Battling misinformation about animal welfare but we’re on the same side

In case you were unaware, racing is under siege with its social licence seriously under scrutiny.

The bizarre thing is, most of those firmly entrenched in the industry have a similar goal as those who are currently giving us the side-eye.  Animal welfare is at the heart of everything we do. However, to read the proclamations of those who have appointed themselves protectors and spokesmen of all animals and, specifically this week thoroughbred race horses, we are intrinsically evil.

SAFE, an organisation which infamously decreed those applying for a role with them should be vegan, came out swinging against racing.  Horses are, according to them, viewed by those in the industry as commodities to be exploited.

A lot of the “facts” they promote are based on figures from overseas and some are sourced from fellow anti-racing groups such as Australia’s Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses.  Occasionally, they are somewhat manipulated and, by the time corrections are made it is too late, the misinformation is already out there being repeated as actual fact.

Interestingly, the article which ran this week on the Stuff website attracted some rather balanced opinion via the comments section – normally a place where no sane person would venture.  There is something of a backlash emerging against the dictatorial stance taken by the likes of SAFE and fellow animal protection outfit PETA.  As a sidebar, the latter came out with a total piece of madness this week where we are now being encouraged to bring home the bagel instead of the bacon.  Cue, all too many comments in the Twittersphere about the possible impact this may have on the gluten intolerant!

Apparently, expressions such as “Flogging a Dead Horse” (or “beating” in PETA world) should be replaced with “Feed a Fed Horse”.  I’m not sure what horses these people have been dealing with, but all the greedy buggers I have ever known would not let the fact that had already been fed stand between them and another meal!  Quite apart from not making sense, the changes trample all over the beauty of the English language and the provenance of the sayings.

The nanny knows best attitude demonstrated by the three aforementioned animal welfare groups means that social media is awash with groups opposing their views.  Most appear to be set up by people frustrated with the response when attempting to provide the view from the other side of the fence, the likes of those who actually live and work with animals daily. Arguments are shut down rapidly with only one viewpoint acceptable.

As mentioned earlier though both sides possess a similar goal – a healthy and happy life for the animals in their lives.

Unfortunately, the mouthpieces for the likes of SAFE trumpet their message with evangelical fervour and cannot be swayed, even when presented with facts which differ from those they spout religiously.

They believe racehorses are discarded when they are not “profitable” something any racehorse owner would find sadly hysterical.  None of us – at least in New Zealand – are in this for the money.  Quite simply because there isn’t any!

It’s not their fault when the only time they see racing coverage in mainstream media the reference is always around money – be it major stakes races or sale topping yearlings, even when it comes to Winx and her record-breaking winning streak, the media focus is on the money.

What they don’t see is the reality and the passion which keeps people in an industry which has been in decline for some years.  We have stuck around for a multitude of reasons, and money and profitability are the stuff of dreams.  There is always the hope that this may be the next big horse; the special one who will sweep all before them; the champion; the once-in-a-lifetime horse.  And then reality bites and we just enjoy the rollercoaster of promise, peppered with disappointments and the occasional win which keeps us dreaming.

Yes, there are those horses which don’t make the grade on the track and I’ve had my share of those.  While the SAFE people would like the public to believe that these horses are discarded and destroyed the horses which would rather not be racehorses which I have been involved with have been diverted to new careers.  That lack of urgency on the track has led to an alternative life as a show horse, eventer or pleasure horse.

If SAFE needed evidence of the industry’s commitment to animal welfare then they need only look at recommendation number 16 of the Messara Report which supports the introduction of “robust processes to establish traceability from birth and the re-homing of the entire thoroughbred herd, as the foundation stone of the industry’s ongoing animal welfare program.”

Any argument put up by industry is vigorously disputed by the SAFE people who are blinkered to the good and positive people who work with our thoroughbreds every day and instead would prefer to paint us all as villains.

Nothing short of banning racing all together will placate them.  However, I am constantly astounded that while journalists give them free rein to make their outlandish claims, not one has thought to ask them the obvious question.

If racing stopped tomorrow what would happen to the current racing stock? The multi-million dollar stallions? The broodmare bands? The foals? The young, unbroken horses?  If you are going to come for us and suggest an entire industry shut down to satisfy your narrow perception of it, then you had better have some thoughts about the aftermath.

Again, we need to come back to the central point of what SAFE claims is its ultimate focus and that is the welfare of the animals at the heart of our industry.  This is our common ground because, whether SAFE wants to accept this or not, that is the key focus of those in the industry.

It galls me when I hear their people pontificate about how thoroughbred race horses are treated as it just confirms they have spent no time with racing people.

One of my enduring memories when interviewing legendary trainer Colin Jillings was his statement that you must treat horses with love, and it is something which comes across time and again when racing people talk about how and why they got into the industry.

You have to love what you do to work the hours these people do, and I wonder whether SAFE’s commitment to animal welfare could extend to some hands-on experience?  If they walked a way in our shoes, they might recognise we have our horses’ best interests at heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping sight of hope while we wait

As the weeks and months pass since the release of the Messara Report the more I feel as though we, as an industry, are living our own version of Waiting for Godot.

Samuel Beckett’s best-known work, described by Irish wits as a play where nothing happens twice, is essentially about hope.  However, unlike Vladimir and Estragon, the racing industry has already been delivered hope – in the form of the report, which has been dangled in front of us.

Unfortunately, that tantalising vision appears to have been swept away again and locked away to await the results of deliberations around submissions.  Various permutations of legislation also appear to be on the cards, relating to the creation of RITA, racefields and changes to the Racing Act.  Although, given the fact that parliament sits for a further six days this year, it would seem we will have a long wait over the summer.

A scan of the happenings in parliament this week offered just one glimpse of anything with a racing connection and that was the reappearance of a petition which was presented to the Primary Production select committee calling for greyhound racing to be banned.  No doubt the Racing Board and its highly paid government liaison squad will be all over that.

Back to our code though and the desperate hopelessness which swamps us as we, like Vladimir and Estragon, find ways to fill the time while we wait.

The past week saw the release of the NZTR annual report in ample time to give interested parties plenty of time to read and digest prior to the AGM on Monday, 10 December.  Note to NZRB, perhaps you might look at a similar approach in the future? At this stage, with their AGM scheduled for improbably named “The Zone” in Petone’s Head Office next Friday, there is no sign of the NZRB Annual Report online.

So, to the NZTR document and, as one would expect Chairman Alan Jackson spends a considerable amount of his report focusing on the Messara report and the potential positive outcomes for the industry.

On the topic of changes to legislation, Jackson states that NZTR would hope these could be finalised “sooner rather than later but we are also cognisant of the need to get it right. It is important that the legislation is fit for purpose, as the proposals have the potential to unlock returns that are simply not feasible under the current structure.”

I’ve read a lot of these Annual Reports over the years and developed a healthy cynicism, however I found myself silently applauding the introduction to this year’s NZTR report.

Under the heading: who we are, it states:

“New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing is tasked with administering the domestic thoroughbred racing code but that illustrates what we do, rather than who we are. Technically we are racing administrators but in reality, we are racing enthusiasts.”

That enthusiasm for the industry and its health is demonstrated when the chairman talks about the distribution received from NZRB ($79.7m, an increase of 6.7% “mainly attributable to the advance funding of $24m to the three codes, announced in 2016-17. In 2017-18, NZTR received $6.5m of the advance funding, which was redistributed to the industry in prize money”).

Now read the following and ask what state the industry might be in had the NZ Racing Board exercised similar discipline and restricted their operating costs.

“Of the total revenue received by NZTR, 91 per cent was returned to the industry, with nine per cent being the cost of running NZTR, inclusive of licensing, stud book, handicapping, racing bureau and registrations. A restructure of the senior management team helped reduce staff costs and the overall operating expenditure, before infrastructure spend, was down 2.3 per cent on last year. This was a good result, bearing in mind that the expenditure included a one-off website refresh.”

If you want to consider the rough figures around that related back to the NZRB, when one takes the total revenue (as per the 2017 Annual report, given the 2018 Annual report has yet to see the light of day) of $348m and the total operating costs of $204m the picture is dire.  How is it that the Board, or anyone associated with that bloated organisation, considers it right that around 60 per cent of our revenue is eaten up by operating costs?

As a wise fisherman was reaffirming to me at Karaka during the Ready to Run sales, a reduction of costs in that area would see a totally different picture being painted.

Anyway, I didn’t want to get into yet another diatribe about the excesses of the NZRB – can you blame me though? They as good as load the gun before stepping in front of the sights!

Back to the NZTR Annual report and chairman Alan Jackson’s thoughts on the future of galloping venues.  His considered take on this should soothe some of those who have become over-excited after reading (only that section of) the Messara report, but then some are beyond seeing reason.

The report states:

“Venue reviews will play a big role in determining the future shape of the New Zealand industry and NZTR needs to have the authority to determine that some tracks should be closed. The principle that the wider racing industry should benefit from venue sales is a sound one but vesting all race club property and assets to the code regulatory bodies will meet some justified resistance. NZTR takes the view that in general clubs are the appropriate stewards of their land while racing continues at that venue and that universal land transfer is a blunt instrument, which does not recognise that some venues are important community assets.”

“However, NZTR believes that we need to be able to ensure that when use of venues ceases, any proceeds from a sale of that venue may be applied in the wider interests of thoroughbred racing, following consultation with affected parties, including community groups. We also agree that the current structures relating to asset allocation in the thoroughbred sector do not recognise the historical investment that the industry, as a whole, has made in individual venues.”

Of course, there are also some dire figures included in the report which reflect our dwindling horse numbers, an impact of a foal crop which has been on a downward spiral.  Overall, though this is a relentlessly positive document which gives hope that there might be a future.

In the meantime, we wait.

 

Peculiar document damns clubs to a bleak future as they battle “process”

Whereas most of those who spent the time and effort putting together a submission to the DIA on the contents of the Messara report one group of clubs furnished an eight-paragraph diatribe.

Avondale, Bank’s Peninsula, Central Otago, Egmont, Gore, Kurow, Oamaru, Reefton, Rotorua, Stratford, Wairoa, Westland, Winton and Woodville, along with “supportive tenant clubs”: Beaumont, Tapanui, Wairio and Wyndham have pinned their collective futures on this peculiar document.

Their “submission” is entitled “Collective statement concerning DIA process” and, rather than considering the future of the industry as a whole is focused solely on what they, through their representative Murray Blue, describe as a “land grab.”

(For those younger readers who might not be well acquainted with previous racing activities of Dr Blue click here for a little background).

These clubs, in the “submission” which bears their names, also appear to be putting words in the deputy Prime Minister’s mouth – never a wise move – claiming Winston Peters, at the launch of the Messara report: “adopted the Messara findings unequivocally and without providing for consultation with clubs.”

Obviously, Dr Blue and his merry followers must have been listening to and reading totally different speeches and press releases to the rest of us.

What our Racing Minister actually said was that the Messara Report “confirms what many of us have been worried about for a number of years and highlights the need for the industry to turn itself around.”

He went on to state: “The government will now take the opportunity to fully assess Mr Messara’s report.  My intention is to have officials produce a Cabinet paper with a set of recommendations for decision.  While it is too early to say what Cabinet will agree upon, the severity of the situation means the status quo is unlikely to prevail.”

“As this review identifies, a complex task lies ahead and for that reason Cabinet will also consider establishing a transition agency to help guide the process, particularly if there are changes to racing governance,” he said.

Submissions were called for in mid-September, giving plenty of time for those who may have experienced a knee-jerk reaction to actually read and re-read the report in its entirety.  At that time the Minister said that the review “delivers a blunt appraisal and concludes the New Zealand racing industry is in a state of serious malaise.”

“It is important that those most vested in the industry have the opportunity to provide feedback on the recommendations,” he said.

This was the chance for those clubs who were feeling marginalised because their venues were slated for closure to make a considered bid for reconsideration.

Instead, what happened?  Somehow those clubs listed earlier decided to pin their hopes for a future where nothing changed on a document which did not address one of the recommendations raised in the Messara report.  Instead it dwells only on the approach taken to arrive at the recommendation around the need for track closures.

Their argument was akin to that of a tantrum-throwing toddler in a playground spat – it’s not fair!

Apparently, it was not fair that the clubs “were not in any meaningful way consulted by John Messara in connection with his ultimate conclusion that the property assets of selected individual clubs should be confiscated by NZTR via legislation.”

It was not fair that “in a number of instances John Messara with his NZTR or ‘major club’ guides on the road, made fleeting visits to tracks with no attempt to consult with club officials; in other instances, there was no visit at all.  In general terms neither John Messara nor a representative of Messara met or conferred with clubs before proclaiming his idea to nationalise their private assets.  Despite his experience in business and racing administration John Messara has failed in this element of fundamental human rights.  The prospect of a ‘land grab’ against us was never put to us, nor the subject of a request for input, before a unilateral announcement by the Racing Minister and Deputy Prime Minister (Claudelands, 31 August 2018).”

The document appears to hinge upon the following statement: “The Messara Report which the Racing Minister appears hell-bent on following in all of its recommendations, is flawed as it affects us for procedural unfairness.

“For that reason these clubs see as unlawful the government’s proposed course of action.  Further, this after-the-fact activity by DIA in asking for input in October 2018, on the internet, seeking ultimately an endorsement of the Right Hon Winston Peters [sic] acceptance of John Messara’s justifications for a ‘land grab’ is not something to which these clubs will submit.”

So, forget the recommendations which, if followed, will revive an industry in its death throes, let’s argue process.

There is no one currently involved in this industry who does not sympathise with those clubs faced with the possibility of relocating their racing to another venue.  But, at this stage nothing is set in stone and while clubs may feel taking a combative stand is the only way to achieve their end goal more would be achieved by entering into constructive communication.

Creating petitions, roping in opposition politicians and firing allegations of illegal activity at government are not conducive to allowing our industry to progress.

Just to confirm the clubs concerned, along with the writer of their “submission,” may have a tenuous relationship with reality I really have to include the final paragraphs, parts of which enter into a realm of paranoia I haven’t seen since 2002.

“In the view of the clubs listed below, there is the possibility of a predetermined course of action, involving John Messara (and his people if any) and senior executives of NZTR or its board, in that the Messara Report implements in whole or part a pre-existing internal agenda in NZTR, whereby NZTR aimed to be able to close venues to release funds from within the thoroughbred industry to fund capital expenditure on new and existing sites proposed for the Waikato and other regions.  These issues within the industry power base grew in proportion from January 2018.”

“In our view this move by the DIA to provide a consultation function for their Minister is (potentially) an attempt to cure both the mistakes of John Messara in the way he conducted himself in New Zealand while surveying the subject matter of his report, and the impulsive nature of the Minister’s instant adoption of the Messara Report on or about 31 August, despite the Minister’s office having the final of the Messara Report for more than four weeks before he showcased it at the Claudelands function.”

“Accordingly, these listed clubs reject the relevant portions of the Messara Report and will not accept the legitimacy of any proposed legislative step by the government to furnish funds for the rationalisation of thoroughbred racing.”

At the very least this slight document will have provided some interesting reading for those at DIA charged with working through the submissions.  Just what they made of an attack of their process is anyone’s guess.

Sadly, these clubs in nailing their colours to the mast of the good ship Blue have identified themselves as not being supportive of the future of the New Zealand industry.

By placing self-interest first, and not even entering into discussions as to what life at another venue might look like, they have missed a gilt-edged opportunity to reap a future where they might be the next Feilding JC.  This blinkered approach, if they maintain it, will only hasten the demise of their respective clubs.

Perhaps, once they have had the opportunity to read and digest the bits of the report they obviously missed on first reading, they may reconsider and instead chose to be part of a thriving industry.  It’s not too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The recipe to breed a champion remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma

Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.  It’s an adage we’ve all heard and can be attributed to American John E Madden.  A prolific owner across both the galloping and harness code, Madden bred 14 “champion” racehorses, including five Kentucky Derby winners, four Belmont Stakes winners and the first winner of the Triple Crown, Sir Barton.

He was also a bit of a trader – specifically in his earlier years when purchasing and improving horses – and claimed his motto was: “Better to sell and repent than keep and resent.”

It would also appear, based on that and his breeding mantra, he had a very tidy turn of phrase.

Which brings me back to breeding theories and the fact that champions can come in any shape or size.  They can either burst on to the racing stage as a ready-formed star or emerge more slowly, with time their friend as their talent blossoms as they mature.

It was something I got to thinking about again earlier this week after reading a fabulous piece from The Conversation, an independent media outlet which carries pieces predominantly written by academics.  Should be dull as ditch water, right? Not this piece.

The article in question was authored by Steven Tammariello, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Director of the Institute for Equine Genomics, Binghamton University, State University of New York.

I recommend you check it out in its entirety here.

What captivated me was largely what the author said intrigued him and that is how variations of genes impact on performance and/or development –  given he is a molecular physiologist, he has the ability to investigate further.

Faced with the incredible opportunity to do a little DNA testing on the mighty Seabiscuit Tammariello and his team leapt at the chance.  The source of this elusive DNA was slightly creepy, a couple of silvered (as in, dipped in silver) hooves from the champion racehorse.  Just reading about this brought back memories of some of the more macabre mementoes of our own racing heroes which were once housed at Ellerslie racecourse as they awaited a permanent home.  From memory there was an inkwell made from one of Carbine’s hooves, slightly more useful than Seabiscuit’s ornamental hoof.

Despite the age and deterioration of the hooves DNA was able to be extracted from Seasbiscuit’s coffin bones.  However, the nuclear DNA – layman’s description being the DNA inherited from all ancestors – was “somewhat degraded”.  The mitochondrial DNA – that which is only inherited from the female lineage – was described as intact and that allowed the team to confirm the hooves did come from Seabiscuit.

Despite the state of the DNA it was possible for some sequencing to be done around those genes related to racing distance.  From these it was determined that Seabiscuit’s gene variants were those often found in horses which are good over ground.  But, he also had minor variants which are usually found in sprinters.

The article stated:

This somewhat rare genetic combination of stamina and speed seems to be reflected in the champion’s race record, as he won races from as short as 5 furlongs (sprint) to as long as 1¼ miles (distance). Further, horses of today that we’ve identified with this genotype tend to be late bloomers, winning their first race almost three months later, on average, than horses with a genotype associated with precocity. Sounds like Seabiscuit’s race record: He didn’t become a true racing star until his 4-year-old racing season.

Of course, the obvious question – well, the one which leapt into my mind straight away – is, does this mean we can clone Seabiscuit?

Apparently, due to the quality of the nuclear DNA and the small amount retrieved, that is not an option – “for now.”

Instead the team is going to continue to examine Seabiscuit’s genome and attempt to discover more about just what it was which made him so special, especially given his well-chronicled physical defects (smaller than average; unusual gait; crooked legs – let’s just say he wouldn’t have made Book 1).  They will also be looking to see whether his DNA differs wildly from that of the modern thoroughbred.

What is going to be interesting in the future is how breeding theories may eventually end up going out the window.  No more breeding the best to the best and hoping for the best, in the future we will be able to look at a foal’s DNA and have an indication as to that animal’s precocity or otherwise and its optimum distance.

How far down that line can we end up going, and how accurate will those predictions be?  Surely, other external factors will still come into play with environment also continuing to play a part?

While I embrace these scientific advances I also tend to lean towards the romantic when it comes to breeding.

Indulge me a little as I now deviate into one of my favourite breeding tales, that of the Oaks and Derby winner Signorinetta, a true “love child.”

Her story begins with owner and breeder Cavaliere Edoardo Ginistrelli and a mare called Signorina who was no slug on the racetrack, being unbeaten in nine races at two, including the Middle Park Stakes; the winner of two more races at three and runner-up in the Oaks; and the winner of the Lancashire Plate as a four-year-old.

At stud though over ten seasons she had not produced a live foal before leaving Signorino who ran second in the 2000 Guineas before finishing third in the Derby.

A stallion called Chaleureux, who is variously described as a “nine guinea stallion” or a teaser – take your pick – used to pass Signorina’s box every day and, every day the mare would call to him.  This convinced her passionate Italian owner the horses were “in love” and he allowed Chaleureux to cover his prized mare.

The resulting foal Signorinetta was trained by Ginistrelli himself and while she may have won both the Oaks and the Derby it is widely agreed that the quality of that year may have been lacking.

There is also a quirky tie to New Zealand through Signorinetta with one of her offspring, the 1912 filly Pasta (by Thrush) being the dam of six-time leading NZ stallion Hunting Song.

We may be making rapid advancements in the world of science and its contribution to breeding but until such time as we can create the perfect racing specimen in a lab there will always remain an element of the unexpected and unexplained in the make-up of our champions.

In the words of another passionate Italian: “A horse gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart, and wins with his character.” (Federico Tesio).