How one club made a bold decision and lived to tell the story (and they put their stakes up!)

 In the wake of the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments from those associated with clubs whose tracks are destined for closure I felt it was an opportune time to provide some perspective.

As I said last week, a reaction of grief is not unexpected.  However, I was left with the strong impression, after reading several online stories that some of those affected were yet to read the Messara report in full.  What was more surprising however, was the fact that clubs claimed this was out of the blue and unexpected. I realise that clubs in this country are run by volunteers but, unless they were totally removed from the realities of the industry, I find it difficult to believe they were oblivious to the fact we were operating on borrowed time (and borrowed money).

I’ve been in their shoes.  Of the three clubs where I served on committees two were small, country clubs.  We worked hard to keep those clubs afloat, working bees were the norm and the financials were never pretty.

With that type of personal investment there also comes a sense of ownership.  But committees, through the ages, have never “owned” their clubs they are merely caretakers for future generations.  As such they have a duty of care.

I am hopeful that those club representatives who reacted in a predictable knee-jerk manner when contacted by media after the release of the Messara report have now had time to read and digest the report.  I am also hopeful that they are now looking at the big picture and seeing a different future for their clubs.

Just a note here too, if you are gobbing off about the report without reading it then please refer to this segment of my earlier blog post Time to embrace the process and be part of racing’s solution – “Read it through, breathe, read it again.  Sit back, mull it over and ask yourself one question.  Am I going to be part of the solution, or part of the problem?”

If you insist on being one of those people who prefer to live in ignorance or glean your “knowledge” of the detail of the report from the mainstream media, then do the rest of us a favour and do not share your unenlightened opinions with us.  As of Wednesday, when I made my second formal complaint against a mainstream media outlet which persisted in broadcasting and printing mistruths, I decided that I would ignore comment from those who patently have not read the report. Other than to scream at them – you can do that in the Twittersphere by using all capitals – READ THE REPORT! At this stage I have refrained from becoming sweary.

Anyway, for those associated with clubs whose tracks are earmarked for closure who are beginning to see that this might have to be their future I wanted to demonstrate just how it could pan out.

I have often quoted the Feilding Jockey Club as an example of what can happen when a president, supported by his committee and members, makes a very tough, but very brave decision.

To give a little history – Feilding began racing in 1879 and, as stated in Tapestry of Turf it was one of the most prosperous clubs of the time.  In 1905 its two-day Easter meeting recorded turnover of 30,117 pounds.  To put this in perspective the turnover a two-day fixture at Canterbury was 19,784 pounds, while three-days at the Auckland Racing Club saw 27,994 pounds bet.  Things obviously just got better because a meeting at Feilding in 1920 when Gloaming graced the track the on-course crowd of 8368 managed to clock up an incredible 103,000 in turnover.

The club also boasted something which the racing bible claimed was a New Zealand record with Goodbehere family members filling the secretary’s role from 1891 when Edmund Goodbehere took up the position.  Following on from his 33-year reign Edmund’s son Guy served for 30 years before, Edmund’s grandson Brian stepped into the role. His 22-year tenure concluded in 1976, just three years prior to the club’s centenary.

Given its rich – in more ways than one – history Craig McNeill, the club’s president in 1999 did not approach the task lightly when he looked to reshape the club’s future.

Craig recalled the lead up to the decision to sell the Feilding JC property and relocate to Awapuni thus:

Up until 1998/99 season, the Club was losing money, and basically going backwards and reducing its equity very fast.   A stop had to be put in place for this.

“Within the Committee, various members could recall the closure of Ashhurst Pohangina, Marton and Rangitikei Clubs.   They could see the benefit to those clubs who had gone through the process of centralising racing at one particular venue, namely the Awapuni Racing Centre.

“The decision was made by the then Committee to establish a sub-committee to proceed with the relocating of the Feilding Jockey Club to the Awapuni Racing Centre.

“There was a special meeting called for the purpose of discussing the proposed move. There was a presentation made from various industry personnel, mainly on the pro’s and con’s of staying versus moving.  

“The meeting was then asked to vote on the proposed move and there was a clear majority to proceed with the change of venue to the Awapuni Racing Centre,” he said.

What got the decision across the line, with hardly any opposition, was the fact that the presentation to the meeting clearly showed what would happen if the club stayed.

“What a lot of people do not realise, and the other clubs in the country who are facing closure will come to realise, is that moving made us stronger, not weaker,” Craig said.

“We are focused on the community and sponsors like never before and that sees increased investment and attendance at our meetings.”

The Feilding Jockey Club raced for just over 100 years at their last venue, that land after being sold to the Manawatu District Council in 1999 is now part of Manfeild Park.

The move, which saw the club transfer its racing operations to Awapuni, has been lauded as one of the best decisions made by a New Zealand club in recent decades Craig said.

Back in 1999 the Feilding Jockey club struggled to conduct three low-key midweek race meetings at their course and their feature event – the Feilding Cup – carried a stake of just $8000.

“Today the $50,000 Ricoh Feilding Gold Cup is a Listed open handicap with the club offered $232,500 prizemoney on this day, which is more than they paid out for their three meetings in the 1998-99 season,” Craig McNeill said.

Feilding currently runs three meetings at Awapuni, with the RACE Board allocating them the Manawatu Racing Club’s popular ANZAC Day feature meeting, which has provided the club with a second black type feature day.

“The club is in a very strong financial position and is a major contributor to the RACE concept,” Craig added.

Without making the move he is adamant the club would not have survived and he has no regrets about the decision.

“The club would be long gone,” he said.

To those clubs whose tracks are among the 20 slated to close he offers four bullet points:

  • “Embrace this proposed change”
  • “The Minister has given us a once in a lifetime opportunity – take it.”
  • “Do not be afraid of change.”
  • “Engage now with the venue you are looking to move to and start to agree how you can grow your business.”

“Moving gives the clubs a sustainable future and enables decisions to be focused on the customer and community, not on how to keep a derelict facility going,” he said.

Take it from someone who has been there and, instead of adopting a parochial view which would have heralded the club’s slide into oblivion, took bold action and allowed the club to thrive. History, and future racing generations, will thank you.