Underwhelmed – was the prevailing reaction to the much anticipated announcement from Racing Minister the Right Honourable Winston Peters at Karaka on Sunday evening.
There was a touch of Trump in Peters’ opening remarks where he claimed he had never promised a “big announcement.” That should have been a clear precursor to what was to follow in his bid to make racing great again.
Peters cherry-picked from NZ First’s 10 point racing policy – primarily revisiting taxation to encourage investment. Reacting to the impact of numerous meetings being lost over the past season due to a combination of outrageous weather and poor track management, Peters also promised an all-weather track.
To get across the line the track, at a yet-to-be-confirmed location, although touted to be the Waikato; at a yet-to-be-confirmed cost, though quoted in some media sources to be in the vicinity of $10million; still needs to be approved come budget time in May.
The one sentence which could well have met with universal approval would have been a commitment to “urgently review the operations and costs of the New Zealand Racing Board.”
The fact those words were not included in Peters’ speech makes me question the NZ First definition of “urgently”.
It was an opportunity missed. Readers of this blog will be familiar with the excesses of the NZRB when it comes to richly rewarding the multitude who work there while the ROI to the industry stagnates.
Yesterday, as National party politicians Stephen Joyce and former racing minister David Bennett were enjoying hospitality at the yearling sales their leader Bill English, reacting to the proposed all-weather track, was questioning the need for taxpayers to contribute.
While English recognised the importance of an all-weather track he said he believed the industry should be able to fund it. Perhaps that might have been an option if the NZRB wasn’t providing so many of its largely useless staff a six-figure lifestyle funded by the sweat of industry participants.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern when addressing the taxation proposals told Newstalk ZB yesterday that the industry was facing rising costs and diminishing returns. She added that the coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First included a commitment to support NZ First’s Racing policy.
“In areas where we are relative to other international industries, if there comes a disincentive to invest in your domestic industry and more incentive to invest overseas, then you have to look at your competitiveness,” she said.
While those with skin in the game were debating the location of the all-weather track, online feedback on many news sites saw plenty taking swipes at what were largely described as handouts to the “wealthy” racing industry.
“If it’s such a multi-million dollar industry then why are taxpayers paying half?” was a common theme.
The perception of the industry from the outside is that it is populated by high-flyers. Why wouldn’t they think that when, for the week leading up to the sales at Karaka, racing and breeding make their annual appearance on mainstream TV?
The general public see people racing for $1million stakes; glossy yearlings being paraded and sold for six (and occasionally seven) figure sums; overseas buyers being wooed with fine wine and sumptuous food.
What they don’t see are the go-round meetings where we are still racing for stakes which haven’t increased exponentially with the cost of having a horse in work. They don’t see the vendors in the later days of the sales struggling to get a bid, or the legwork being done by trainers to fill bargain-basement syndicates.
The reality of the industry is largely hidden. Take a look at the financials of most racing clubs and it doesn’t make pretty reading. At the end of the day a bunch of volunteers – who are incidentally, becoming more and more difficult to attract – are battling to keep racing afloat.
We have fundamental problems which have failed to be addressed due to a lack of funds. In the meantime staff expenses at the NZRB still total in excess of $60million. They are down from 2016’s $66m down to $63m – at that rate in another dozen or so years they might have salaries about where they should be!
The Racing Minister also gave us a reminder to be positive. That would be a little easier if we knew he was going to make good on the one policy point which could see some serious money return to the industry.
Urgently review the operations and costs of the New Zealand Racing Board – sooner, rather than later please Winston!