My memories of a mighty man and the best life advice I ever got..

I can’t picture Nick Columb without hearing his voice.  Booming, distinctive and always accompanied by that laugh.

There was always laughter.

I remember the first time I met him, back when we still held yearling sales at the Claudelands complex in Hamilton.  I was working at BloodHorse and we had a stand which, oh so flash for the time, included a video player.   This was handy because Nick and his ever-present side-kick Ross – Rossco – McDonald had a video they wanted the world to see.  The video featured the wonderful Magari.  As I type that name I hear Nick saying it, he had a way of getting inside your head.

As a journalist, Nick felt he was well placed to provide me with some guidance and instruction and I am sure some of it stuck. Like all good journalists he was a brilliant observer and noted things others might not.  Based on that observation he also decided I required life advice.

His instruction was simple: “When you walk into a room, do it as though you own it!”  Again, I hear that voice.

For a gauche 23-year-old it was the best advice.  I have lost count of the times I channeled Nick and that great advice. How I laughed in later years when a friend told me why another “friend” had a problem with me because, “she thinks you walk into a place as though you own it.”  Life lesson achieved, thanks Nick!

While much of the 1980s have blurred into hazy memories, I can recall times spent with Nick in vivid technicolour.  Like the jaunt to Waikato Stud, along with “Jack the vet” and Rossco, after which Nick confirmed he would buy the filly which had caught his eye.  I remember quizzing him as to why this horse?  What made her so special?  Being able to absorb those insights into what he saw in Courtza was gold, and one time he was completely serious!

The dinners in Wellington back in the Trentham yearling sale days were also memorable.  Nick’s insistence that “the little albino vet” – everyone had a “Nick” name – would sit alongside him, just in case he might need him to again perform the Heimlich manoeuvre.  The original story which accompanied that explanation produced tears of laughter.

But that was Nick.  He could tell magnificent stories, many of them against himself.  He could be incredibly caustic utilising his extensive vocabulary to fire verbal bullets but only if the target deserved it.

He was fundamentally kind.  Kind, funny, exuberant, loud, generous and, as so many people have said when recalling him, larger than life.

It feels wrong to be writing about him in the past tense, knowing there is a massive Nick-sized gap in the world. It is a duller and much quieter place without him.

On owners, diversity and the future

Last season I took the plunge and joined the NZ Thoroughbred Owners’ Federation.  The organisation, with which I had quite a few dealings during my time at the NZ Trainers’ Association, just requests a mere $55 annual sub.

For this one gets membership and the promise that they will, on my behalf, work “to improve the economics, integrity and pleasure of the sport of thoroughbred racing.”

If I’m honest, I only joined to see who was running the group and how well they had embraced technology to grow their membership and fulfil at least the latter promise.  I wasn’t really surprised to see that the president was the same one I used to attend meetings alongside back in the early 2000s.  It’s not easy getting people to volunteer for such thankless tasks.

Not wanting to put the boot in – it would be akin to kicking puppies – the Federation seems mired in a time before technology even though it does have a website.  Their communication with members could be so much better, as could their acknowledgement of winning owners who are members of syndicates.  Achieving the latter might even assist when it came to attracting members.

I paid my membership – online, so that must be a positive – and then, sometime later in the mail came a card which declared me a member and was my Owners’ ID card.  Nothing else with the card, no welcome letter or list of membership benefits, just the card.  It did seem to be a waste of an opportunity to maybe recruit new committee members or extend an invitation to up-coming events or, anything really.

No doubt there will be more mail awaiting me at my home address when I return, advising me my membership for the current season is due.

The other item which arrives in the mail – although also available to view online – is the Owners’ Bulletin.  My background in magazines means I have an addiction to all things glossy and printed.  While there is a convenience to being able to read stories online I still prefer the tactile approach while sipping my beverage of choice.

The Bulletin has the potential to provide owners, old and new, with relevant news, information, background, insights as well as the opportunity to bask in the reflected glory of one’s equine stars.  However, this also suffers from the fact that too much is being required from the few put-upon souls volunteering their time to run the Federation and get the Bulletin out on time.

There is only one word for it – tired.  Probably much like the volunteers.

Surely the clearest sign that they struggle to find current and relevant content is the inclusion of an NZRB puff-piece – it would appear the Federation is drinking the NZRB kool-aid!  Running press releases without questioning their veracity doesn’t put me in mind of an organisation which is fighting to improve the economics of our industry.

Owners are footing the bills which keep horses going around in this country and we deserve so much better than the NZRB has been delivering.

A little debate in the July edition which I found interesting was a discussion about diversity within racing.  It amuses me, coming from my current role at a University, when people within racing speak about diversity and assume we are talking only about men and women.  Anyway, I’ll play their game!

So, let’s examine the inclusion (I prefer this term when we are talking the male/female divide) of the fairer (in so many ways) sex within the NZ racing industry.

As everyone knows we are marking 40 years of women competing on an equal playing field with men as jockeys.  And, unlike so many other sporting areas, there has been no gender pay gap, from day one they have earned the same money for the same work.

Female jockeys are an accepted part of racing life here to the extent they nearly outnumber the blokes.  In this area we are leaving Australia behind.

Likewise, we also recognised female trainers many, many, many decades before the Australians.  As far as they are concerned Shelia Laxon was the first female to train a Melbourne Cup winner.  In fact, it wasn’t until that happened that the Aussies managed to ‘fess up that they had indeed done Granny McDonald wrong.  Back in 1938 when her horse Catalogue won the Cup rather than be able to stand up and claim the win as hers, Granny had to sit back while husband Allan was lauded as the winning trainer.

We have females working in most every area of racing here, although I haven’t noticed anyone putting their hand up to attempt commentating.  Considering the feverish backlash in the world of cricket and rugby it may be some time before we find a female with a suitable alto voice and a skin thick enough to take the barbs!  A shout out to Victoria Shaw in Australia here, this is one area where they have beaten us.  Victoria making her calling debut in 1998.

The talk within the industry about diversity, seems to stem from general media talk about representation on boards and the age-old pay parity argument.  Numbers are growing, albeit slowly with the NZX reporting in January that 27% of directors on NZX/S&P50 boards were female, up from 22% the following year.

It’s progress but I think amid the clamour to get more women on Boards we should also be considering how many women WANT to be on boards and focusing on having, first and foremost, people with the best skillset, regardless of gender.

Having served on the committee/Boards of three very different racing clubs I can report from personal experience that things have changed since my first experience in 1996 when I was the only female.  A subsequent experience saw me serve as Vice-President to a female president on a committee which boasted five women.  I am certain that was because it was an extremely hands-on committee which held working-bees (read, cleaning frenzies) in the days prior to race days!

Again, it comes back to whether women want to be involved and what they bring to the table.

The Owner’s Bulletin piece seemed to feel the solution lay with the industry attracting more young people who embrace the idea of diversity, after all the future will be in their hands.

While it is a great concept it is also a cop-out.  Great ideas are not the preserve of the young and some people push boundaries until the time comes to push up daisies.

What the industry needs in spades is passion and a desire to see things change for the better.

We need to be part of the solution!





Operating costs a mystery to NZRB

A new season and hope abounds.  So what do we know so far?  The Messara report has landed on Winston Peters’s desk and no doubt will be given due attention once he has dealt with small matters such as the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Singapore this week.

We do need to occasionally be reminded that while racing is front and centre of our minds at all times Winston has had other pressing issues to deal with as he was at the helm as acting PM for the past six weeks or so.

Patience dear readers, we will know what the report contains soon enough but what we need to hope is that this one, unlike the myriad prior, is acted upon quickly and completely.

As a media hound who believes the worst of everyone I couldn’t help but be moderately amused that the NZRB, with its usual tone-deaf timing, released its Statement of Intent 2019-2021 this week.

If you were someone relatively new to the industry or even somewhat less jaded than I am then you might find yourself buoyed by the messages contained within.

My BS radar is so finely tuned these days that I can barely read a sentence without querying the thinking behind it.  I suppose it is nice to know that some of those employed at great expense to the rest of us were toiling away to create this work of art and fiction designed with that grand old police motto in mind – “move along people, nothing to see here.”

As regular readers will be aware I have a real problem with two areas of NZRB expenditure which are of course interlinked – operating costs and salaries, not to mention the numbers employed,  Rather than conduct a deep dive into such a shallow pool of information and risk major injury I have instead focused on those areas when perusing this document.  The findings should have anyone with a financial involvement in the industry questioning how we can let these people continue to operate.

Apparently NZRB “remains committed to undertaking a broader review of our operating costs.”  Good on them, at least they are getting the message I thought.  Only to have to apologise to my office mates for an expletive-laden outburst when I read the following statement:

“This was paused following the commencement of the Messara review and other strategic options analysis but will be reconsidered in the 2018/19 season.”

It took me a while to get my head around this one.  So, the industry is undergoing a review which will examine, among other aspects, how to return more money to participants and the outfit in charge of the dollars WAS “undertaking a broader review” of its operating costs but paused it as soon as the Messara report was announced.

Rather than actually continue to look at how they could apply a little slash-and-burn to operating costs which, until last season exceeded the payout to industry, they decided to sit on their hands and wait and see.

I trust they have done something really useful in that time.  I would suggest dusting off their CVs and working on creating some handy LinkedIn contacts might have been a good place to start.

After reading that statement it was difficult to see this as something other than another NZRB puff-piece.

Prior to it landing this week I was intending to revisit a time when NZRB CEO was newly appointed to his position.

In 2015 with the bright enthusiasm of a newbie, John Allen told NBR that the Racing Board needed to lift distribution to the industry by $40-50million “over the next few years.”

“Unless we can do that and get the facilities right, get the returns to owners right, so we can begin to get the investment into the breeding stock again that we need to support the industry over time, the whole industry grinds to a halt,” he said at the time.

“Basically, every dollar we spend is a dollar that doesn’t get distributed to the codes,” he added.

“It’s really important that the codes trust us to be efficient and effective with that money.”

Reading that is was apparent that Allen had been well schooled on what the industry needed. So, a few years down the line and what have we seen?

Back when Allen originally commented the NZRB 2015 Annual report showed operating costs at $139m, with staff costs $62.4m while the distribution to the industry was $134.2m.

The following season operating costs had dipped ever so slightly to $138.7m, staff costs peaked at $66.8m and distribution was $135.3m.

The 2017 annual report listed operating costs as $136.2m (a drop of $2.5m – remember those figures), staff costs at $63.6m and the return to the industry finally bettered operating costs at $137.6m.

Just a couple of notes around the staff expenses for the past two years – in 2016 that number was made up of $60.2m in salaries, $1.8m in termination costs and $4.7m in (covers a multitude of sins) “other staff expenses”.  In 2017 those figures for the same items were $59.2m; $18,000; and $4.4m.  However, included in this was $1.3m of expenses relating to strategic initiatives ie FOB, Racefields Legislation, Customer and channels programme, and Optimising the calendar.

So what of the future according to the overview of the 2019-2021 document?

The prediction is distribution for 2018-19 “budgeted at $151.6m” explained thus: “a $0.8 million increase on last year (2017-18) to offset increased venue services charges to the codes from the vision capture upgrade. This includes the $12 million of additional funding targeted at increasing stakes across the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons that has been approved by the Board. A further amount of $2.6 million is being distributed to fund the continuation of the activities and expenses of the Event Marketing and Logistics (EML) business, which was transferred to the equine codes on 1 August 2017.”

So that increase included the $12m that we have borrowed to ensure our stakes aren’t a total embarrassment, yet the work on reducing operating costs was paused.  How are we meant to take these people seriously?

We are now living outside our means with a three year revolving debt facility having been established during the current season.  According to the SOI document this was to allow for “critical investments in growth initiatives.”

No need to panic though as they assure us “as the benefits of the strategic projects are realised, NZRB will take a prudent view to repaying debt while continuing to invest and increase distributions to the industry.”

I don’t recall anything in the NBR  article where Allen mentioned they may have to borrow to get close to the $40-50m he recognised was needed when he took the reins.

And what of the costs, of which, need I remind you, Mr Allen said every dollar they spent was one we didn’t get?

Well apparently in the 2017-18 year they are expecting “underlying operating costs to increase by $2.5m to $136.2m.”  Yes, that is correct – Increase, and what’s more this is in line with their budget.  So much for looking to rein in their operating costs.

The more observant of you might notice that $136.2m is actually the figure given as operating costs in the 2017 Annual report, which had me scrambling to back and double and triple-checking the figures.  I went so far as to seek the independent advice of an accountant (a real one, unlike those obviously used by the NZRB) and he confirmed my suspicions when he walked me through the figures.

If you check out the figures used on page 5 of the SOI under the heading Managing Costs you will find the following: “Excluding investment behind our key strategic initiatives, underlying operating expenses in the 2016/17 year decreased by $5.0 million (3.6%) to $133.7 million compared to the prior year ($138.7 million in 2015/16.”  So the mystery $5m decrease which leaves us with $133.7m is largely fictitious as the actual figure in the 2017 Statement of Profit or Loss is $136.2m.

Perhaps I should’ve been alerted to the fact this was not going to be a document which could be relied upon for its veracity when an email follow-up was sent out one day after the SOI was released into the wild.

It stated: “Unfortunately, there was an error in the summary document of the NZRB Statement of Intent sent to you yesterday. The document should have read ‘ Reported net profit before distributions of $173.5 million is budgeted for 2018/19, $201.2  million in 2019/20 and $219.6 million projected in 2020/21.”

If you fancy torturing yourself then go read the fantasy document yourself.  I’ve read so many of these promise-the-world documents over past decades that I believe none of it any more.  The creative accounting/obvious muck-up just confirms that my skepticism was well placed.

Like so many who have watched our industry driven into the ground by people with no skin in the game I am tired and jaded.

However, I am also damned if I am going to walk away before I see this current mob marched out of their cushy NZRB offices and replaced by people with the dedication to see this industry succeeds. Let’s make sure it happens.

No pressure Winston, but it’s up to you now.