Time to learn from the past and forget the piecemeal approach

When I was a kid, a journey with my grandfather was a travelogue of often defunct racecourses and anecdotes of what had gone on there years earlier.

My favourite tale involved the old Carterton track where he claimed he broke his little toe.

Between the time he quit race riding and established himself as a trainer many of the tracks he used to frequent had gone the way of the Dodo so there were plenty of stories.

So, what has that got to do with anything you ask?  Well, last week the NZ Herald, finally realising the Messara report was an eventuality whether their NZRB-employed “reporter” liked it or not, ran what I refer to as a “non-story”.

With the report yet to be released and so consequently light on any facts the writer went for the divide and rule approach by focusing on the fact Messara had been asked to focus on the thoroughbred code.

The reasoning was twofold he decided – our code had “fallen the furthest behind its Australian equivalent in terms of stake money and infrastructure, particularly New South Wales racing” and this doozy – “it was serious players in the thoroughbred industry, like Sir Patrick Hogan, who were among the most vocal Peters supporters before last year’s election.”  Right….so now we have established the level of media we are dealing with, lets move on to another aspect of the piece which left readers in no doubt as to the writer’s absolute terror that the gravy train may be about to derail.

Lacking an actual story, he decided to attempt to provoke the provinces with the following statement: “Reducing the number of racing venues in New Zealand also looks certain to be recommended but again that will be met with considerable resistance in some regions.”

No prizes for either assumption.  There is no doubt that, for our population, we do have a surfeit of tracks, likewise, if you are going to suggest to a club that they might want to curtail their activities and relocate then you had better be armed with a good argument.

Not every club is double-blessed in the way the Feilding Jockey Club, New Zealand’s best example of a club moving down the road, was – with the advantage of owning land someone else was prepared to pay money for AND being driven by a forward-thinking president and committee who put industry interests first. If you need further convincing just compare their Cup stake these days to the figure they ran for at their old home track.

Considerable resistance is an understatement based on my personal experience too.  I am old enough to remember going racing at the Opaki track just outside of Masterton – in May, it wasn’t pleasant.  At the time, working at BloodHorse magazine I was already aware of the glut of tracks in the country and the fact that some of them were looking pretty shabby and struggling to survive.

In my youth and naivety I suggested to a few of the locals – all heavily involved in the industry – that it wouldn’t be long before we saw racing in the Wairarapa solely at Tauherenikau.  Needless to say the reaction was instant and negative.

The same suggestion, it turned out, was made in the 1946 Finlay Royal Commission, although no one reminded me of that at the time!  Eventually it did happen, albeit about 40 years after Finlay and co’s recommendation.

The Herald picked the right irritant if it wanted to stir up anti feeling prior to the release of the Messara report.  The arguments around which clubs should survive, which should amalgamate or pool their resources and which should just pack up their tents have been hotly contested since Finlay’s Commission mooted the same.  

Anyone remember the Otautau Jockey Club or the Waiapu Racing club or the Tolaga Bay Racing club?  Those three were among six clubs the Commission recommended have their licences withdrawn and relocated to other clubs.  By the time the 1970 McCarthy Commission was back revisiting some of the same ground those three had gone, while many of the others which it was suggested might rethink their futures were still raging into the night (I’m looking at you Masterton)!

So here we are five Commissions of Inquiry down the track – yes, FIVE – 1911 Clifford; 1915 Hunter; 1920 Kent; 1946 Finlay and 1970 McCarthy – obviously we are very slow learners, something Waikato Stud’s Garry Chittick reminds us of regularly.

On top of these Commissions we’ve also had a Ministerial Review, which I vaguely remember in the early 1990s; the PwC industry report of 2002; the Ernst & Young Performance and Efficiency Audit of the NZRIB of 1997 (what I wouldn’t give to see something like that delving into Jackson St these days!); the Racing Industry Working Group report in 2003 and that is probably only scratching the surface.

And where do we find ourselves people?

Being controlled by an obese organisation which is haemorrhaging money via the open oozing wound which is its operating costs.  It suckles 870+ employees, with the knowledgeable and necessary being squeezed out at the expense (and I mean expense) of the six-figure earners who are disconnected and disinterested.

We are racing for stakes which wouldn’t – at the lower level – be out of place in a racebook from thirty years ago, while costs have continued to escalate.  The following from the 1970 McCarthy Commission report would not be too far removed from how NZ trainers are operating today – “training fees charged by the licenced trainers barely covered the costs of feed and labour…trainers relied chiefly on their customary 10 percent share of stakes for their personal income.”  You want to know why so many of our promising young horses are sold off-shore, there’s your answer.

Our infrastructure is struggling to remain fit for purpose thanks to decades of neglect – if it wasn’t for the weight of Health and Safety demands number eight wire would be all that was holding us together in some places.

Make no mistake, this Messara report will paint a clear picture of what needs to be done and don’t be surprised if it sounds vaguely familiar.  After all, we’ve had a swag of Commissions and reports which have recommended the way forward. In each and every case these have been adopted in a piecemeal fashion, with the hard decisions avoided to our detriment.

The 1970 McCarthy report, in its conclusion, was wary of this after stating its recommendations were designed with the object of presenting one comprehensive plan of reform.

It stated: “Piecemeal adoption would lose much of the advantage of a plan aimed at ensuring a viable future for the industry as a whole.  Hopes of this are less likely to be fulfilled if the recommendations are not seen as inter-related.”

The final statements of that Royal Commission are worth repeating in full:

“We cannot leave our task without stressing once more two points which we have made often during this report.  The first, that though racing and trotting are merely different parts of an industry which includes other groups as well and which must therefore have machinery to co-ordinate and direct it, yet we firmly believe that the two codes should be left to decide their own internal structures and run their own affairs as they themselves would wish, without direction from others, save when the economic welfare of the whole industry is involved.  Because of this belief we have refrained from some positive recommendations which we might otherwise have made about matters which we think would be better changed. The second point is, that though we are convinced that the industry will experience increasing difficulties and challenges in the years ahead, its situation is far from desperate; it has much vitality and many forces for good. It must, however, prepare for the future by mobilising and employing them with the greatest efficiency.  Only if it does that, will it live vigorously and prosper.”

We had the chance in 1970 but lacked the cojones to make the changes needed.  Let’s not make the same mistake this time.




Remembering a milestone racing anniversary

Today, 15 July 2018, marks 40 years since the first New Zealand women rode against men at a totalisator meeting.

Last week, through a happy quirk which sees me now working in the same faculty, I asked former National MP Professor Marilyn Waring about her recollections of how things played out back then.

“I remember lots of it,” she said, adding that Linda Jones, who was the face and driver of the movement to get women licensed, had come to her as a constituent of her Waipa electorate.

“Linda had applied two or three times for a licence to the Racing Conference, she’d ridden miles of trackwork and she wasn’t the only one,” Professor Waring said.

“She showed me the correspondence they’d had and the main reason the Conference gave every time was that there was no separate toilet and changing facilities and racing clubs couldn’t afford to put them in.”

Here, she paused to allow those words sink in, before saying wryly, “As we said, how much did it cost for a curtain, if they were really that fussed.”

What played into the hands of Linda Jones and the other women wanting to ride was an election promise from National in the 1975 election.

“The National party had a commitment to establish a human rights commission,” Waring explained.

“And when that draft bill was ready, I sent a copy with a very polite letter – and it was – to the NZ Racing Conference which had always been split on the matter.  There were a couple of good guys in there but they kept being out-voted.”

“I drew the attention of the organisation to the equality in employment, or discrimination in employment clauses in the bill and suggested, that given their treatment of women who were applying to have licences, they should have a copy of the bill because they would probably need to make a submission if they wanted to continue with their particular position,” she said.

“Linda tells me that, at the meeting of the board, the letter was received and almost immediately someone said, ‘well we’re not going to have any choice are we, so we might as well move to do it now’ – and that’s what happened.”

At the time, as a local MP, she said attending race-meetings was something she did regularly because it was where people were.  She also remembered a number of studmasters and trainers being within her electorate.

These days she is a little more removed.

“It’s not like I pay a great deal of attention, but I get a thrill whenever they’re top of the table,” she said.

When the history of women earning the right to compete against men is recalled the part Waring and Linda Jones played is, rightly, to the forefront.  Likewise the fact that licensed Canadian Joan Phipps put a burr under the saddle of the NZ Racing Conference when was brought over to compete in 1977 – they couldn’t deny her a licence and she struck a blow for the movement by riding a winner while she was here.  

Then 15 July 1978 rolled around and the first of the Kiwi girls hit the track.  

First up on that auspicious day was Joanne Hale riding in a hurdle race at Waimate.  In what is now an awesome piece of synergy the race was won by King Bard ridden by Jim Collett, father of this season’s premiership winning jockey Samantha.

Jockeys are renowned for having elephant-like memories when it comes to their winning rides and, Jim Collett had no trouble recalling that day at Waimate 40 years ago.

Those watching our often depleted jumping ranks would probably find it amazing to know that 14 hurdlers went to the start that day.

Collett said there was little or no stick given to Hale, “jumps riders are a bit different, they’re a bit quieter and they tend to look after each other,” he said.

Another interesting fact he dredged up from the day was that there was a false start in the race.

“We had to go back and jump the first fence again, because a gate didn’t open,” he said.

Collett could give chapter and verse about the brilliance of his ride to win the race, but today is all about the women!  My memories are centred around Jo Hale and the fact that about six months after that momentous day I was lucky enough to get to know her.

At the time I was (allegedly) attending Canterbury University but, in reality I was hanging out with my best mate from secondary school who was working at Barrie Taggart’s stables and flatting with Jo Hale.

She had an impact on both of our lives at the time.  My friend remembers just how much: “She picked me up on Riccarton racecourse when I was just a kid potentially headed down a bad path and taught me the value of hard work; the need to be smart; that class didn’t really account for much; how to look people in the eye and the power that comes from that and that you should always be picked on talent, not gender or whatever else.”

Those were pretty big life lessons for a teenager, and as my friend added, there were a whole lot after us that she inspired too, including her own daughters.

My strongest memory is that she pushed me so far out of my comfort zone I found myself doing something that, at that age, I never would have anticipated.  She made me get over my timidity and actually believe I could stand up in front of a crowd and speak….it wasn’t pretty and no one but Jo could have given me the self-belief to do it.

Jo didn’t talk much about that first ride – it was more about living in the moment – but I do remember one conversation we had about wanting to be the first to do something.  She said that was part of what drove her and found a newspaper clipping which quoted her to that effect. 

My time in Christchurch was short-lived and later contact with Jo was through the ubiquitous Facebook.

In the intervening years and now known as Jo Giles, she had remarried; had a family; represented New Zealand at pistol shooting; competed in motor-sport; entered rock ‘n roll contests; run for parliament; started her own local body political party; run for mayor of Christchurch; and presented a TV programme on Christchurch TV.

In February 2011 she was one of the victims of the Christchurch earthquake in the CTV building.

Her contribution to racing is commemorated with a plaque at Riccarton racecourse. Those who she inspired remember her regularly as the larger-than-life character she was – we thought she was indestructible.

Photo: The writer “horsing around” with Jo Hale in Christchurch in 1979.






Missing the mark with media

If ever you needed an example of how far below the radar New Zealand’s racing industry is travelling, there was a glaring one on Newshub’s AM Show this morning.

While talking politics with, surprise, surprise, political reporter Tova O’Brien, host Duncan Garner queried the connection acting prime minister Winston Peters has with racing.  It would appear that, like the racing minister, the industry itself has little relevance when it comes to this show.

In the past there have been cringeworthy interviews around the NZ Derby meeting – focus being fancy hats and how much the trophies are worth.  Prior to the yearling sales there was a confused introduction of Sir Patrick Hogan with Garner claiming he was about to have “one last crack at the Karaka Million.”

Racing, once part of the nation’s fabric, is de trop and something which retains the stigma of back-alley betting shops and aged beer-swilling smokers, at least with this news outlet.  So much for the marketing and communications efforts of the six-figure salary earners in Petone!

Every step of the way those charged with promoting the industry have missed their mark.  They have failed to mark out a place for an industry which contributes $1.6 billion to the economy.  Their sole focus with media is on top end events.  Hospitality for media types at these events is more about the food and booze in isolated marquees rather than checking out the stars of the show and giving them an authentic experience.

It’s probably not their fault as one would expect few of those who work at the Racing Board have had an authentic racing experience themselves.  They certainly have no grasp of the industry’s rich history.

For example, here we are, coming up to the 40th anniversary of the first day women rode against men in New Zealand (15 July 1978).  Today females make up around half the riding ranks, some are even second-generation jockeys and there are numerous fantastic story opportunities.  If we are relying on anyone from the NZRB to lead the way when it comes to celebrations and some media acknowledgement to mark the occasion then, I imagine, we will be left disappointed!

The incredible story around “letting” women ride against the men has been there since day one and this one could even appeal to Duncan Garner and the AM Show crew – well, maybe not Mark Richardson!

While the industry hierarchy may have had to been bitch-slapped into allowing women to apply for licences once they took that step they ensured there was no discrimination when it came to pay scales.  From day one – 40 years ago – female jockeys have been paid the same amount as their male contemporaries.

Given the cacophony in the general media around gender equality – especially in the area of pay equity – this is one story which the industry should be shouting from the roof-tops.

I imagine there is a reason that the six-figure earners at the NZRB aren’t trumpeting this one (apart from the fact that any reference to pay rates might focus more unwanted attention upon the $60 million in salaries which the organisation siphons out of the industry).  Most likely it is that they probably don’t know (and don’t care) because they are so far removed from the industry they work for they wouldn’t have the first clue what jockeys are paid.

I can’t imagine any of them have ever used any of that six-figure salary to enjoy a share (or two, or three) in a horse and therefore are aware of the actual costs of racing a horse in New Zealand.

It is no wonder then that media outlets like Newshub continue to think of racing as some misty, murky relic of the past – populated by the likes of Winston “and his mates.”

Those who are charged to do as follows – via the Racing Act 8 Objectives of the Boards  The objectives of the Board are – (a) to promote the racing industry – have failed dismally and will not be missed upon their (hopefully imminent) departure!