Wonderful writing talent lost – RIP John Costello

It’s been a bad year for racing journalists.  We’ve already lost the unique talents of Nick Columb and Steve Brem and now John Costello has joined them.  What a press room gang that would be! Imagine the stories, the laughter and their unabashed delight as they attempted to outdo each other with their lyrical use of language.

The wonderful writing talent which was Cos decreed, at the age of 81 and a half, it was time to await his inevitable fate.  He would not make it until Christmas my friend Michelle told me earlier this week. And he didn’t. This morning the news was received that this week’s column in The Informant  was indeed, as Cos predicted, his last.

It may have been his last but it was also possibly one of his best.  It touched on the best horses and human competitors he had come across during his 60 year career – just take a moment to contemplate that, 60 years combining a love of thoroughbreds and writing!  He didn’t steer away from the problems currently besetting our industry either with some nicely crafted serves at those who deserved them. But at the end there was positivity and hope, the hope that our industry would one day return to the glory days which Cos remembered.

While I share his hopes for the future one thing we may have seen the last of is racing journalists with the same level of wit, humour, and love of the English language as that possessed by Cos.  At the risk of sounding like an old person, something Cos could never have been accused of, I find the blandness of current racing writers mind-numbingly dull.

That was something foreign to Cos as his writing shone with the positive joy of someone who loved what they were doing and took pride to craft each sentence.

Fortunately, his writing will remain to be enjoyed in the multitude of books he wrote. Those female jockeys out there currently plying their trade might also take time to give a nod of thanks his way as Cos was a dogged champion for the right of women jockeys as they fought to be licensed.

His legend will also live on through a myriad of Cos stories, as it seems everyone who encountered him has at least one or two.

My Cos story came about in the 1980s when he signed up for the mammoth task of producing the definitive history of New Zealand thoroughbred racing, Tapestry of Turf.  I think the realisation of just what they had to deliver had hit Cos and his mate Pat Finnegan and they had decided to enlist a little help.

A meeting with Cos resulted in me coming away charged with the task of researching and writing about some of the greats of the 1940s.  I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went but I do remember that Cos was somewhat nonplussed at my decision to research a decade so removed from personal experience.

But so it was that Clyde Conway, Kevin Bell, Wally O’Hearn and myself ended up contributing in our own ways to what was, and still is, a magnificent manuscript which tracks the beginnings of our industry through to the heady days of 1987.  It is probably time for someone to tackle the intervening years, although much of it would make rather dismal reading.

I consider myself lucky to have been living in Auckland and working at BloodHorse during that time as it meant I was able to regularly attend the Racing Writers’ annual dinner.  Back when daily newspapers still employed racing journalists the Racing Writers’ Association was a strong organisation and the black tie dinner was always a highlight.  I remember it being sponsored by a tobacco company – these were the days when smoking wasn’t frowned upon and one could even smoke inside. The tables at the dinner were adorned with cartons of fags and the evening was capped off with port and cigars.

Cos – who in those days enjoyed the odd cigarette – was always front and centre, smiling and cracking witticisms, an enduring memory.

I don’t remember being more excited about any inductee into the NZ Racing Hall of Fame than I was in 2016 when admission to that elite group was bestowed on John Costello.  It was an honour richly-deserved and he was certainly rather chuffed.

This wasn’t the blog I intended to write as we lead into Christmas and I only wish I could better acknowledge a man who contributed so much to our industry over the years.

Before I got the word about Cos my intention was to write something incredibly light-hearted about Christmas being one of the few racing free days of the year and to end with one of my favourite poems.

Because I think Cos would’ve enjoyed it I now share with you the wonderfully clever Tangmalangaloo by John O’Brien.  Enjoy, and have a wonderful Christmas…..

The bishop sat in lordly state and purple cap sublime,
And galvanized the old bush church at Confirmation time.
And all the kids were mustered up from fifty miles around,
With Sunday clothes, and staring eyes, and ignorance profound.
Now was it fate, or was it grace, whereby they yarded too
An overgrown two-storey lad from Tangmalangaloo?

A hefty son of virgin soil, where nature has her fling,
And grows the trefoil three feet high and mats it in the spring;
Where mighty hills uplift their heads to pierce the welkin’s rim,
And trees sprout up a hundred feet before they shoot a limb;
There everything is big and grand, and men are giants too –
But Christian Knowledge wilts, alas, at Tangmalangaloo.

The bishop summed the youngsters up, as bishops only can;
He cast a searching glance around, then fixed upon his man.
But glum and dumb and undismayed through every bout he sat;
He seemed to think that he was there, but wasn’t sure of that.
The bishop gave a scornful look, as bishops sometimes do,
And glared right through the pagan in from Tangmalangaloo.

“Come, tell me, boy,” his lordship said in crushing tones severe,
“Come, tell me why is Christmas Day the greatest of the year?
“How is it that around the world we celebrate that day
“And send a name upon a card to those who’re far away?
“Why is it wandering ones return with smiles and greetings, too?”
A squall of knowledge hit the lad from Tangmalangaloo.

He gave a lurch which set a-shake the vases on the shelf,
He knocked the benches all askew, up-ending of himself.
And so, how pleased his lordship was, and how he smiled to say,
“That’s good, my boy.  Come, tell me now; and what is Christmas Day?”
The ready answer bared a fact no bishop ever knew –
“It’s the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.


Racing looking outside the square…and MAC appointees announced

Have you ever been at the races in New Zealand and looked around and thought about how things could be done better?

Who dictated that our racing needed to be conducted on predominantly oval tracks with the only variation being whether they are left or right-handed?  Who decreed that our grandstands would be created to ensure the prevailing wind would sweep into the viewing areas which would also be shaded and bitterly cold?  How come the only places to go racing were these mausoleum-like places?

Look around our tracks and it is abundantly clear that once a template for racecourse construction was established, other than a few tweaks, it was stuck to.  But what if things were different, what if we could come up with a brand-new concept of how to take racing to the people?

Back when I used to ponder such things, I wondered about the possibility of a rotating grandstand which was situated, along with all the facilities for the horses, on the infield of the track.  Don’t judge me, I had a lot of spare time.

It was quite possibly this enthusiasm for examining something different which led me to get a little excited reading two differing stories online recently.

The first I stumbled across at the end of August.  A Las Vegas casino executive had come up with an idea to put fans up-close with the racing action by including a novel feature on a yet-to-be built racetrack in New Mexico.

Daniel Lee, chief executive of Full House Resorts, claimed a “moving grandstand” would be “the next best thing to being in the race as a jockey.”

Proving that there is no such thing as a new idea, Lee said that the inspiration for the feature came from a special train which operated during a rowing race on the Hudson river in 1934.  Apparently, the train travelled along tracks beside the river and the sideways-facing seats meant the spectators were able to keep up with the rowing action as it happened.

The modern version proposed for New Mexico would cater for around 200 spectators seated in a glass-walled electric-powered vehicle which would move along rails on the one-mile track’s outside.

According to Lee the moving grandstand would keep pace with the horses.  “I looked at this and said, ‘They were doing this in the 1920s and ‘30s, so we can do this today,” he said.

For sheer novelty value it would have appeal, surely?  Not to some who commented negatively via the Twittersphere. Of course, as is so often the case with naysayers no alternative suggestions were made.

The other story appeared earlier this month.  This involved The Queen’s grandson Peter Phillips who fronts City Racing.  That company name may ring bells for some who might recall stories earlier this year which talked about possible horse races on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, when Racing NSW entered into discussions with City Racing.

By his own admission Phillips has always steered away from horses, but here he is now promoting a concept which aims to bring the excitement of horse racing to major cities around the world.

Just last week three trial races were held in Liverpool down a section of the old F1 grand-prix track at Aintree, an area which doubles as a service road for the Grand National course.  The track which was used took 16 hours to lay and was a sand-based, all-weather surface – Equaflow – which is used annually at the Horse of the Year show and was also seen in action at the London Olympics.

The three test-races were run over a mere three and a half furlongs (around 700m) and included eight horses travelling at half-pace with the aim of just proving it was possible.

Phillips told media afterwards that they would take “learnings” out of the trials, “but it is primarily about assuring people that we can run eight horses on the track.”

“The obvious concerns are around equine welfare, that is our single biggest thing. We’re putting together an equine welfare panel and it will be gold standard,” he said. “Whatever the standard for racecourses we have to go above and beyond that, because this has never been done before and we will do everything in our power to mitigate any accidents.”

City Racing has the backing of the Jockey Club and it is hoped that they will have the first two cities to stage races on board in January.

Any agreement would, of course, have to be sanctioned by the local racing jurisdiction and City Racing sees these events, not only as a platform to promote racing but also as a tourism boost.

While the trials were relatively short, Phillips said most of the cities selected to host the races would have a street which was one kilometre long.

The jockeys and trainers involved in the trials were all supportive of the concept with champion apprentice Jason Watson saying the track “rides really well, it’s similar to Newcastle and possibly even better.”

Of course, racing horses on streets in the centre of town is nothing new, the Palio di Siena is held twice each year in Siena, Italy and is believed to have its foundations in the 14th century.  It draws tourists by the thousands.

The progress of City Racing during 2019, including whether proposed events in London and Paris get off the ground and have the desired effect of exposing millennials to the excitement of racing, will be watched with interest.

FOOTNOTE:  Yesterday saw the announcement of the make-up of the newly minted Ministerial Advisory Committee.  The five appointees have been charged with providing the Minister with an interim report by the end of February so will no doubt be hitting the ground running.  No pressure, but you currently hold our futures in your hands!  Following is the release from the Beehive:

Racing Minister Winston Peters has announced a five-member Ministerial Advisory Committee to inform next steps on the Messara Review of the New Zealand Racing Industry.

“This government is committed to reforming the racing industry. The Ministerial Advisory Group will develop a plan to operationalise the Messara Report to deliver better governance and economic outcomes,” said Mr Peters.

“The five people appointed to the Ministerial Advisory Committee bring their personal expertise and ability to provide independent, strategic assessments of the business change proposals for the racing industry. Between them they have experience across the three racing industry codes,” he said.

Mr Peters has appointed Dean McKenzie as Chair. Mr McKenzie is an experienced racing administrator whose dedication and passion to improving the industry make him the ideal choice to lead this very important work. He will be well-supported by Committee members Bill Birnie, Liz Dawson, Kristy McDonald and Sir Peter Vela. 

“Collectively, they will identify the technical, legal, financial and process-oriented decision points for racing reform and return the industry to a well-managed and sustainable economic growth path. They will also take into account the feedback received during the public submission process.” said Mr Peters

 The Committee will provide an interim report to the Minister for Racing by the end of February 2019, to be followed by Cabinet decisions, and legislation to modernise the industry.

The Committee is being created as a potential precursor to the establishment of a Racing Industry Transitional Agency (RITA), subject to future government decisions.

Battling misinformation about animal welfare but we’re on the same side

In case you were unaware, racing is under siege with its social licence seriously under scrutiny.

The bizarre thing is, most of those firmly entrenched in the industry have a similar goal as those who are currently giving us the side-eye.  Animal welfare is at the heart of everything we do. However, to read the proclamations of those who have appointed themselves protectors and spokesmen of all animals and, specifically this week thoroughbred race horses, we are intrinsically evil.

SAFE, an organisation which infamously decreed those applying for a role with them should be vegan, came out swinging against racing.  Horses are, according to them, viewed by those in the industry as commodities to be exploited.

A lot of the “facts” they promote are based on figures from overseas and some are sourced from fellow anti-racing groups such as Australia’s Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses.  Occasionally, they are somewhat manipulated and, by the time corrections are made it is too late, the misinformation is already out there being repeated as actual fact.

Interestingly, the article which ran this week on the Stuff website attracted some rather balanced opinion via the comments section – normally a place where no sane person would venture.  There is something of a backlash emerging against the dictatorial stance taken by the likes of SAFE and fellow animal protection outfit PETA.  As a sidebar, the latter came out with a total piece of madness this week where we are now being encouraged to bring home the bagel instead of the bacon.  Cue, all too many comments in the Twittersphere about the possible impact this may have on the gluten intolerant!

Apparently, expressions such as “Flogging a Dead Horse” (or “beating” in PETA world) should be replaced with “Feed a Fed Horse”.  I’m not sure what horses these people have been dealing with, but all the greedy buggers I have ever known would not let the fact that had already been fed stand between them and another meal!  Quite apart from not making sense, the changes trample all over the beauty of the English language and the provenance of the sayings.

The nanny knows best attitude demonstrated by the three aforementioned animal welfare groups means that social media is awash with groups opposing their views.  Most appear to be set up by people frustrated with the response when attempting to provide the view from the other side of the fence, the likes of those who actually live and work with animals daily. Arguments are shut down rapidly with only one viewpoint acceptable.

As mentioned earlier though both sides possess a similar goal – a healthy and happy life for the animals in their lives.

Unfortunately, the mouthpieces for the likes of SAFE trumpet their message with evangelical fervour and cannot be swayed, even when presented with facts which differ from those they spout religiously.

They believe racehorses are discarded when they are not “profitable” something any racehorse owner would find sadly hysterical.  None of us – at least in New Zealand – are in this for the money.  Quite simply because there isn’t any!

It’s not their fault when the only time they see racing coverage in mainstream media the reference is always around money – be it major stakes races or sale topping yearlings, even when it comes to Winx and her record-breaking winning streak, the media focus is on the money.

What they don’t see is the reality and the passion which keeps people in an industry which has been in decline for some years.  We have stuck around for a multitude of reasons, and money and profitability are the stuff of dreams.  There is always the hope that this may be the next big horse; the special one who will sweep all before them; the champion; the once-in-a-lifetime horse.  And then reality bites and we just enjoy the rollercoaster of promise, peppered with disappointments and the occasional win which keeps us dreaming.

Yes, there are those horses which don’t make the grade on the track and I’ve had my share of those.  While the SAFE people would like the public to believe that these horses are discarded and destroyed the horses which would rather not be racehorses which I have been involved with have been diverted to new careers.  That lack of urgency on the track has led to an alternative life as a show horse, eventer or pleasure horse.

If SAFE needed evidence of the industry’s commitment to animal welfare then they need only look at recommendation number 16 of the Messara Report which supports the introduction of “robust processes to establish traceability from birth and the re-homing of the entire thoroughbred herd, as the foundation stone of the industry’s ongoing animal welfare program.”

Any argument put up by industry is vigorously disputed by the SAFE people who are blinkered to the good and positive people who work with our thoroughbreds every day and instead would prefer to paint us all as villains.

Nothing short of banning racing all together will placate them.  However, I am constantly astounded that while journalists give them free rein to make their outlandish claims, not one has thought to ask them the obvious question.

If racing stopped tomorrow what would happen to the current racing stock? The multi-million dollar stallions? The broodmare bands? The foals? The young, unbroken horses?  If you are going to come for us and suggest an entire industry shut down to satisfy your narrow perception of it, then you had better have some thoughts about the aftermath.

Again, we need to come back to the central point of what SAFE claims is its ultimate focus and that is the welfare of the animals at the heart of our industry.  This is our common ground because, whether SAFE wants to accept this or not, that is the key focus of those in the industry.

It galls me when I hear their people pontificate about how thoroughbred race horses are treated as it just confirms they have spent no time with racing people.

One of my enduring memories when interviewing legendary trainer Colin Jillings was his statement that you must treat horses with love, and it is something which comes across time and again when racing people talk about how and why they got into the industry.

You have to love what you do to work the hours these people do, and I wonder whether SAFE’s commitment to animal welfare could extend to some hands-on experience?  If they walked a way in our shoes, they might recognise we have our horses’ best interests at heart.