Racing Reform Bill out of the gates

If you ever wanted to know just how the racing industry is perceived by those who run the country, then tuning into watch proceedings in parliament on Tuesday would have left you with a clear picture.

From being an industry where most of those stalking the corridors of power had at least some passing interest, racing has declined to something from the dim distant past. Most of those speaking were left scrambling to find a tenuous racing tale to demonstrate their connection.  And that was just those on the government’s side of the House.   The Nats, once natural bedfellows of the racing industry, showed a mixture of relief that they no longer had to deal with the seemingly, never-ending demands from the racing brigade and outright antipathy.

The occasion was the first reading of the Racing Reform Bill which is being fast-tracked through select committee and scheduled to be reported back to the House by 11 June.  If you’ve read the RRB and have any thoughts about making a submission to select committee then you will need to be quick.  That window of opportunity, currently open, will slam shut on Tuesday 4 June – the initial date was Monday until someone realised it was a public holiday.

While long-time watchers of the theatre which surrounds our law-making will have seen through much of the posturing and playing of roles on Tuesday, the uninitiated were possibly left astounded.

Here I have to confess that I have, on occasion, watched Question Time at parliament purely for the amusement value.  But the amusement value on Tuesday was limited due to the fact they were talking about something close to my heart.

Even knowing that everyone in the House was playing a role, and  the arguments were focused on not giving a sucker and even break (with the sucker being those on the other side) rather than doing anything to advance the cause of the racing industry, it was not an easy watch.

Make no mistake, politicians don’t particularly like the racing industry. Not all of them are as honest as Gerry Brownlee who described racing as “dull” but scratch any of the hokey old stories told to demonstrate some form of kinship with the industry and you will find a card-carrying opponent to our industry.

Sure, they will show up when they have too – usually around election time, but they would rather have nothing to do with us.

It wasn’t always so.  Back in the ancient past – around the time of the formation of the TAB, whose ownership Mr Brownlee is so keen to determine, many MPs were prominent racehorse owners.

One of the Wellington Cup winners (at Trentham, the track whose name Mr Brownlee struggled to recall) that my grandfather trained was owned by the then-Speaker of the House Sir Matthew Oram.

It made sense for MPs to have some involvement in racing, given that at the time the local racecourse was the perfect place to meet with a wide range of one’s constituents.  This continued to be the case through to the early 1980s.  Former MP Marilyn Waring, while revisiting the fight to get female jockeys licensed, told me she was a regular attendee at the Waipa races during her time in parliament for that very reason.

The world has moved on and politicians have no real need for racing any more.  Of course, the industry itself is not blameless when it comes to the disconnect between the industry and all-but-Winston.

Who wouldn’t lose patience with an industry which, despite numerous Royal Commissions, Reviews and Recommendations designed to drag it (kicking and screaming) into a bright new future, managed to find new and different ways to muck things up?

Is it any wonder the politicians manage to side-step any possible engagement with industry representatives when they are constantly presented with problems and never solutions?

The industry has a long history of shooting itself in the foot with politicians.  Bad mouthing them and their efforts to drag the industry out of the mire and then acting surprised when future efforts to get alongside said politician are met with the cold shoulder.

Racing administrators have, over the years, behaved like that annoying whiny kid-adult who having left home years earlier still can’t understand why his parents won’t keep funding his lifestyle.

Presumably the Racing Reform Bill will get across the line in the prescribed (truncated, according to the Nats) time-frame and we will be off into another brave new future with any amendments or changes agreed upon throughout the process.

While there were some cringe-making comments during Tuesday’s first reading Gerry Brownlee, despite his apparently loathing of racing, did also offer a credible piece of insight into what has helped stymie the industry over the years.

“I think every effort that they’ve made, commendable as it is, falls short because the industry itself have never been prepared to take into their number—to put on their boards, to bring into their fold—people who have a bit of an entrepreneurial bent and a considerable love for the horse racing sport,” he said.

Gerry, you said a mouthful!

 

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Combating the lies of the anti-racing brigade

Last Sunday, after watching the disappointing coverage of the Kentucky Derby, I decided to join a crew of work colleagues at the races at Trentham and catch some live racing.

An unseasonably temperate afternoon attracted a smattering of families assembled on the grass along with others like us, who fell into the owners and/or racing tragic categories.

What greeted us at the main gate was an anti-racing protest.  I wouldn’t have noticed the four women holding variations of the same sign if it wasn’t for their leader continually droning her misleading message via a megaphone.

The poor gate staff had obviously been enduring the aural pollution for some time as one was able to repeat it verbatim while shaking her head at the madness of it all.

According to the sad and misguided quintet horse racing kills and horses are all destined for an afterlife as pet food.

The organisation which is currently pushing this group into the New Zealand market is Australian based hence the misinformation they are spreading is even less applicable to the reality of what is happening in New Zealand.

The group uses several ways to distribute their view of the world, predominantly via their website but also via these “protests” and, most recently, via letters attacking those who support the racing industry as sponsors.

Unfortunately, engaging with them is a futile exercise.  While protesting they repeatedly chant their mantra, perhaps thinking stating it might make it real.  Poor souls who attempt to correct the factual errors this group propagates on its website by debating with them online are accused of hating animals and “not being open to looking at the facts” – it is a losing battle.

Likewise, those who query the organisation’s involvement in providing homes for off the track thoroughbreds are rapidly reminded that rehoming is not their role.

In addition to displaying their total lack of understanding of thoroughbred horse racing, the letters being sent to race day sponsors show a lack of comprehension of the point of sponsorship.

In part these letters state that through their sponsorship of racing the recipient supports animal cruelty and goes on to claim, “we have no doubt the general public would be very disappointed if they were aware of this partnership.”

My twisted humour – because when confronted with the bare faced lies this mob fling around the place if you don’t laugh, you’d cry – has me wondering if they are actually doing us a favour by letting the sponsor know their contribution has been noticed.

This is where racing needs to start flexing its collective muscles and reminding the misinformed anti-racing brigade of what really happens to those horses who don’t want to be racehorses.

Somewhat ironically, the day before I encountered the protesters at Trentham, I had gone riding.  My trusty steed on that occasion was Ted, a 19-year-old thoroughbred who – due to difficulties pinpointed early in his life whereby he was deemed to be cursed by a lack of ability – had never set foot on a racecourse.

Now, according to megaphone lady at Trentham Ted would’ve been dog-food the minute this flaw in his make-up was detected.

Unfortunately, for them the real flaw lies with their statement – or lie, to be more exact – that slow thoroughbreds end up at the knackers.

I’m not basing this argument solely on Ted’s more than sturdy shoulders though.  Over many years I have had first-hand experience of what happened to horses once they stopped racing.

My grandfather, having developed spooky connections with most horses he trained, found there were some he could never let go.  They filled various roles in the stable during their retirement, from nannying young horses, providing safe riding opportunities for apprentices still learning their trade, or even as self-appointed quality control of feed.

In subsequent years I have had shares in too many slow thoroughbreds who, once sacked from the stable, have gone on to lead productive lives.

Most recently, one of the horses I was occasionally called upon to feed while her “people” were sunning themselves on the Gold Coast, was another never-raced thoroughbred.  Somewhat smaller than your average racehorse she did, though, find an alternative career as a polo pony.  These days, in her 20s she gets to pass her infinite wisdom on to younger horses who just might be destined for a career on the track.

There are hundreds of stories like this out there, if we are going to combat the lies, we need to ensure we meet those lies with the “facts” we have living in various paddocks around the country.

 

 

 

Counting down to the Run for the Roses

In another lifetime, many years ago, I held a role as a pedigree writer.

This rather intriguing title required two key requisites – immaculate hand-writing (what people used to do in the era pre-computers) AND a quiet and subdued office manner.  Somehow, I managed to end up in the very hushed and hallowed halls of Wrightson Bloodstock as a member of the pedigree writing team despite failing monumentally on both fronts.

For some reason, known only to her (and possibly regretted every day of the mercifully short time I spent there) the late Jane McClintock Bunbury took a punt and signed me on.

My role – well, the only bit I remember – was to update the race record cards of the NZ-bred horses which raced in Australia, by carefully (the neat hand-writing bit) transcribing their performance from the Australian Racing Calendar.  This information was used to create the pedigrees of those blue-blooded youngsters which made it into the yearling sales catalogues.

These cards – there must have been thousands of them – were stored in a giant circular contraption known as the whirly-gig. I can only imagine the celebrations when computers meant the end of all that neat writing in tomb-like silence!

Fortunately for the sanity of the aforementioned Jane Bunbury and my fellow pedigree writers, my time at Wrightsons was blissfully short and I was off to my natural calling, working at NZ BloodHorse magazine.

While the days of rubber-band fights and breeding debates were over, we stayed in touch.

As we all shared a passion for thoroughbred racing and breeding though, many of my weekends involved excursions to the races with my former workmates.  Or, more relevantly to this time of the year, extensive sleuthing to discover somewhere we could watch the Kentucky Derby.

As difficult as it is to believe now, there was once a time when racing could only be viewed on-track or, in the case of international racing, by finding somewhere with an extremely flash, state-of-the-art dish capable of picking up coverage.

This led to some interesting venues for our Derby brunches.  I have a vivid memory of watching one renewal of the Derby from the all-but-us-deserted back bar of a cavernous North Shore pub better known for hosting bands the likes of DD Smash – at least the screen was a decent size.

The effort which went into finding a locale where we could enjoy the most exciting two minutes in sports, as the run for the roses is billed, was akin to the preparation to scale one of the seven summits.

Of course, it all got so much easier when we could watch it from the comfort of someone’s home rather than schlepping all over Auckland.

One of the highlights of Kentucky Derby viewing over the years has been the quality of the coverage. It seemed that every horse had an incredible back-story and, no matter whether he was a 100-1 longshot or the raging favourite, that story was given the full treatment.

The pre-race interviews were insightful and professional, and the emotional impact was clear, and allowed to shine without any interviewer cheesiness, after the event.

There was a stage I recall having to watch the coverage on ESPN via Sky, the reason why escapes me, it may have been that Trackside chose not to provide coverage.  Equally, it could well have been their coverage was limited to the odds and race pictures only, I didn’t care the ESPN coverage was perfect for the race fan.

This weekend will see the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.  While I won’t be enjoying a race day brunch to mark the occasion, I will be joining the international viewing audience to see whether Bob Baffert can add to his impressive tally.

I’ll also be re-watching the Kentucky Derby episode of 7 Days Out an outstanding Netflix insight into the behind the scenes lead up to Justify’s 2018 victory.

 

 

 

 

 

That winning feeling snares a new owner

Regular readers will recall that a few weeks back I managed to tick off one of my (slightly random) bucket list items, by sponsoring a race.

What I neglected to mention in that blog-post was that I had a tiny share in a runner in said race.  In line with my grandmother’s rule of not photographing the horse before the race, I decided not to tempt fate and draw attention to the fact.

In a dream result the horse won.  Well, she didn’t just win she fulfilled the age old riding instructions of going to the front, increasing her lead and kicking away on the turn.

How often does that happen – you sponsor a race, your horse (well, one in which you share the ownership with a cast of many) lines up in it and wins?

Needless to say the presentation was memorable!

Part of my sponsorship gig included being able to invite a few guests to enjoy the day so I used it as an opportunity to catch up with number two son (purely primogeniture, not a preference thing) and his girlfriend.

Being a little more fast and loose with his money than his more careful older brother, this one actually had a TAB account.  I use the past tense intentionally. He had an account which during a short period he used regularly – predominantly betting on horses. The interest faded and once he forgot his account password he couldn’t be bothered going through the drama (when you’re in your 20s everything is a drama!) of getting that sorted.

Now both kids were brought up in the same house where, in their very early years, their mother occasionally graced the screen on Trackside.  The younger one did accompany me (while very tiny) on the occasional shoot back when Trackside did more personality pieces. Whereas for a short time the older one used to have (one-sided) conversations with George Simon whenever he appeared on screen.

As they grew older they would apologise to any friends coming over on a Saturday, telling them not to worry if their mother suddenly started yelling at the TV.

Once they were old enough they were then roped into race day tasks, such as selling race books, at the Taupo summer races. Plenty of exposure to racing then, but other than being able to read form-guides and being familiar with the odd racing term it hasn’t really stuck with either of them.

It didn’t surprise me that neither developed the same passion I have for racing.  After all, I grew up in the same household as my four siblings where our exposure to racing was considerably more hands-on.  We rode racehorses and helped out at the stables (with varying degrees of commitment) yet, only my Singapore-based brother is remotely interested in going racing and following the form.

I took actually getting number two son to the races as a major achievement.

What I hadn’t reckoned on though, was how the day would appear to him and the impact it would make.

They arrived and joined us at our table in the sponsors’ room and liked that they could venture out from the room to watch the race.  They had easy access to totes and only moderate queues. So far, so good.

Pre-race, wearing my owner’s hat, my fellow syndicate members and I took them down to the pre-race hospitality where they could get a close-up view of our pride and joy.  Then it was back to the stand and out to watch the race.

I’ve often said that if you could bottle the feeling you get when you have a winner then you would make a fortune.  That day though, I think some of it rubbed off on my boy. He witnessed the elation up-close and live.

The race aftermath was a blur as we all (including number two son) were whisked out for the photo with our winner (this time wearing two hats as sponsor and part-owner); then upstairs for a presentation like no other!

I should have had an idea of what was coming when the son began asking whether the same things happened everywhere your horse raced, were there always pre-race drinks, the post-race photo and celebrations.

Two days after the race he rang asking how he could go about getting into a horse.

So, after completing all the necessary paperwork he now shares my share in the horse which lit the ownership fire and, this weekend he will have his first runner – the fourth generation of his family to do so.

Of course, he will soon learn that it is not all champagne and celebrations!

 

Footnote: Like most of those involved in the industry I have been carefully perusing the papers released by Racing Minister Winston Peters the other week and I am hopeful that we will soon see some of the changes we have been wanting for so long.  Such was my optimism when the MAC report and the cabinet papers were released that I signed up for another share in another horse, I am hoping my optimism is not misplaced.