Keeping sight of hope while we wait

As the weeks and months pass since the release of the Messara Report the more I feel as though we, as an industry, are living our own version of Waiting for Godot.

Samuel Beckett’s best-known work, described by Irish wits as a play where nothing happens twice, is essentially about hope.  However, unlike Vladimir and Estragon, the racing industry has already been delivered hope – in the form of the report, which has been dangled in front of us.

Unfortunately, that tantalising vision appears to have been swept away again and locked away to await the results of deliberations around submissions.  Various permutations of legislation also appear to be on the cards, relating to the creation of RITA, racefields and changes to the Racing Act.  Although, given the fact that parliament sits for a further six days this year, it would seem we will have a long wait over the summer.

A scan of the happenings in parliament this week offered just one glimpse of anything with a racing connection and that was the reappearance of a petition which was presented to the Primary Production select committee calling for greyhound racing to be banned.  No doubt the Racing Board and its highly paid government liaison squad will be all over that.

Back to our code though and the desperate hopelessness which swamps us as we, like Vladimir and Estragon, find ways to fill the time while we wait.

The past week saw the release of the NZTR annual report in ample time to give interested parties plenty of time to read and digest prior to the AGM on Monday, 10 December.  Note to NZRB, perhaps you might look at a similar approach in the future? At this stage, with their AGM scheduled for improbably named “The Zone” in Petone’s Head Office next Friday, there is no sign of the NZRB Annual Report online.

So, to the NZTR document and, as one would expect Chairman Alan Jackson spends a considerable amount of his report focusing on the Messara report and the potential positive outcomes for the industry.

On the topic of changes to legislation, Jackson states that NZTR would hope these could be finalised “sooner rather than later but we are also cognisant of the need to get it right. It is important that the legislation is fit for purpose, as the proposals have the potential to unlock returns that are simply not feasible under the current structure.”

I’ve read a lot of these Annual Reports over the years and developed a healthy cynicism, however I found myself silently applauding the introduction to this year’s NZTR report.

Under the heading: who we are, it states:

“New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing is tasked with administering the domestic thoroughbred racing code but that illustrates what we do, rather than who we are. Technically we are racing administrators but in reality, we are racing enthusiasts.”

That enthusiasm for the industry and its health is demonstrated when the chairman talks about the distribution received from NZRB ($79.7m, an increase of 6.7% “mainly attributable to the advance funding of $24m to the three codes, announced in 2016-17. In 2017-18, NZTR received $6.5m of the advance funding, which was redistributed to the industry in prize money”).

Now read the following and ask what state the industry might be in had the NZ Racing Board exercised similar discipline and restricted their operating costs.

“Of the total revenue received by NZTR, 91 per cent was returned to the industry, with nine per cent being the cost of running NZTR, inclusive of licensing, stud book, handicapping, racing bureau and registrations. A restructure of the senior management team helped reduce staff costs and the overall operating expenditure, before infrastructure spend, was down 2.3 per cent on last year. This was a good result, bearing in mind that the expenditure included a one-off website refresh.”

If you want to consider the rough figures around that related back to the NZRB, when one takes the total revenue (as per the 2017 Annual report, given the 2018 Annual report has yet to see the light of day) of $348m and the total operating costs of $204m the picture is dire.  How is it that the Board, or anyone associated with that bloated organisation, considers it right that around 60 per cent of our revenue is eaten up by operating costs?

As a wise fisherman was reaffirming to me at Karaka during the Ready to Run sales, a reduction of costs in that area would see a totally different picture being painted.

Anyway, I didn’t want to get into yet another diatribe about the excesses of the NZRB – can you blame me though? They as good as load the gun before stepping in front of the sights!

Back to the NZTR Annual report and chairman Alan Jackson’s thoughts on the future of galloping venues.  His considered take on this should soothe some of those who have become over-excited after reading (only that section of) the Messara report, but then some are beyond seeing reason.

The report states:

“Venue reviews will play a big role in determining the future shape of the New Zealand industry and NZTR needs to have the authority to determine that some tracks should be closed. The principle that the wider racing industry should benefit from venue sales is a sound one but vesting all race club property and assets to the code regulatory bodies will meet some justified resistance. NZTR takes the view that in general clubs are the appropriate stewards of their land while racing continues at that venue and that universal land transfer is a blunt instrument, which does not recognise that some venues are important community assets.”

“However, NZTR believes that we need to be able to ensure that when use of venues ceases, any proceeds from a sale of that venue may be applied in the wider interests of thoroughbred racing, following consultation with affected parties, including community groups. We also agree that the current structures relating to asset allocation in the thoroughbred sector do not recognise the historical investment that the industry, as a whole, has made in individual venues.”

Of course, there are also some dire figures included in the report which reflect our dwindling horse numbers, an impact of a foal crop which has been on a downward spiral.  Overall, though this is a relentlessly positive document which gives hope that there might be a future.

In the meantime, we wait.

 

Peculiar document damns clubs to a bleak future as they battle “process”

Whereas most of those who spent the time and effort putting together a submission to the DIA on the contents of the Messara report one group of clubs furnished an eight-paragraph diatribe.

Avondale, Bank’s Peninsula, Central Otago, Egmont, Gore, Kurow, Oamaru, Reefton, Rotorua, Stratford, Wairoa, Westland, Winton and Woodville, along with “supportive tenant clubs”: Beaumont, Tapanui, Wairio and Wyndham have pinned their collective futures on this peculiar document.

Their “submission” is entitled “Collective statement concerning DIA process” and, rather than considering the future of the industry as a whole is focused solely on what they, through their representative Murray Blue, describe as a “land grab.”

(For those younger readers who might not be well acquainted with previous racing activities of Dr Blue click here for a little background).

These clubs, in the “submission” which bears their names, also appear to be putting words in the deputy Prime Minister’s mouth – never a wise move – claiming Winston Peters, at the launch of the Messara report: “adopted the Messara findings unequivocally and without providing for consultation with clubs.”

Obviously, Dr Blue and his merry followers must have been listening to and reading totally different speeches and press releases to the rest of us.

What our Racing Minister actually said was that the Messara Report “confirms what many of us have been worried about for a number of years and highlights the need for the industry to turn itself around.”

He went on to state: “The government will now take the opportunity to fully assess Mr Messara’s report.  My intention is to have officials produce a Cabinet paper with a set of recommendations for decision.  While it is too early to say what Cabinet will agree upon, the severity of the situation means the status quo is unlikely to prevail.”

“As this review identifies, a complex task lies ahead and for that reason Cabinet will also consider establishing a transition agency to help guide the process, particularly if there are changes to racing governance,” he said.

Submissions were called for in mid-September, giving plenty of time for those who may have experienced a knee-jerk reaction to actually read and re-read the report in its entirety.  At that time the Minister said that the review “delivers a blunt appraisal and concludes the New Zealand racing industry is in a state of serious malaise.”

“It is important that those most vested in the industry have the opportunity to provide feedback on the recommendations,” he said.

This was the chance for those clubs who were feeling marginalised because their venues were slated for closure to make a considered bid for reconsideration.

Instead, what happened?  Somehow those clubs listed earlier decided to pin their hopes for a future where nothing changed on a document which did not address one of the recommendations raised in the Messara report.  Instead it dwells only on the approach taken to arrive at the recommendation around the need for track closures.

Their argument was akin to that of a tantrum-throwing toddler in a playground spat – it’s not fair!

Apparently, it was not fair that the clubs “were not in any meaningful way consulted by John Messara in connection with his ultimate conclusion that the property assets of selected individual clubs should be confiscated by NZTR via legislation.”

It was not fair that “in a number of instances John Messara with his NZTR or ‘major club’ guides on the road, made fleeting visits to tracks with no attempt to consult with club officials; in other instances, there was no visit at all.  In general terms neither John Messara nor a representative of Messara met or conferred with clubs before proclaiming his idea to nationalise their private assets.  Despite his experience in business and racing administration John Messara has failed in this element of fundamental human rights.  The prospect of a ‘land grab’ against us was never put to us, nor the subject of a request for input, before a unilateral announcement by the Racing Minister and Deputy Prime Minister (Claudelands, 31 August 2018).”

The document appears to hinge upon the following statement: “The Messara Report which the Racing Minister appears hell-bent on following in all of its recommendations, is flawed as it affects us for procedural unfairness.

“For that reason these clubs see as unlawful the government’s proposed course of action.  Further, this after-the-fact activity by DIA in asking for input in October 2018, on the internet, seeking ultimately an endorsement of the Right Hon Winston Peters [sic] acceptance of John Messara’s justifications for a ‘land grab’ is not something to which these clubs will submit.”

So, forget the recommendations which, if followed, will revive an industry in its death throes, let’s argue process.

There is no one currently involved in this industry who does not sympathise with those clubs faced with the possibility of relocating their racing to another venue.  But, at this stage nothing is set in stone and while clubs may feel taking a combative stand is the only way to achieve their end goal more would be achieved by entering into constructive communication.

Creating petitions, roping in opposition politicians and firing allegations of illegal activity at government are not conducive to allowing our industry to progress.

Just to confirm the clubs concerned, along with the writer of their “submission,” may have a tenuous relationship with reality I really have to include the final paragraphs, parts of which enter into a realm of paranoia I haven’t seen since 2002.

“In the view of the clubs listed below, there is the possibility of a predetermined course of action, involving John Messara (and his people if any) and senior executives of NZTR or its board, in that the Messara Report implements in whole or part a pre-existing internal agenda in NZTR, whereby NZTR aimed to be able to close venues to release funds from within the thoroughbred industry to fund capital expenditure on new and existing sites proposed for the Waikato and other regions.  These issues within the industry power base grew in proportion from January 2018.”

“In our view this move by the DIA to provide a consultation function for their Minister is (potentially) an attempt to cure both the mistakes of John Messara in the way he conducted himself in New Zealand while surveying the subject matter of his report, and the impulsive nature of the Minister’s instant adoption of the Messara Report on or about 31 August, despite the Minister’s office having the final of the Messara Report for more than four weeks before he showcased it at the Claudelands function.”

“Accordingly, these listed clubs reject the relevant portions of the Messara Report and will not accept the legitimacy of any proposed legislative step by the government to furnish funds for the rationalisation of thoroughbred racing.”

At the very least this slight document will have provided some interesting reading for those at DIA charged with working through the submissions.  Just what they made of an attack of their process is anyone’s guess.

Sadly, these clubs in nailing their colours to the mast of the good ship Blue have identified themselves as not being supportive of the future of the New Zealand industry.

By placing self-interest first, and not even entering into discussions as to what life at another venue might look like, they have missed a gilt-edged opportunity to reap a future where they might be the next Feilding JC.  This blinkered approach, if they maintain it, will only hasten the demise of their respective clubs.

Perhaps, once they have had the opportunity to read and digest the bits of the report they obviously missed on first reading, they may reconsider and instead chose to be part of a thriving industry.  It’s not too late.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The recipe to breed a champion remains a riddle wrapped in an enigma

Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.  It’s an adage we’ve all heard and can be attributed to American John E Madden.  A prolific owner across both the galloping and harness code, Madden bred 14 “champion” racehorses, including five Kentucky Derby winners, four Belmont Stakes winners and the first winner of the Triple Crown, Sir Barton.

He was also a bit of a trader – specifically in his earlier years when purchasing and improving horses – and claimed his motto was: “Better to sell and repent than keep and resent.”

It would also appear, based on that and his breeding mantra, he had a very tidy turn of phrase.

Which brings me back to breeding theories and the fact that champions can come in any shape or size.  They can either burst on to the racing stage as a ready-formed star or emerge more slowly, with time their friend as their talent blossoms as they mature.

It was something I got to thinking about again earlier this week after reading a fabulous piece from The Conversation, an independent media outlet which carries pieces predominantly written by academics.  Should be dull as ditch water, right? Not this piece.

The article in question was authored by Steven Tammariello, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences and Director of the Institute for Equine Genomics, Binghamton University, State University of New York.

I recommend you check it out in its entirety here.

What captivated me was largely what the author said intrigued him and that is how variations of genes impact on performance and/or development –  given he is a molecular physiologist, he has the ability to investigate further.

Faced with the incredible opportunity to do a little DNA testing on the mighty Seabiscuit Tammariello and his team leapt at the chance.  The source of this elusive DNA was slightly creepy, a couple of silvered (as in, dipped in silver) hooves from the champion racehorse.  Just reading about this brought back memories of some of the more macabre mementoes of our own racing heroes which were once housed at Ellerslie racecourse as they awaited a permanent home.  From memory there was an inkwell made from one of Carbine’s hooves, slightly more useful than Seabiscuit’s ornamental hoof.

Despite the age and deterioration of the hooves DNA was able to be extracted from Seasbiscuit’s coffin bones.  However, the nuclear DNA – layman’s description being the DNA inherited from all ancestors – was “somewhat degraded”.  The mitochondrial DNA – that which is only inherited from the female lineage – was described as intact and that allowed the team to confirm the hooves did come from Seabiscuit.

Despite the state of the DNA it was possible for some sequencing to be done around those genes related to racing distance.  From these it was determined that Seabiscuit’s gene variants were those often found in horses which are good over ground.  But, he also had minor variants which are usually found in sprinters.

The article stated:

This somewhat rare genetic combination of stamina and speed seems to be reflected in the champion’s race record, as he won races from as short as 5 furlongs (sprint) to as long as 1¼ miles (distance). Further, horses of today that we’ve identified with this genotype tend to be late bloomers, winning their first race almost three months later, on average, than horses with a genotype associated with precocity. Sounds like Seabiscuit’s race record: He didn’t become a true racing star until his 4-year-old racing season.

Of course, the obvious question – well, the one which leapt into my mind straight away – is, does this mean we can clone Seabiscuit?

Apparently, due to the quality of the nuclear DNA and the small amount retrieved, that is not an option – “for now.”

Instead the team is going to continue to examine Seabiscuit’s genome and attempt to discover more about just what it was which made him so special, especially given his well-chronicled physical defects (smaller than average; unusual gait; crooked legs – let’s just say he wouldn’t have made Book 1).  They will also be looking to see whether his DNA differs wildly from that of the modern thoroughbred.

What is going to be interesting in the future is how breeding theories may eventually end up going out the window.  No more breeding the best to the best and hoping for the best, in the future we will be able to look at a foal’s DNA and have an indication as to that animal’s precocity or otherwise and its optimum distance.

How far down that line can we end up going, and how accurate will those predictions be?  Surely, other external factors will still come into play with environment also continuing to play a part?

While I embrace these scientific advances I also tend to lean towards the romantic when it comes to breeding.

Indulge me a little as I now deviate into one of my favourite breeding tales, that of the Oaks and Derby winner Signorinetta, a true “love child.”

Her story begins with owner and breeder Cavaliere Edoardo Ginistrelli and a mare called Signorina who was no slug on the racetrack, being unbeaten in nine races at two, including the Middle Park Stakes; the winner of two more races at three and runner-up in the Oaks; and the winner of the Lancashire Plate as a four-year-old.

At stud though over ten seasons she had not produced a live foal before leaving Signorino who ran second in the 2000 Guineas before finishing third in the Derby.

A stallion called Chaleureux, who is variously described as a “nine guinea stallion” or a teaser – take your pick – used to pass Signorina’s box every day and, every day the mare would call to him.  This convinced her passionate Italian owner the horses were “in love” and he allowed Chaleureux to cover his prized mare.

The resulting foal Signorinetta was trained by Ginistrelli himself and while she may have won both the Oaks and the Derby it is widely agreed that the quality of that year may have been lacking.

There is also a quirky tie to New Zealand through Signorinetta with one of her offspring, the 1912 filly Pasta (by Thrush) being the dam of six-time leading NZ stallion Hunting Song.

We may be making rapid advancements in the world of science and its contribution to breeding but until such time as we can create the perfect racing specimen in a lab there will always remain an element of the unexpected and unexplained in the make-up of our champions.

In the words of another passionate Italian: “A horse gallops with his lungs, perseveres with his heart, and wins with his character.” (Federico Tesio).

 

Facts distorted in anti-racing backlash

I’m usually torn between loving the fact the Melbourne Cup gives racing a chance to be front and centre, and cringing at the ineptitude of general media when faced with the intricacies of our industry.

This year was no different with the usual raft of dumb questions from badly briefed interviewers.

However, the lack of racing knowledge no longer even rates an apology, instead over recent years we have seen the insidious creep of anti-racing sentiment.

Unfortunately, for all their passion the anti-racing brigade are largely ill-informed, regurgitating “facts” which are distorted to fit their own agenda, and ignorant of the reality of the life of a thoroughbred racehorse. In fact, some would seem to live in a fairyland of their own creation and be oblivious to the realities of life in general!

I find it appalling that these people who slide out of the woodwork once a year to spit their venom about the brutality of horse racing have so little empathy for the people who work – day in, day out – with our equine athletes.

They are happy to anthropomorphise animals yet lack the awareness to know that the humans attached to these animals hurt deeply when their charges are injured or destroyed.  Instead they claim punters, owners, trainers, strappers, jockeys, breeders, anyone with an association with horses, are only there for the money and the glory.  If that’s the case, then explain to me the cult-figure popularity of the likes of perennial non-winner Tom Melbourne?

Their level of self-awareness is so lacking that they maintain these claims even in the face of obvious grief.  Prime example being the image of an inconsolable Gerald Mosse as he walked away from a stricken Red Cadeaux after the 2015 Melbourne Cup.  A picture of a grown man reduced to tears does not fit their narrow narrative where horses are “forced” to race by those involved in a barbaric industry.

A lot of this perception is our own fault and down to how we portray racing to the general public.  Times have changed.  Kids don’t grow up these days with a random family member who lives on, or near, a farm thus allowing them to observe animals at close hand.  That lack of exposure and the disconnect between urban and rural, creates people with no idea about how animals behave and little comprehension when it comes to our industry.

We miss golden opportunities to educate about an industry which contributes $1.6b to the country’s economy.  On our big race days “celebrities” are fawned over and encouraged to come along to dress up and be seen at the races.  Their presence is supposed to provide some rubber stamp of approval from “influencers”.  The reality is often something else with the “celebrities” turning up, ignoring the action on the track while expressing their “on trend” distaste for racing via their social media channels – an epic fail on the promotion front then!

If we have them on track why aren’t we introducing them to the stars of the show? Now Ellerslie is equipped with its purpose-built stabling area it should be easy to get them up close and personal with an equine hero or two?  Let them go through the whole procedure – see the jockey weigh out, maybe talk to them about how difficult it is to maintain such an unnatural bodyweight. Watch the trainer saddle up, get the definitive answer to just why they stretch the horse’s legs out in front once they’ve done up the girth. We need to encourage the queries and embrace their interest and remind them that it’s not all about having a flutter, downing fizz and flaunting fascinators.

At the same time, we need to be telling them the stories about what happens to horses when their racing days are done. And perhaps more importantly, showing them these horses in their off the track environments.

Without that visible evidence those who are rarely exposed to racing will suck up whatever misinformation is put in front of them.  There is so much of it which is never challenged that figures relating to horse deaths are taken as fact and spread like a virus across social media.

Radio National in Australia was one of those perpetuating the myths which are spread without regard for truth with a tweet to promote a column by a theologist.  Yes, a theologist, it would appear everyone has an opinion on what is wrong with racing!  This chap claimed that between 30,000 and 40,000 horses are slaughtered in Australia each year.  He franked this as gospel by added that: “up to 60%, according to one RSPCA report – is from the racing industry.”

So, if we split the difference – 60% of 35,000 is 21,000.  The Australian foal crop is around 13,000 so each year the Australians are killing more horses than they breed. It’s on the internet it must be true, just like that email you got from the nice man wanting to transfer substantial sums into your bank account.

Entering into polite discussion to try and correct some of the misconceptions is an exercise in futility.  Like most zealots who tweet and share their own flavour of propaganda the anti-racing brigade cannot be moved from their steadfast beliefs.

In the post-Melbourne Cup media racing.com’s Matt Welsh attempted to quash the misinformation with a piece which included the following from the Racing Victoria Fact Sheet:

  • Over $350 million is spent on the care of Victorian racehorses annually;
  • The foal rates in Victoria have dropped by 32% over the past 10 years;
  • The fatality rate has been reduced to 0.05% of starts; and
  • 90% of retired horses enter equestrian, pleasure or breeding sectors.

The story continued:

The fact sheet states: “A recent study of the foals born in Victoria in 2005 by Dr Meredith Flash found that 74% of horses bred for racing entered training.

“Of these, 93% progressed to racing or an official trial. Racing Victoria has commenced a similar study into foals born in 2010 and 2015 and preliminary results suggest similar trends.

“Racing Victoria’s philosophy is that there is a home for every healthy thoroughbred after racing and it is working with both the racing and equestrian industries to use every avenue to rehome retiring racehorses in Victoria.

“A compulsory ‘Retirement Rule’ introduced by Racing Australia in 2014 has provided better information on retiring racehorses as they leave racing.

“Racing Australia advises that over the past three years 90% of Victorian horses have been retired directly to the equestrian, pleasure and breeding industries.

“Racing Victoria is also exploring a number of ways to improve traceability after racing, particularly when a horse has changed hands two, three or more times. This has been identified as a priority.”

This is the sort of information that racing people should have at their finger-tips.  The keyboard warriors who protest that racing should not exist do not care that you have worked with horses for more than 20-years and seen the level of care first-hand, they want facts and figures.

If we want to see racing flourish and thrive, we need to retain our social licence to operate and, animal welfare is a key component of that.  Racing bodies, including NZTR, have recognised this and made a strong commitment to developing and constantly evolving welfare systems.

We need to make more of a song and dance about the good we are doing – especially the earlier mentioned off the track thoroughbreds.  Those who live and work within the industry have seen progress made over recent years, but the once-a-year racegoers don’t, and they are questioning racing’s relevance.

The day after the Melbourne Cup TVNZ’s Breakfast programme held an online poll asking: “Is horse racing worth it?”  They didn’t define what “it” is, but the votes were overwhelmingly in the negative with more that 2600 voting not, opposed to 550-odd voting yes.

Combating some of the online negativity racing.com was leading the way again with their #LoveMyHorse which encouraged people to post a photo of them with their horse alongside the hashtag.  The hashtag was also appropriated by NZTR’s marketing arm Love Racing.

Let’s keep it up for the next 12 months, along with pushing out the real facts around the racing industry and attempt to address some of the mischievous misinformation pushed by the anti-brigade when they resurface again.