, that is a whole other drama.

During the festive madness we have witnessed the usual throngs heading along to enjoy their once-a-year outing at a variety of country racetracks, interspersed with big days at some of the major players.

Racing takes centre stage at a time when most news organisations are enduring the annual news slump – witness mind-numbing listicles and best-of pieces.  It is a window ripe for dressing with racing’s human interest stories and hat’s off to the Manawatu Standard recognising that and running this piece.

It provided a nice insight into a family which has been a huge part of racing’s fabric in the Central Districts.

Unfortunately, it was one step forward, one step back into the 1950s with Stuff also running this peculiar piece the same day.

North vs South – really? That is the best defence this chap can come up with?  It’s part of a northern conspiracy?

Where do I begin?  

My first thought was to once again question whether anyone who has bleated to media about the fate of their local track has bothered to read the Messara report.

The hysteria they are whipping up would have the casual reader thinking Timaru was staring right down the barrel with the December 28 meeting its last ever.  It also glosses over the fact that nothing is yet to be set in stone and numerous submissions are yet to be taken into account,

One would hope that if Timaru has provided a submission pushing for the track’s survival, it has provided something more weighty than pinning their hopes on the over-turning of a mythical North Island conspiracy.  If not then, as per the recommendations of the Messara report, come 2022-2023 they may find themselves looking for a new venue.

It is interesting to note that the life member making the claims has apparently spent some time as the club president and chairman.  Presumably, he left the club in fine fettle, or was any downward spiral also the fault of northern administrators?

He also talks about having first set foot on the track in 1950 and the need to keep those young people who were on course on December 29 involved in racing.

Obviously, this was also something he addressed while he had the opportunity as president/chairman?  Or was he otherwise preoccupied preventing other North Island conspiracies designed to destroy South Island racing?

I actually watched a bit of the racing from Timaru on the day in question because I, along with a swag of other evil North Islanders, had a share in a runner on the day.

In fact,  if you look at most race meetings in the South you will find some North Island crossover.

That is what made this Stuff piece so laughable.  Well, laughable if it wasn’t for the fact that it may be read by casual news consumers who might take it as an accurate portrayal of those involved in the industry.

Racing’ next foray into mainstream news will no doubt be the annual envy-fest viewing of Karaka, which will leave most viewers/readers confused as to just how an industry which sells glossy yearlings at vast prices can possibly be struggling to survive.


Wonderful writing talent lost – RIP John Costello

It’s been a bad year for racing journalists.  We’ve already lost the unique talents of Nick Columb and Steve Brem and now John Costello has joined them.  What a press room gang that would be! Imagine the stories, the laughter and their unabashed delight as they attempted to outdo each other with their lyrical use of language.

The wonderful writing talent which was Cos decreed, at the age of 81 and a half, it was time to await his inevitable fate.  He would not make it until Christmas my friend Michelle told me earlier this week. And he didn’t. This morning the news was received that this week’s column in The Informant  was indeed, as Cos predicted, his last.

It may have been his last but it was also possibly one of his best.  It touched on the best horses and human competitors he had come across during his 60 year career – just take a moment to contemplate that, 60 years combining a love of thoroughbreds and writing!  He didn’t steer away from the problems currently besetting our industry either with some nicely crafted serves at those who deserved them. But at the end there was positivity and hope, the hope that our industry would one day return to the glory days which Cos remembered.

While I share his hopes for the future one thing we may have seen the last of is racing journalists with the same level of wit, humour, and love of the English language as that possessed by Cos.  At the risk of sounding like an old person, something Cos could never have been accused of, I find the blandness of current racing writers mind-numbingly dull.

That was something foreign to Cos as his writing shone with the positive joy of someone who loved what they were doing and took pride to craft each sentence.

Fortunately, his writing will remain to be enjoyed in the multitude of books he wrote. Those female jockeys out there currently plying their trade might also take time to give a nod of thanks his way as Cos was a dogged champion for the right of women jockeys as they fought to be licensed.

His legend will also live on through a myriad of Cos stories, as it seems everyone who encountered him has at least one or two.

My Cos story came about in the 1980s when he signed up for the mammoth task of producing the definitive history of New Zealand thoroughbred racing, Tapestry of Turf.  I think the realisation of just what they had to deliver had hit Cos and his mate Pat Finnegan and they had decided to enlist a little help.

A meeting with Cos resulted in me coming away charged with the task of researching and writing about some of the greats of the 1940s.  I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went but I do remember that Cos was somewhat nonplussed at my decision to research a decade so removed from personal experience.

But so it was that Clyde Conway, Kevin Bell, Wally O’Hearn and myself ended up contributing in our own ways to what was, and still is, a magnificent manuscript which tracks the beginnings of our industry through to the heady days of 1987.  It is probably time for someone to tackle the intervening years, although much of it would make rather dismal reading.

I consider myself lucky to have been living in Auckland and working at BloodHorse during that time as it meant I was able to regularly attend the Racing Writers’ annual dinner.  Back when daily newspapers still employed racing journalists the Racing Writers’ Association was a strong organisation and the black tie dinner was always a highlight.  I remember it being sponsored by a tobacco company – these were the days when smoking wasn’t frowned upon and one could even smoke inside. The tables at the dinner were adorned with cartons of fags and the evening was capped off with port and cigars.

Cos – who in those days enjoyed the odd cigarette – was always front and centre, smiling and cracking witticisms, an enduring memory.

I don’t remember being more excited about any inductee into the NZ Racing Hall of Fame than I was in 2016 when admission to that elite group was bestowed on John Costello.  It was an honour richly-deserved and he was certainly rather chuffed.

This wasn’t the blog I intended to write as we lead into Christmas and I only wish I could better acknowledge a man who contributed so much to our industry over the years.

Before I got the word about Cos my intention was to write something incredibly light-hearted about Christmas being one of the few racing free days of the year and to end with one of my favourite poems.

Because I think Cos would’ve enjoyed it I now share with you the wonderfully clever Tangmalangaloo by John O’Brien.  Enjoy, and have a wonderful Christmas…..

The bishop sat in lordly state and purple cap sublime,
And galvanized the old bush church at Confirmation time.
And all the kids were mustered up from fifty miles around,
With Sunday clothes, and staring eyes, and ignorance profound.
Now was it fate, or was it grace, whereby they yarded too
An overgrown two-storey lad from Tangmalangaloo?

A hefty son of virgin soil, where nature has her fling,
And grows the trefoil three feet high and mats it in the spring;
Where mighty hills uplift their heads to pierce the welkin’s rim,
And trees sprout up a hundred feet before they shoot a limb;
There everything is big and grand, and men are giants too –
But Christian Knowledge wilts, alas, at Tangmalangaloo.

The bishop summed the youngsters up, as bishops only can;
He cast a searching glance around, then fixed upon his man.
But glum and dumb and undismayed through every bout he sat;
He seemed to think that he was there, but wasn’t sure of that.
The bishop gave a scornful look, as bishops sometimes do,
And glared right through the pagan in from Tangmalangaloo.

“Come, tell me, boy,” his lordship said in crushing tones severe,
“Come, tell me why is Christmas Day the greatest of the year?
“How is it that around the world we celebrate that day
“And send a name upon a card to those who’re far away?
“Why is it wandering ones return with smiles and greetings, too?”
A squall of knowledge hit the lad from Tangmalangaloo.

He gave a lurch which set a-shake the vases on the shelf,
He knocked the benches all askew, up-ending of himself.
And so, how pleased his lordship was, and how he smiled to say,
“That’s good, my boy.  Come, tell me now; and what is Christmas Day?”
The ready answer bared a fact no bishop ever knew –
“It’s the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.

Racing looking outside the square…and MAC appointees announced

Have you ever been at the races in New Zealand and looked around and thought about how things could be done better?

Who dictated that our racing needed to be conducted on predominantly oval tracks with the only variation being whether they are left or right-handed?  Who decreed that our grandstands would be created to ensure the prevailing wind would sweep into the viewing areas which would also be shaded and bitterly cold?  How come the only places to go racing were these mausoleum-like places?

Look around our tracks and it is abundantly clear that once a template for racecourse construction was established, other than a few tweaks, it was stuck to.  But what if things were different, what if we could come up with a brand-new concept of how to take racing to the people?

Back when I used to ponder such things, I wondered about the possibility of a rotating grandstand which was situated, along with all the facilities for the horses, on the infield of the track.  Don’t judge me, I had a lot of spare time.

It was quite possibly this enthusiasm for examining something different which led me to get a little excited reading two differing stories online recently.

The first I stumbled across at the end of August.  A Las Vegas casino executive had come up with an idea to put fans up-close with the racing action by including a novel feature on a yet-to-be built racetrack in New Mexico.

Daniel Lee, chief executive of Full House Resorts, claimed a “moving grandstand” would be “the next best thing to being in the race as a jockey.”

Proving that there is no such thing as a new idea, Lee said that the inspiration for the feature came from a special train which operated during a rowing race on the Hudson river in 1934.  Apparently, the train travelled along tracks beside the river and the sideways-facing seats meant the spectators were able to keep up with the rowing action as it happened.

The modern version proposed for New Mexico would cater for around 200 spectators seated in a glass-walled electric-powered vehicle which would move along rails on the one-mile track’s outside.

According to Lee the moving grandstand would keep pace with the horses.  “I looked at this and said, ‘They were doing this in the 1920s and ‘30s, so we can do this today,” he said.

For sheer novelty value it would have appeal, surely?  Not to some who commented negatively via the Twittersphere. Of course, as is so often the case with naysayers no alternative suggestions were made.

The other story appeared earlier this month.  This involved The Queen’s grandson Peter Phillips who fronts City Racing.  That company name may ring bells for some who might recall stories earlier this year which talked about possible horse races on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, when Racing NSW entered into discussions with City Racing.

By his own admission Phillips has always steered away from horses, but here he is now promoting a concept which aims to bring the excitement of horse racing to major cities around the world.

Just last week three trial races were held in Liverpool down a section of the old F1 grand-prix track at Aintree, an area which doubles as a service road for the Grand National course.  The track which was used took 16 hours to lay and was a sand-based, all-weather surface – Equaflow – which is used annually at the Horse of the Year show and was also seen in action at the London Olympics.

The three test-races were run over a mere three and a half furlongs (around 700m) and included eight horses travelling at half-pace with the aim of just proving it was possible.

Phillips told media afterwards that they would take “learnings” out of the trials, “but it is primarily about assuring people that we can run eight horses on the track.”

“The obvious concerns are around equine welfare, that is our single biggest thing. We’re putting together an equine welfare panel and it will be gold standard,” he said. “Whatever the standard for racecourses we have to go above and beyond that, because this has never been done before and we will do everything in our power to mitigate any accidents.”

City Racing has the backing of the Jockey Club and it is hoped that they will have the first two cities to stage races on board in January.

Any agreement would, of course, have to be sanctioned by the local racing jurisdiction and City Racing sees these events, not only as a platform to promote racing but also as a tourism boost.

While the trials were relatively short, Phillips said most of the cities selected to host the races would have a street which was one kilometre long.

The jockeys and trainers involved in the trials were all supportive of the concept with champion apprentice Jason Watson saying the track “rides really well, it’s similar to Newcastle and possibly even better.”

Of course, racing horses on streets in the centre of town is nothing new, the Palio di Siena is held twice each year in Siena, Italy and is believed to have its foundations in the 14th century.  It draws tourists by the thousands.

The progress of City Racing during 2019, including whether proposed events in London and Paris get off the ground and have the desired effect of exposing millennials to the excitement of racing, will be watched with interest.

FOOTNOTE:  Yesterday saw the announcement of the make-up of the newly minted Ministerial Advisory Committee.  The five appointees have been charged with providing the Minister with an interim report by the end of February so will no doubt be hitting the ground running.  No pressure, but you currently hold our futures in your hands!  Following is the release from the Beehive:

Racing Minister Winston Peters has announced a five-member Ministerial Advisory Committee to inform next steps on the Messara Review of the New Zealand Racing Industry.

“This government is committed to reforming the racing industry. The Ministerial Advisory Group will develop a plan to operationalise the Messara Report to deliver better governance and economic outcomes,” said Mr Peters.

“The five people appointed to the Ministerial Advisory Committee bring their personal expertise and ability to provide independent, strategic assessments of the business change proposals for the racing industry. Between them they have experience across the three racing industry codes,” he said.

Mr Peters has appointed Dean McKenzie as Chair. Mr McKenzie is an experienced racing administrator whose dedication and passion to improving the industry make him the ideal choice to lead this very important work. He will be well-supported by Committee members Bill Birnie, Liz Dawson, Kristy McDonald and Sir Peter Vela. 

“Collectively, they will identify the technical, legal, financial and process-oriented decision points for racing reform and return the industry to a well-managed and sustainable economic growth path. They will also take into account the feedback received during the public submission process.” said Mr Peters

 The Committee will provide an interim report to the Minister for Racing by the end of February 2019, to be followed by Cabinet decisions, and legislation to modernise the industry.

The Committee is being created as a potential precursor to the establishment of a Racing Industry Transitional Agency (RITA), subject to future government decisions.