Opinion writers and protesters take pot shots at racing

One of my pet peeves has often been the lack of racing coverage in the general media.  However, over the past week I am wondering whether sometimes it might be better to keep our heads below the parapet given the pot shots fired our way.

On Tuesday The Spinoff provided an interesting take on the Messara report which proved the dangers of people pontificating when they have no understanding of wagering or the structure of the racing industry.

Having read (and obviously not understood) the Messara report the writer, a university student/actor Joseph Plunket, makes the following claims:

”The racing industry wants New Zealanders gambling like Australians, and spending more on horse and dog racing, as well as the myriad of other TAB wagering opportunities. For this troubled industry, the solution appears to lie in the exploitation of problem gamblers.

A majority of those who gamble might be able to do so safely, but the racing industry ultimately relies upon addiction in order to prosper. The characterisation of ‘just having a punt’ trivialises a serious issue which impacts families and communities across the country.

Why is our government seeking to reform and revitalise an industry which provides largely for an elite – those who own and breed racehorses – when it comes at the direct expense of the general public?”

I’m not sure where he got his information from regarding the industry relying on addiction to prosper, but the choice of the word “prosper” indicates he has absolutely no knowledge about the current state of the industry.

He talks about the need for the industry to have a greater commitment to problem gambling with his evidence for the requirement for this based on what one might see when they “walk into any suburban or rural pub in the country.”

Considering finding a TAB in any pub, be it suburban or rural, has become increasingly difficult over the years I’d love to know where he has managed to find enough outlets to witness this rampant problem gambling.

Towards the end of his diatribe about the evils of gambling he does ‘fess up that “it is difficult to establish the extent to which gambling addiction is a problem in New Zealand.”  He adds that stats show a decrease in the number of new “clients” of both the Gambling Helpline and the Ministry of Health.

Then he shoots himself in the foot with the following: “In the financial year 2016/17 gamblers in New Zealand spent $125 million more than the previous year. The overall amount gambled between the TAB, Lotteries Commission, gaming machines and casinos was $2.334 billion. Of the four forms, the TAB was the only one to experience a downturn during this period.”

I did wonder why the Lotteries Commission and gaming machines didn’t come under fire, especially given that these forms of gambling have been tagged in a recent study into problem gambling in Pacific Island families.

Obviously, that would not have allowed the writer to arrive at his desired conclusion which has the Minister for Racing propping up his mates in racing.  Described by this very earnest young man as “an exploitative and declining industry.”

Demonstrating that his only exposure to racing appears to be through the TAB’s advertising (“You’re in the game”) he also assumes John Messara’s comment “We need to keep people in the game” refers to betting.  Anyone familiar with the Messara report recognises that statement as being reference to keeping participants involved in the industry.

The full quote from the launch of the Messara report was: “My review includes a series of reforms that I believe will enable a doubling of stakesmoney.  And that increase needs to be right through the system – from the smallest races right up to the group and listed programme.  We need to keep people in the game.”

Perhaps a little more research and maybe even talking to some of the people who rely on the industry for their living might have given Joseph a more balanced perspective, but where’s the shock value in that?

Interestingly, the day after this piece appeared on The Spinoff one of the struggling MediaWorks re-branded outlets, Magic Talk, also slammed racing.

This afternoon host, Sean Plunket, shared his opinion about our industry with his national audience – thankfully, not a very large one.

It would seem both the Plunkets have taken very strongly against racing for some reason.

Perhaps their next steps will be to join the tens of protesters aligned with Australia’s Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses at their next New Zealand protest.  Apparently, this group will be back at Trentham this Saturday – obviously unaware of the fact that industry attention will be firmly focused on Ellerslie for the Karaka Million races.

I have been told there is no arguing with these protesters and perhaps they feel the same way because this week’s, like last Saturday’s where a dozen protesters managed to ensure television news coverage, is a silent protest.

Of interest the NZ arm of this group seems to have deviated somewhat from the core belief in Australia.  The invitation to the protest reads:

Our focus will be on how gambling ruins families and lives. We will also be raising awareness about the horse cruelty that takes place, before, during and after the races. Posters will be provided.

While there is apparently, no reasoning with protesters who are convinced of this cruelty – despite no actual evidence – I would just like to ask them to watch the last race at Avondale on Wednesday.

Pay attention of the antics of Flying Trapeze, a horse I have a minuscule interest in, particularly once he manages to rid himself of the encumbrance of jockey Jason Waddell.  If, as the protesters tell us, horses are “forced” and “whipped” to race how do they explain Flying Trapeze working himself up through the field until he is challenging for the lead at the turn?  If horses hate racing so much then, given the opportunity to escape, surely he would have headed for the nearest exit?

While it was a disappointing result as an owner, I did have to laugh.  Our perennial maiden did enough to ruin the photo for the eventual winner and still ran second!

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.