A memo to the couch jockeys and trolls who think they could do better….

Like most who have the occasional bet I have sometimes questioned the decisions made by various jockeys when my genius punt has failed.

Generally, though I keep my murderous thoughts to myself, after all it’s only money.  As I see it the guys and girls who go to work followed by an ambulance every day have more idea about what can transpire during a race than those who lounge on a sofa watching. That and hindsight having 20/20 vision!

Back in the day the odd media commentator would possibly label the occasional “bad ride” but it is less likely to happen now that most jockey managers in New Zealand are also moonlighting in the media (or vice versa).   Unfortunately, thanks to the open access of social media jockeys now find themselves right in the firing line of some pretty toxic individuals.

Some comments on my Twitter and Facebook feed do take my breath away as trolls, bypassing their brain and clearly talking through their pockets, pile on the abuse.  If you thought Kiwis didn’t stoop to this level then you are clearly deluded, I have seen the evidence and the venom demonstrated is appalling.

I find it moderately entertaining that some punters seem to believe that they would be way better than your average jockey when it comes to regularly riding winners.  They might not be so great at monitoring their diet; rising pre-dawn to ride trackwork; and including regular work-outs and/or yoga sessions, but they’re champions at making split second decisions which always result in them winning.

If it sounds as though my sympathy lies with the jockeys, then you’re right – guilty as charged.  My grandfather was one of six brothers who were jockeys and he rode with a little success before weight caught up with him.  His biggest claim to fame was training and riding Tara King to win the NZ Derby during the war years.  He later rode over jumps but never really loved that role, refusing to have jumpers when he went training full-time.

Like most jockeys he had the odd fall and broke many bones.  His brother Cyril was less fortunate being virtually crippled after a fall on the then-new Te Rapa track.

Of course, we have witnessed many changes around safety since those days when skullcaps were papier-mache light with nothing to hold them on and jockeys had to weigh out with them.  I wonder how the keyboard warriors would’ve coped with that sort of carry-on?

No matter what changes are made it does remain a dangerous way to earn a living and it plays out in real time with an audience.

So it was that on Sunday evening, having sole control of the TV remote, I just happened to be watching the races from Kranji when Kiwi jockey Alysha Collett took a nasty fall.  Singapore coverage being what it is, we then saw the fall many times over.

As I wrote this Alysha was due to go into surgery to stabilise a fracture to her L1 vertebrae, she also has a broken heel which may also require surgery.  Demonstrating the positive aspect of social media, Alysha was able to advise friends and family of her progress via Facebook.

Her mother, Judy, is in Singapore after a largely sleepless Sunday night.  She has first-hand experience of spending time in hospital after falls, the first time I met her – some time last century when she was an apprentice jockey and I was a (supposed) university student – she was in hospital with a broken ankle.

When she was eventually released I went with her to visit her parents Ron and Peg Hawes.  Prior to a career-ending fall Ron had won the 1941 Great Northern Hurdles on Esperance Bay.  He was also a New Zealand boxing title holder who according to my father, taught him to box.  This apparently occurred when my father sailed South with my grandfather and a team of horses and they stayed with Ron and Peg.  That latter fact was unknown to both Judy and I until we met in Christchurch.

I kind of like to think Ron might have had a more hands-on way to deal with the type of trolls today’s jockeys encounter.

His ability to achieve at a high level in two sports would’ve come as no surprise to a couple of Americans who conducted a study which proved jockeys were the most highly conditioned athletes in the world.

Sounds like a fanciful claim but Robert Kerlan, a sports medicine doctor from California and Jack Wilmore, a researcher from the University of Texas put a group of 420 professional athletes through a range of tests and jockeys topped them all.

Kerlan went into the study thinking that it was the horses that did all the work and the jockeys were merely pilots.  That all changed though when the athletes were tested in areas of conditioning, reflexes, coordination and strength.

Jockeys had by far the lowest body fat of any of the athletes involved in the testing and 80 per cent of them were able to bench-press more than their own body weight.

Kerlan calculated that every race a jockey rode was the equivalent of competing in an 800-metre running race.

His interest in the study stemmed from his jockey clientele who had taken falls at Hollywood Park or Del Mar and the fact they seemed to recuperate from injuries much faster than the players he treated from sports teams like the Rams, Lakers and Dodgers.

Despite the results of the study when ESPN named Michael Jordan the greatest American athlete of the 20th century in 2000 not one jockey made the top 100.  Secretariat was the highest ranked athlete from the thoroughbred racing world, coming in at 35, one of three horses named in the top 100 (the others being Man o’ War and Citation).  Just two jockeys – Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro – made the top 100.

Pulitzer prize winning sportswriter, the late Red Smith stated: “If Bill Shoemaker were six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, he could beat anybody in any sport.  Pound-for-pound he is the greatest living athlete.”

The online trolls might want to ponder that the next time they are tempted to slag off a jockey.

Industry saviour or footnote in history which way will Avondale jump?

It’s that time of year when racing clubs around the country hold their AGMs.

Usually these are fairly tame affairs where those cajoled into standing for vacant spots on boards or committees discover their fate and the chairman delivers the good (more often bad) news regarding finances.  The prevailing demographic is old and older and generally one can expect a question from the floor about what is being done to attract “the young people”.

Laughingly, I was once considered one of those aforementioned young people and, having fallen for the patter and ended up on the committee of two country racing clubs in quick succession, was the one this question was usually directed at.  Making it attractive, entertaining, comfortable and not treating us like second-class citizens was apparently not the answer they wanted.

Anyway, unlike most racing clubs time moves on and here we are at a most interesting crossroads in our country’s racing history.

Which way will we turn in this our “now or never moment” as Racing Minister Winston Peters described it?

There is one club AGM which I would certainly love to attend, as would most wondering whether self-interest will be placed above the future of the industry.  The Avondale Jockey Club holds its AGM at 4.30pm on Tuesday, 30 October (incidentally the same time and date as the Auckland Racing Club conducts its AGM).  Anyone want to lay bets as to how much time is likely to be taken up with discussion around the Messara report and the proposed closure of the track?

In the interests of full disclosure, I have a small family connection to the Avondale track.  My great-uncle Jack Burgess, he who prepared the great weight-carrying mare Soneri when training out of Otaki, later moved to Avondale.  A highlight of his time training from the Avondale track was taking out the 1966 Great Northern Steeplechase with Confer.

I also recall going to watch the first horse I owned racing under lights at Avondale in the bitter cold.  It might have been an idea ahead of its time, but it was also the wrong time and definitely the wrong place.

There has been plenty of discussion around track closure following the release of the Messara report, most of it emotive.  The important thing we should all agree with is that we have too many tracks and 20 need to go.  The make-up of that 20 might differ slightly from the courses named in the Messara report but Avondale should be non-negotiable.

Its potential value to the industry is immense and, should its custodians realise that and act with grace while relocating their racing operations to Ellerslie they will be forever remembered as industry saviours.

Should they decide to go down the “man the barricades” route they will remain a footnote in history akin to the Takapuna club which disappeared in the 1930s.

Just imagine if things had been different and the industry was currently sitting on an asset like that on the North Shore.

Its worth revisiting a bit of the Takapuna club’s history here.  It got slammed in the 1921 Earl Royal Commission (as did Avondale, more about that later) and its future at that time was decidedly shaky.

Takapuna managed to survive for another dozen or so years, largely since few of the recommendations in the Earl Commission were acted upon.  Remember we have a history of commissioning reports and then ignoring them when the solutions offered are politically unpalatable.  Or worse still, when the interests of the squeaky (but wobbly) wheel are placed ahead of the future health of the industry.

When the demise finally came for Takapuna it was due to safety and financial concerns with the Racing Conference refusing to be budged once the decision was made.

A fatal fall in a five-horse race at Takapuna on 27 January 1934 sealed the club’s fate and the club president Ewen Alison delivered his final report to members on 25 September that year.

He bemoaned the fact that the club had, over the previous 25 years, spent in extent of 63,000 pounds in “course construction, in the erection of buildings, in extensive concrete terracing which provided accommodation of 14,000 people, each of whom could view the races as well as from the grandstand.”

Despite the club’s pleas the Racing Conference had notified them that it would no longer grant any permits to race on the course which lead to Alison making this extraordinary claim:

“The Racing Conference is necessarily vested with wide powers, but it is expected that the power shall be reasonably and justly exercised.  I have no hesitation in saying that never in the history of racing has such a monstrous injustice or greater wrong been inflicted on any racing club in the world.”

(Avondale: “Hold my beer.”)

Anyway, hard done by or not the upshot was that the club’s course and assets were gifted to the people of Devonport. Takapuna then raced at Ellerslie until its debts were cleared and the membership was absorbed by the Auckland Racing Club and the Takapuna club disappeared into the ether.

Avondale, should it determine to go down the petty, vindictive road where its assets go anywhere other than back to the industry, will have an interesting footnote in our history.

They are no stranger to drama.  In the earlier mentioned Earl Commission, it was suggested the club was “unnecessary and…should not be permitted to hold totalisator licenses urgently desired by country and other clubs with infinitely better claims.”

The structure of the club had concerned the commission, having had a small membership from its inception.

Tapestry of Turf detailed this as follows: “Only 13 new members had been elected in the last eight years and there was an exceedingly discouraging rule in regard to the personnel of the committee.  The club now had 29 members; one had permanently left the Dominion and, of the remaining 28, 23 were members also of the Auckland Racing Club.  Only 21 had paid the annual subscription.  Of the 16 on either the committee or stewards, 13 were members of the Auckland Racing Club.  Not one member lived in Avondale or its vicinity.  Little attention had been paid to providing training facilities and there was only one small training stable at Avondale.”

There were also concerns around the way the club was structured.  However, somehow Avondale managed to struggle through and survive that glitch.

Subsequently, though there have been major potholes along the way, consider the following snippets from the club’s own website:

  • April 1987 sees the first night racing meeting at Avondale. Installation of lighting and related infrastructure costs about $8 million.
  • In 1989 the Club sold surplus land in Wingate Street to the Housing Corporation for $600,000. At the Club’s 100th AGM of Members held on 17 October 1989, Eddie Doherty, President, said that on course attendance figures had increased substantially by having all mid-week fixtures as night meetings. The Club’s $5.4m debt to the Bank of New Zealand is subject to winding up proceedings by the bank in November 1989. The Club had tried to sell parcels of land to avoid financial collapse but did not succeed. The Racing Authority steps in to take over the Club’s governance and management with a Board of Control (comprising D McElroy, J Wells and T Green).
  • Hundreds of floodlights from the AJC night racing meetings are in a fire-sale by the Club for $130,000 in 1992.
  • In response to the AJC’s submission in 2008 on the possible closure of the track, New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing’s chief executive Paul Bittar takes a hard-line. Bittar says the Club is expendable, justifying his opinion by stating management was underperforming and a sale of the asset would realise $60 million.
  • NZTR continues its look at its options to improve racing in Auckland – having suggested closure of Avondale so that Ellerslie and Pukekohe are the regional courses. A greenfield option is present too. “The Aucklander” reports (July 2009) that Avondale is saddle sore, saying that the racecourse has seen better days and the Club is under increasing pressure to close.
  • April 2015 saw the sale of a parcel of land (9,719 m2) not part of racing operations at the Western end of the track. The unimproved site had been subdivided from the main racecourse title in early 2014 and was marketed for 12 months.

Note:  The sale of the land in 2015 for $2.75m ($50,000 under CV) was reported to have cleared any remaining “major” debt.

What next for Avondale? There are really two choices and I think the final word should be left to the Racing Minister who asked the following when launching the Messara report:

“Would you accept track closures if it leads to saving your club, and creating a greater pool in prizemoney to generate further investment in ownership?”

Your call Avondale.

Time to put the NZRB out of its misery?

Call me cynical but I’m not buying this sympathy wave the NZ Racing Board is currently riding. With a late run reminiscent of Chautauqua the NZRB is attempting to position itself as a victim.  The outcome is more likely to be akin to last Friday’s Moonee Valley trial rather than the withering last-second winning burst a la any of the grey flash’s TJ Smith successes.

If you watched Weigh In last week, then you will have witnessed the staggering sight of the NZRB CEO John Allen stating that he did not speak to the Minister of Racing.  That was confirmation, if needed, that the NZRB in its current form is broken.

There were a couple of things which immediately sprang to mind when I heard that.  The first was, “well in that case do any of your well-rewarded Government and Industry relationship managers have any contact with the minister’s office”? And, the second was – “Winston can’t be that difficult to contact, Brian de Lore seems to have no problem getting him to provide answers to straight-forward questions.”

Long term readers will remember the Government and Industry relationship tribe which I referred to in a blog post last November (More climb aboard the NZRB gravy train).  From what I have heard over the past week though, they were as blind-sided as Allen when the Minister announced he was pulling the Racefields legislation.

It would seem from this that no one at the NZRB was paying attention when the Messara report was launched and the Racing Minister was answering questions. In addition to communication problems it would appear the CEO and chair are also challenged when it comes to listening and comprehension because, seated front and centre at the launch they managed to miss what everyone else watching heard and saw.

Interestingly, Brian de Lore wrote the following paragraph referencing this in his latest column in The Informant – you won’t have read it though as it was deleted:

That fact has been stated several times here in The Informant.  The Minister stated it himself at the launch of the Messara Report (and debated it with Graeme Rogerson) and he has always said we get only one chance at doing the legislation and everything had to be done at once.  It was no secret.

I went back and watched that segment of the Q&A again where, in response to Graeme Rogerson’s question about Section 16 the Minister had, among other things, this to say:

“I said that the law had been written in 2002 and the last one which is now before parliament which we have suspended bear the hallmarks of writing legislation for politicians and bureaucrats at their convenience and not with the interests of the industry in mind.”

When Rogerson pushed further asking specifically about Racefields legislation Winston Peters claimed the trainer was wanting to head down the motorway in a Lada when he was trying to create a Rolls Royce future for the industry.

“That legislation has got problems with it and we’ve only got a certain gap in the legislative schedule ahead to put the changes in we want,” he stated.

In response to the Minister’s query as to whether he saw the legislation as the “salvation of the industry” Rogerson said, no but it was a help.

The Racing Minister’s pithy reply, “So’s liniment!” left little doubt as to his opinion of the racefields legislation.

Apparently, this exchange went whizzing over the heads of those from NZRB and obviously was also missed by the wonderful leadership team which John Allen would happily have alongside him in any battle.

Their unwavering belief that Racefields was to be their saviour also probably meant they didn’t bother too much with reading the Messara report which also pointed out flaws in the legislation.

This pretty much sums it up:

We are not convinced that the maximum level of penalties prescribed in the Bill is sufficiently high enough to act as a proper deterrent for persons not complying with the legislation. Perhaps further consideration should be given to adding custodial penalties for persons found guilty of breaching the legislation. It is widely thought that the inclusion of custodial penalties in the NSW legislation has been a prime motivator for a high level of compliance. While it would be beneficial for the legislation to be enacted at the earliest opportunity to generate much needed revenue for the racing industry, it would be more appropriate to delay its passage until a final decision is made by the Government on the preferred structure of racing and betting administration in New Zealand. This would avoid the necessity of setting up monitoring and collection systems within the nominated Designated Authority only to have to repeat the exercise if the structure changes.

Based on what we have seen and heard from the NZRB over the past week or so it would seem they are living in an alternate universe.  In that world work goes on shovelling money into a FOB platform which has the whiff of a three-week dead trout about it; jobs of all descriptions are advertised despite the future of the organisation being shaky at best; and there is no connection between the senior leadership team and the Minister.

Shouldn’t we all be more than a little concerned about all of the above?  Even more so when it is being portrayed by the CEO as if they are the ones who are being hard done by.

We are lucky in this country to have relatively easy access to our politicians, we connect to them via social media, can drop them an email, write them a letter and even give them a phone call – which they may, or may not chose to answer!

Brian de Lore told me earlier this week that he had flicked a text to Racing Minister Winston Peters and received a phone call within three minutes.

He relays this in his piece in The Informant where the Minister could not have been clearer when it came to the Racefields legislation.

“I cannot keep on jamming things into the Parliamentary schedule and it made sense to pull that out of the schedule and incorporate whatever good parts there are into a new Bill as fast as I can,” the Minister told de Lore.

Given this and further comments from the Minister in the de Lore piece it was somewhat odd to see an NZRB puff piece also featuring in The Informant where John Allen is apparently “pushing a case for the Racing Board and the TAB in its current form to maintain a position at the top of industry administration and oversight.”

Anyone with a little more self-awareness might have already fallen on their sword.

Instead, we continue to hear the same old rhetoric coming out of Petone where it is everyone else’s fault that they are now presiding over a dead horse.  We are told they are passionate about the industry – as passionate as a six-figure salary can make you, I think – and that they want to see it thrive.   Excuse me if we aren’t swallowing it, after three years we’ve figured out the talk is just talk.

The implementation of recommendation number 4 can’t come soon enough.  Don’t be surprised though if, when the independents charged with conducting a performance and efficiency audit of the NZRB finally break into Fortress Petone, they find nothing but a burnt-out shell.