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.