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.